One recurrent feature of contemporary American political culture is the average conservative’s shock at periodically noticing the discrepancy between the way the Federal Government actually works and what he learned in school about the way it was supposed to work. In theory, the executive authority of the Federal Government is vested in a president of the United States. He is sworn to see that the laws are faithfully executed; he is commander of the federal military forces and of the states’ militias when constitutionally called into federal service; he has a role in the legislative process through his veto power; he appoints the high civil and military officers of the Federal Government with the advice and consent of the Senate; he may require high Executive Branch officials’ opinions in writing and may remove them from office; and he receives foreign countries’ official representatives.
That is all.
In the earliest days of the presidency, the vagueness of Article II meant that the first presidents felt their way. George Washington added “so help me God” to the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution, which he had taken with his hand on a Bible at his own initiative. He himself conceived of an inaugural address, which he asked James Madison to draft for him. As recent presidents have grown increasingly prolix, Washington and Madison’s address has come to seem a model of brevity.
In the early months, he took votes of his four-man Cabinet as a means of deciding on Executive Branch policy, and he sometimes followed the majority despite voting in the minority. This recalls the fact that the Virginia Plan, adopted by Washington and his fellow Old Dominion delegates to the Philadelphia Convention as their joint proposal, did not make clear whether there was to be a sole chief executive or some kind of group—as there was under the Virginia Constitution of 1776 a Council of State among which the governor must assemble majority support before he could take any official step.
When first the Advice and Consent Clause came into operation, Washington accompanied Secretary of War Henry Knox to the Senate chamber to obtain the Senate’s advice. After much hemming and hawing, it became evident that the Senate was going to refer the draft treaty in question to a committee which it would charge with the task of drafting advice for the president. Frustrated and angry, Washington told Knox they were leaving. The two strode toward the door, treaty in hand, and the General was heard to say he would be damned before he went back. No president has sought the Senate’s formal advice since.
Washington took a deferential approach to congressional law-making. This was to be expected of the man who, faced with British emissaries come to negotiate a peace with him during the Revolution, had told them to go ask Congress instead. As in Virginia, so in Washington’s Continental Army command and in his Administration, the executive power was to be… executive. The veto power, as he and his first five successors understood it, had been conferred upon the president as a check upon congressional overreaching. It was not simply a mechanism he could use to demand that Congress legislate as he liked.
So, in 1791, Washington held repeated meetings of his Cabinet to discuss the constitutionality of the Bank Bill proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and passed by Congress. Washington’s friend Madison had argued in the House that the bill was unconstitutional, and so Washington sought first oral, then written counsel from his advisors. Finally, persuaded by Hamilton himself that the bill was permissible, Washington signed it into law.
Washington also insisted his likeness not appear on the new federation’s coinage and refused to participate in any kind of official celebration of his birthday. Both, he thought, were monarchical ideas—not fit for his republic.
Washington’s first Republican successor, his former secretary of state and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, believed Washington and Washington’s fellow Federalist John Adams had been not republican enough. Thus, he cancelled the Federalist presidents’ practice of presenting an annual state of the Union address orally, opting instead for a written message. The pomp and ceremony of the Great Man marching into the room and the congressmen standing, caps doffed, repelled Jefferson.
So, too, did diplomatic formality. One of the notable diplomatic imbroglios of Jefferson’s tenure arose from Jefferson’s insistence on ignoring questions of precedence in seating diplomats at state dinners. Not the prestige of particular countries, but random seating would determine who sat next to Jefferson. The British ambassador and his wife were not amused (no doubt to Jefferson’s personal satisfaction).
Jefferson noted in his First Inaugural Address that some in Europe called the US Government weak because it lacked extensive financial resources and a large military establishment. Not so! He replied. Rather, the US Government was the world’s strongest, because it alone could count on the support of its whole population in time of military emergency. A good government, he said, would rely on the militia rather than a professional military in the first instance, would leave virtually all political questions to the states, and would tax the people as little as possible.
The past, as the man said, truly is a foreign country. Virtually everything I have said to this point is the diametric opposite of the way the presidency presently functions.
