The American people have had high expectations for their president, but rarely has he been able to fulfill them. Pledging to downsize government after two decades of enormous expansion, Ronald Reagan entered and left office barely able to slow its growth. Refractory foreign problems such as Vietnam and the Iran hostage situation haunted and drove out of office Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Government scandals such as Watergate and Whitewater plagued the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Part of the problem may be that lesser men occupy the office than in its early days. Part may be the increasing complexity of government, the country, and the world. As Forrest McDonald points out in The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, another part of the problem is the Constitution of the United States itself. In some measure, it was purposely designed to hamper the president (as well as the other branches of government), so that no person or group could wield excessive power and thus threaten liberty. McDonald’s book provides a history not only of the American presidency but also of the ideas about power and governance that influenced its creation.
McDonald divides his study into three parts: “Roots,” “Establishment,” and “Evolution.” The first traces the ideas and assumptions with which the Founding Fathers were familiar and which underlay their conceptions of the presidency. For example, an obvious model was the English form of limited monarchy, a “mixed” form of government combining monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Since many of the framers were trained in the English law, they were aware of the distinguished legal commentaries written through the centuries by such men as Henry Bracton (thirteenth century), Sir John Fortescue (sixteenth century), Sir Edward Coke and Sir Matthew Hale (seventeenth century), and Sir William Blackstone (eighteenth century). From each of these men, the American founders gained some justification for declaring their independence and, later, common ground on which they could debate their own constitution.
Bracton, for example, expounded on the dual nature of the king of England’s power. The power of governance was by divine right and absolute, but the power of jurisdiction (the power to decide legal issues) bound the king to laws enshrined in custom. This qualification of absolute power was a crucial precedent for the colonists, for in the Declaration of Independence they could not have listed the various violations of law committed by King George III if they had not thought a king bound by law. Another concept that provided justification for the colonists’ declaration of independence was that of the ancient constitution, articulated by Fortescue: that is, the notion that England, even through various conquests, revolutions, and abuses, was ultimately governed by a set of customs that traced their lineage as far back as Rome. This powerful myth gave the Americans another pretext for revolution, for they believed that they were called upon to restore that ancient and valid constitution rather than continue to serve the one corrupted by George III. Coke also invoked the mysterious and sacred power of the ancient constitution to defend the judiciary from kingly encroachment, and Blackstone articulated the notion that the English constitution balanced and checked the interests of king, lords, and commoners, a clear precedent for the system of checks and balances adopted by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.
Many of these same questions of power and governance were expounded by political theorists as well. Eighteenth century Americans were the beneficiaries of the vast literature written in the preceding century in response to the English Civil War. The “commonwealthmen” who seized control from the monarchy in the mid-seventeenth century wrote of the desirability of a mixed government, of separation of powers, and of checks and balances. On the other side of that debate were monarchists such as Sir Thomas Hobbes, who argued that the only reliable solution to individual clashes of will was a compact with a sovereign in which each individual’s will was absolutely subject to the will of the sovereign, and Sir Robert Filmer, who argued that patriarchy—authority and the duty to obey it—preexisted government and that there had never been an egalitarian golden age. John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government,” which refuted Filmer and glorified the English revolution, was very popular among the colonists, because it justified a people’s declaring independence if the compact of government was broken.
After treating the roots of the presidency, McDonald devotes part 2 of his study to the establishment of the office. This section includes discussion of the constitutional conventions, the ratification, and the presidencies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, which had as much impact on subsequent thinking about the office as had the Constitution itself.
Limiting the president but still allowing for an effective executive was a central problem the Founding Fathers faced as they framed the Constitution. The very notion of a chief executive is ambiguous. The phrase implies that the president merely executes the will of others (Congress), but the Framers knew from history that discretionary powers were needed to allow the executive to rule situations over which no law governs, even to rise above the law should an emergency occur. Their fear of executive tyranny is epitomized in the difficulty they had deciding on a name and a form of address for...
(The entire section is 2275 words.)