giving the rich their own branch of government -- 3/02/16

Today's selection -- from The First Presidential Contest by Jeffrey L. Pasley. Our founding fathers were concerned that the U.S. president would not be taken seriously enough by European countries, and that the very title "president" was not sufficiently prestigious. Furthermore, many felt that the elevation of this office was necessary to counterbalance the dangerous element of democratic power that had been given to the people in their ability to directly elect of members of the House of Representatives. (Democracy was viewed with concern, and to guard against too much of it the Constitution provided that the President was to be elected by an electoral college and Senators by state legislatures.) John Adams took that concern a little too far:

"George Washington fretted about the presidency. ... How could its prestige be built up? How could they be assured that the American populace and foreign governments would respect it? In constructing the protocols and rhetoric of the new presidency, they borrowed heavily from European monarchies. Their view was that a touch of divine right was needed, at least symbolically and emotionally, to keep the people in order. The president, and by extension all officials at their appropriate levels, should be raised above other men. As Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut argued: 'The Sentence in the Primer of Fear God and honor the King was of great importance; ... kings were of divine appointment; ... head and shoulders taller than the rest of the people.' The 'monarchical pretti­nesses' built up around President Washington included official birthday tributes, a magnificent coach and mansion, and the restriction of access to the presidential person to official 'levees' at which guests were for­bidden the democratic gesture of shaking Washington's hand. Those observers not awed were horrified. 'It is a wretched and mad opinion that some high flying republicans maintain,' the newspaper satirist Philip Freneau imagined a Federalist thinking, 'that officers of the govern­ment ought to deport themselves as the equals of the people.'

Portrait of Adams by John Trumbull, 1792-93

"Though he sulked about attending levees and riding around in ex­pensive carriages, Vice President Adams went into his only official duty, presiding over the Senate, bent on installing as many monarchical for­malities as possible. His years of dealing with the French and British monarchies and reading up on the history of government had planted plenty of ideas about the importance of hierarchies and the best ways of maintaining them. Since returning, Adams had grown frustrated at how 'miserably bewildered' his fellow Americans seemed to have become. They were born and bred under the British 'limited monarchy' but seemed to have forgotten the need for some regal authority to balance and stabilize their popular sovereignty: 'There is not a more ridiculous Spectacle in the Universe than the Politicks of our Country exhibits: bawling about Republicanism which they understand not.'

"So Adams decided to teach his countrymen, or at least the Congress, about the monarchical element that a republic needed to have if it did not want to devolve into a rampant, uncontrollable democracy. Making a 'ridiculous spectacle' of himself, the new vice president assumed the Senate chair wearing a regal outfit of his own invention, including a wig, formal military coat, and ceremonial sword. To Pennsylvania senator William Maclay, Adams looked like 'a Monkey just put into Breeches' sitting up on the dais in his strange quasi-uniform. The vice president harangued friends and senators repeatedly about the need to adopt royal-esque titles when addressing high U.S. officials.

"Privately Adams thought only 'Majesty' was good enough for the president and vice pres­ident. Having not been present at the Federal Convention, he thought the name chosen for the office was weak tea -- it 'put him in mind that there were presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs .... What will the common people of foreign countries, what will the sailors and sol­diers say, "George Washington, President of the United States"? They will despise him to all eternity.' Eventually a Senate committee came up with the option 'His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same,' but the House of Representatives rejected the whole idea. The episode embarrassed Washington, as Vir­ginia tongues began to wag about the 'pomp & parade' at the capital. Adams soon found himself held at arms length, attending only two or three cabinet meetings for the next eight years. When the 1792 election came around, abortive efforts were made on both sides to ease him out of the heir apparent spot. Governor George Clinton of New York failed with fifty electoral votes. The damage was done, however, as Adams came to symbolize the more undemocratic and inegalitarian impulses of those who guided the new federal government, impulses summed up at the time by the idea of monarchy."

"Adams made matters worse by using his ample vice-presidential spare time to write a series of newspaper essays expanding on his ideas in the form of a commentary on the Italian historian Davila (which was also the projected fourth volume of his Defence of the American Constitu­tions) that was simply chock-full of statements that cast Adams's views in an almost sinister light. Though chiefly an intellectual exercise, much of what Adams churned out read as 'a fervent defense of hereditary suc­cession, 'according to admiring historian Zoltán Haraszti. Particularly damning was the attitude he expressed toward the common American. The 'laboring part of the people can never be learned,' Adams wrote, and they would always envy the more fortunate. Merely asking 'the peo­ple to respect property will be regarded no more than the warbles of the songsters of the forest. The great art of lawgiving consists in balancing the poor against the rich,' especially by giving the rich their own branch of government (the Senate) and special laws to protect themselves."


Jeffrey L. Pasley


The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy


University Press of Kansas


2013 by the University Press of Kansas


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