This reality was impressed upon me this week by President Obama’s unscripted answer to people who were heckling him about his omission to grant amnesty to every illegal alien presently in the USA that, “Now, you’re absolutely right that there have been significant numbers of deportations. That’s true. But what you are not paying attention to is the fact that I just took an action to change the law.”
Obama had been saying for years that he could not do this. So far have we moved, however, that the major media unanimously responded to his act not by criticizing it, but by asking when they could expect more action along the same lines.
This rejection of the original model of the American presidency is not confined to this matter alone, but extends across the entire range of issues mentioned in my description of the founders’ presidency above.
Nowadays, presidents do not follow publicly taking an oath to see that the laws be faithfully executed with brief inaugural remarks praising the American people for their success in establishing a republican government and asking their help in performing difficult duties for which they are imperfectly qualified. Rather, they offer laundry lists of promises akin to Obama’s reflection that with his ascension, the seas would stop rising—commonly taking many times the number of minutes that the Father of Our Country spent delivering the address written by the chief author of the Constitution.
The official advisors appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate upon whom Washington relied for counsel have no analogues in the contemporary Executive Branch. Essentially no one of any political weight sits in Obama’s Cabinet. Even in his first term, a vice president renowned for his self-impressed ignorance was joined at the Cabinet table by a secretary of state whose chief qualifications were her legal relationship to an ex president and her sex.
Where Washington and Jefferson both said in their inaugural addresses that they hoped that other high officials of the new government would help them in duties for which they were imperfectly qualified and that the American people would indulge them in their inevitable errors, Obama famously has said that he knows more about politics than his political advisors and more about policy than his policy advisors. He certainly would not contemplate making decisions by a majority vote of his Cabinet—or anyone else. As George W. Bush put it, today’s president is “the Decider.”
Where Washington and Knox showed up in the Senate to beg the body’s advice, Obama’s chief intelligence official lied under oath to a Democratic senator’s direct question. As if that were not enough to summarize the contemporary Executive Branch’s attitude toward Congress, Obama made “recess” appointments when the Senate was in session, prompting the Supreme Court unanimously (including Obama’s appointees) to rule his act unconstitutional. John Yoo led the George W. Bush Administration in arguing that across a range of issues, the president has the right to do whatever he wants despite what the statutes may say.
It seems quaint for Washington to have insisted that his visage not appear on American coins. In 2005, a Republican Congress passed legislation establishing a presidential $1 coin program, which was scheduled eventually to feature coins bearing the likenesses of all US presidents. (One supposes that perhaps President George W. Bush and his allies reckoned there was no other way the Bush presidents were going to appear on coins.) The early coins went essentially unused, and so ultimately the program was converted to a collectors-only one. We still do not find living politicians on our money, but the more important symbols of America—aircraft carriers and other warships—routinely are named after them. Besides that, several American states have a holiday called “Presidents Day,” on which all presidents are celebrated. Obviously this is all contrary to the republican spirit of George Washington, who rightly objected that such practices were monarchical.
For Thomas Jefferson’s informality in diplomatic settings, recent presidents have been abetted by Congress in substituting regal pomp. Richard Nixon, admiring vestigial royal practice in France, instituted the tradition of having military personnel in fancy uniforms around the president, for whom a special anthem must frequently be played, virtually all the time.
As for Jeffersonian Republicans’ decision to rely on the militia and pare back the taxes established to pay for a professional military establishment … well, nothing further need be said. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” has been passe’ en Amérique for nearly a century now. From time to time, there was good reason for this; today, military overkill seems to have entered Americans’ DNA.
Recent scholarship on the Founding has proven dispositively that the chief reason the men who won the American Revolution loved the American Union was that they thought it would forever spare them the kind of government under which Europeans groaned. Constant wars meant high taxes, enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, professional armies, centralization of government, more power in the Executive Branch, more government secrecy, less republicanism … in short, the corruption of the Revolution itself.
In the end, the American people might lose sight of republicanism. They might accept that military might was the measure of a good state, that a favored few controlled much of the country’s wealth, and that the president could make law. So they thought.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the New York Times best-selling author of four books. These include his latest title, James Madison and the Making of America. Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, Gutzman holds a bachelor’s degree, a master of public affairs degree, and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as an MA and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia.