Presidents' Day


The presidency as defined in Article II of the Constitution almost didn’t happen. In fact, if it hadn’t been a certainty that George Washington would be the first president, we might have a very different executive office for the United States.

Having just fought a bloody war with the British to throw off King George III, the Americans were not turning handsprings to offer power to any one individual. However, the American experiment had drifted off course with each state seeking its own good rather than the good of the whole. Perhaps more authority would restore unity and cure the ills of the Articles of Confederation, but would a strong executive threaten all that the patriots had achieved? This possibility loomed in the minds of the delegates in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

The Great Compromise overcame the issue of how the states would be represented in the U.S. government, one legislative body by population and one by equal representation, and the presence of three branches. These three branches would be separate, with particular powers, but for them to remain equal, now that would require special care.

The judiciary, the Founders agreed, must retain its independence. A judiciary dependent on the legislature always ran the risk of being subservient, so their ability to review laws for constitutionality would be insured. The legislature could amend the constitution, and preserved a check on judicial power. So, here independence and balance could be preserved, but how should an independent executive be checked? How would too much power controlled? Checks and balances would be a part of the formula, but certainly not all.

The fear of mass persuasion swayed perception throughout the convention. The idea of a directly elected president would be almost dismissed out of hand. One person with a mandate from all voters seemed to be the quickest route back to the tyrannical ways of George III. So, on to other methods they went.

Under the Articles, Congress chose the president, who basically oversaw the operation of the U.S. government when the legislature was out of session. Several delegates wished that Congress would remain as the appointing body for the executive, but now with a bicameral legislature, which body would choose? Some preferred the upper body, which seemed logical to many, but that would mean only 14 of 26 people (two senators from each of the 13 states) would choose one third of the government. This seemed like a threatening formula: an ambitious candidate could easily round up this small number of votes. Therefore, the House seemed to be the favored route for selecting the president, but during September one last push put through an executive elected at-large, but with a new twist.

The idea of the states selecting the president gained momentum, but how, what would be the mechanism of election? Eventually, the delegates settled on the Electoral College with each state assigning electors to cast votes. The first conception of these delegates revolved around the notion of impartial statesmen choosing the best leader, but the process soon entered politics after George Washington stepped down following the completion of his second term.

Despite a few changes, the unique institution of the Electoral College has held with little alteration over the years. After serving as vice president with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson lobbied for the Twelfth Amendment to elect the president and vice president as a ticket rather than the first vote taker gaining the presidency and the second occupying the vice presidency (the only other amendment to directly affect the presidency has been the Twenty-second which limits an individual to two terms). It was also in this time period that states started to award their votes in a winner-take-all manner. Other than Maine and Nebraska, all states have retained this system of awarding votes.

Forty-five individuals have occupied the presidency since its inception. George Washington left his mark by setting the initial tone for the presidency. Everything he did set the course for all subsequent presidents. Of course, Abraham Lincoln took some extraordinary steps, but in the end saved the Union that Washington fought so hard to establish. With Washington and Lincoln’s February birthdays we celebrate this unique American institution that despite being a threat to the balance of power within our constitutional system, has proven to be intricate to our governing history. Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, as well as other strong personalities have left their mark on the executive branch, and so far providing leadership while avoiding tyranny.

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