Magazine article The American Conservative

Who Needs a President?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Who Needs a President?

Article excerpt

No matter which hollow man occupies the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the evidence from 225 years points to an inescapable conclusion: the Founders erred horribly in creating the presidency. To invest in one man quasi-kingly powers over the 13 states then, 300 million people and half a continent today, is madness. And it didn't have to be this way.

Many Anti-Federalists proposed, as an alternative to what they called the "president-general," either a plural executive--two or more men sharing the office, a recipe for what a sage once called a wise and masterly inactivity--or they wanted no executive at all. Federal affairs would be so limited in scope that they could be performed competently and without aggrandizement by a unicameral legislature--that is, one house of Congress--as well as various administrative departments and perhaps a federal judiciary.

The New Jersey Plan, fathered by William Paterson of the Springsteen State, was the small-f federal option at the Constitutional Convention. It is the great decentralist what-might-have-been. The New Jersey Plan provided for a unicameral Congress with an equal vote for each state, and copresidents chosen by Congress for a single fixed term and removable by Congress if so directed by a majority of state governors.

This would have saved us from the cult of the presidency, the imperial presidency, the president as the world's celebrity-in-chief--the whole gargantuan mess.

One reason for the disastrous engorgement of presidential powers was that all parties at the Convention tacitly agreed that the first president would be George Washington, whom even the most suspicious Anti-Federalists admired. How much more protective of our liberties would the Framers have been, one wonders, if the putative first president was a man less universally respected than Washington: say, John Hancock?

Consider South Carolina delegate Pierce Butler's admission in a letter of May 1788 that the president's "Powers are full great, and greater than I was disposed to make them. Nor... do I believe they would have been so great had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as President; and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his Virtue. So that the Man, who by his Patriotism and Virtue, Contributed largely to the Emancipation of his Country, may be the Innocent means of its being, when He is lay'd low, oppress'd. …

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