by Ted O’Reilly, Curator & Head of the Manuscript Department
As part of the New-York Historical Society’s Presidency Project, the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library is displaying a selection of documents highlighting the earliest moments of the American presidency. Included are a leaf from the notes of Rufus King at the Constitutional Convention (a very rare source on its proceedings), an exceptional 1789 letter from John Adams regarding danger within the new government, and a letter from George Washington revealing his desire to use his powers responsibly and in the interest of the “public good.”
Though its powers and the government it presides over have expanded considerably since Washington swore the oath of office at Federal Hall, at its core, the presidency remains as the framers conceived it. Many of those men embraced the pursuit of scientific knowledge through observation and experimentation, hallmarks of Enlightenment thinking. So it was that our system of government was both an innovation and living experiment. Perhaps most innovative of all was the concept of a “presidential democracy.”
Until 1789, the federal government, chiefly Congress, had operated under the Articles of Confederation following their ratification in 1781; however, the Articles left Congress too weak to effect action on important matters. A Constitutional Convention followed in which delegates recognized that the solution required a wholly new constitution to replace the Articles. The remedy was an independent executive able to catalyze Congress into action and promote balance. In the words of Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, that office would have “the Power of secresy, vigour & Dispatch.”
Several decades before the drafting of the Constitution, the political philosopher Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, had proposed a critical feature in his De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws), a blueprint for government comprising three independent branches. But Montesquieu supposed that a monarch would fill the independent executive.
Common sense, it seems, would suggest that the founding generation, fresh from revolt, would recoil at the thought of incorporating monarchy into their new government. But according to King’s notes for June 1, 1787, Wilson stated: “The people of [America] did not oppose the British King but the parliament—the opposition was not [against] a unity but a corrupt multitude.” We might argue with its absolute truth, but his comment suggests a more nuanced view of how the framers regarded monarchy as a system of government.
Almost immediately after Washington took office, a troubled John Adams agreed with Benjamin Lincoln that a “dangerous Aristocracy” continued to infect the new system. He explained that the danger exceeded that of monarchy:
it is a common opinion that all those who dread or detest
an Aristocracy must still more dread and detest a Monarchy.
but no opinion is more erroneous. the contrary is so true, that
in every Instance Monarchy has been resorted to, as the
only assylum against the eternal discords, the deadly Feuds,
the endless Ambition Avarice Lust Cruelty, Jealousy,
Envy and Revenge of uncontrouled Aristocracies.
What Adams feared was not an Old World aristocracy but a new elite nonetheless who would constitute an oligarchy. Still, the Constitution provided an executive to balance the potential weight of the legislature. It was in the shadow of enlightened monarchy with the ability to initiate action where Congress could not but subject to controls against absolute power. Indeed, the framers were not inviting a return to the old system; rather, they gathered the best elements and crafted their own original solution.