When they came to the presidency, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled. They careened from proposal to proposal, flirting with new ideas, retreating to old ones, growing ever more frustrated. Finally, with an air of resignation, they adopted an electoral process they had earlier rejected, plus an office of vice president that never had been mentioned before.
The resulting Article II of the Constitution, in James Madison’s delicate phrase, was “not exempt from a degree of the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience.” Thomas Jefferson, in Paris during the convention, was more direct. It was, he sputtered, “a bad edition of a Polish king.”
The electoral process was convoluted. States would choose electors in whatever fashion they wished. Electors would meet on a single day at their respective state capitals. Each elector would cast votes for two possible presidents, one of whom had to reside in another state. The candidate winning a majority became president, with the runner-up vice president. If no one commanded a majority, the contest moved to the House of Representatives, where . . . well, it goes on at some length.
The process proved misbegotten. John Adams won the first contested presidential election in 1796, but his opponent (Jefferson) finished second and became vice president. Four years later, the result was more surprising. Jefferson was tied by his own running mate, Aaron Burr. Then the House of Representatives deadlocked for 36 ballots. With Adams’s term ending in a few days, state governors made preparations to call out their militias, which proved unnecessary when the logjam broke in Jefferson’s favor. In 1804, the 12th Amendment repaired the worst of the process by directing that presidential electors vote separately for president and vice president.
In contrast, Article II’s description of the president’s powers was spare. He was commander in chief. He could, with the Senate’s advice and consent, make treaties and appoint ambassadors, judges and other officials. Most sweepingly, he held the nation’s “executive power.”
These unlikely materials have produced the most important job on Earth. In “Mr. President,” historian Ray Raphael explores the birth and early molding of the presidency. The journey is an illuminating one, with wisdom that resonates as the nation prepares to choose its president again.
Raphael incisively explains how damnably difficult the problem was. Revolution-era Americans knew British monarchs and royal governors. They knew foreign kings and emperors. They knew their own flaccid state governors and presidents. They knew the Articles of Confederation of 1781, which created a very weak central government without any executive branch, only a few administrative officials who reported to Congress.
But the world afforded no model of what the convention delegates wanted: an executive with “vigor” who would not threaten republican self-rule. Some wanted multiple executives, some a single president with a long term in office. Others pressed for short terms, with Congress choosing the president. Political conflicts between North and South, between large states and small, complicated the problem. No one much liked the final version of Article II, but time ran out.
Raphael dashes through the nation’s first 20 years, stressing the steady accretion of presidential powers. When George Washington claimed powers as president, who could challenge him? Even Jefferson, apostle of small government, expanded the office. In a concise study of Jefferson’s Embargo of 1808, which trampled on individual rights in order to seal off trade with Britain, Raphael demonstrates that philosophy need not predict performance.
Raphael closes by comparing today’s presidency with the founders’ goals, producing a dessert course that is well worth the wait. He acknowledges the achievements of Article II. Civilian control of the military has endured, impeachment works, and Washington and Adams ingrained the essential tradition of leaving office quietly.
Yet, Raphael points out, the framers did not anticipate the corrosive partisanship that erupted shortly after the government opened its doors. The presidency emerged as the prize of prizes, driving our politics. The party in opposition “assumes a vested interest in seeing the nation fail,” for only then will voters choose new leadership. With the presidential election “a winner-take-all game,” bare-knuckled politics quickly prevailed, devolving into today’s political attack culture and stupendous campaign spending.
One feature of the book underachieves. With fanfare, Raphael accords credit for designing Article II to Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker who was a Pennsylvania delegate to the convention. Morris is a marvelous character: a peg-legged raconteur and ladies man, a bold orator who spoke unwelcome truths. But this claim is an interpretive leap from scanty evidence that brushes aside better evidence. Morris took many different positions on the presidency, some diametrically inconsistent. His was an important voice on the question, but not the One. The delegates struggled so mightily over the presidency that assigning its paternity to a single source is a doubful business at best. Yet the equally forgotten James Wilson of Pennsylvania could mount a stronger claim than Morris.
Beyond that, “Mr. President” provides a rich harvest of insights for reflection during the next five months of political bloodletting.
How and Why the Founders
Created a Chief Executive
By Ray Raphael
Knopf. 324 pp. $27.95