10/1/10 - the presidency

In today's excerpt - the U.S. presidency. Our founding fathers hotly debated the extent of the powers of the president when crafting America's constitution. In the end though, the powers of the president were placed in the constitution after the powers of congress, and the president was given powers that were in no small measure subordinate to the powers of Congress. These more modest powers were even reflected in the choice of the more modest title of "president" for the position:

"On Friday, June 1, 1787, the Philadelphia Convention turned to the seventh resolution of the Virginia Plan introduced three days earlier, 'that a national Executive be instituted, to be chosen by the National Legislature.' With George Washington, the delegates' unanimous choice for convention president, looking on, James Wilson of Pennsylvania made a bold suggestion. He moved 'that the Executive consist of a single person.' After South Carolina's Charles Pinckney seconded the motion, 'a considerable pause' ensued.

"What sort of officer would this be? An elected monarch, as several of the delegates feared?' Or something far less imposing?

"The title the delegates settled on for the chief executive was humble enough. As commonly used in the 18th century, the term indicated the presiding officer of a legislature, with an emphasis on the 'presiding' function, 'almost to the exclusion of any executive powers,' a position 'usually [held by] men whose talents and reputations matched their office.'

"In fact, some found the very modesty of the title irritating. Even 'fire companies and a cricket club' could have a 'president,' Vice President John Adams complained shortly after taking his place as presiding officer of the new Senate. On April 23, 1789, three days after arriving in New York—then the seat of the national government—Adams delivered an extensive speech to the Senate insisting that the president and vice president needed honorific titles to lend an air of dignity and majesty to government. At Adams' behest, the Senate appointed a committee to confer with the House of Representatives on what titles would be appropriate. The House wanted nothing to do with the idea. James Madison, then serving as a representative from Virginia, scorned Adams' effort. 'The more simple, the more republican we are in our manners,' Madison told his colleagues, 'the more national dignity we shall acquire.' When the joint committee recommended against 'annex[ing] any style or title to [those] expressed in the Constitution,' the House unanimously adopted the committee's report.

"Yet, Adams wouldn't take no for an answer. At his urging, the Senate appointed a new Title Committee, which on May 9 proposed that the president be addressed as 'His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of their Liberties.' When the Senate moved to postpone consideration of the report, Adams launched into a 'forty minute ... harangue' on the 'absolute necessity' of titles.

"In this debate, Adams had a formidable opponent, Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, a man possibly more Jeffersonian than Jefferson, a partisan republican before factions had properly formed. In Maclay's private journal, which remains one of our best records of the proceedings of the first Senate, he condemned the 'base,' 'silly,' and 'Idolatrous' attempt to append quasi-monarchical titles to the nation's new constitutional officers."


Gene Healy


The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power


Cato Institute


Copyright 2008 by the Cato Institute


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