Happy Birthday, Mr. President
As America celebrates President’s Day by taking the day off, Lee Harris has penned this piece at TCS Daily paying homage to our nation’s first, and arguably greatest, President.
As Harris points out, the office of the Presidency as it was set forth in the Constitution was specifically designed with George Washington in mind. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Washington, one doubts that the Presidency could have been given the powers that it has by virtue of Article II of the Constitution:
When Thomas Jefferson first read a copy of the United States Constitution, he was appalled. He was particularly scandalized by the office known as the Presidency, comparing it to the elective king of Poland. By using the dreaded and hated word “king,” Jefferson became among the first to denounce the Presidency as a step backwards into monarchy—the very kind of government that the Americans had rebelled against in their revolution.
In creating the Presidency, the Founders were quite obviously trying to create a balance between the tyranny created by the supreme executive personified by King George III and the chaos created by the legislative supremacy of the French Revolution. Nobody wanted a King, but, at the same time, everyone had seen what happened when power was put in the hands of the collective body rather than an individual who could speak for the nation as a whole:
The framers of the U.S. Constitution, on the other hand, rejected the idea that a legislative body could govern their nation by itself. Americans had tried out this approach during the dismal days of the ill-fated Continental Congress, and they had recognized the perils of trying to operate a government in which there was virtually no one in charge. That is why they turned to George Washington—he had proven his ability to take command and to act decisively. Furthermore, he was a national hero, with wide support among the people and in every region. It was also known that Washington had flatly refused to entertain the idea of setting himself up as a military dictator when this proposal had been aired as the only remedy against the anarchy and disorder bred by the failure of the Continental Congress.
And Washington recognized the dangers of the Presidency becoming more than what it was intended to be:
By a stroke of extraordinary good fortune, the man for whom this office was designed was also a man who was profoundly aware of the potential dangers inherent in the office that had been specially designed for him. Washington was keenly aware just how easily the Presidency could degenerate back to a monarchy, or worse; and, shrewd man that he was, he clearly saw that there was nothing in the written Constitution that could prevent such a process from occurring.
For example, there is a remarkable letter that Washington wrote, before assuming the Presidency, in which he argues that he is peculiarly qualified to be President because he has no son. Now imagine a candidate for the Presidency today making such a claim: Vote for me, because I have no son. How strange it would sound to our ears. Yet Washington regarded this as virtually an indispensable desideratum in a President—or, at least, in the first President. Nor is it difficult to see why this mattered to him so much. He did not want the office of the Presidency to become the possession of a dynasty.
In this and many other ways, Washington established precedents that created limits on the powers of the Presidency beyond those set forth in the Constitution. Sadly, as the national security and welfare states have grown, the influence of Washington’s example has faded, as has the true meaning of his legacy.
blockquote>Today we now call it President’s Day, and no longer celebrate Washington’s Birthday. This is a pity. For without the greatness, wisdom, and humanity of our first President, the office of the Presidency would almost certainly have become something radically different from what any of us are familiar with—indeed, it might well have become something that none of us would feel much like celebrating. It was not the written document called the Constitution that protected us from tyranny; it was the shining example of a single man.