Creation of the Presidency 1775-1789

For Father's Day this year Paulette gave me an unusual little hardback she found at the used-book sale: The Creation of the Presidency 1775-1789 by Charles C. Thach, Jr. This copy is a 1969 reprint of the 1923 original edition; based on a comment at the beginning of Chapter III it was Thach's Ph.D. dissertation. Like most such, it's rather heavy sailing at times. Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966) is far more entertaining and takes a wider viewpoint. But overall Thach does an excellent job of investigating the origins of the US President's powers and limitations. He includes a considerable number of thoughtful quotes from contemporary documents, as in this New Hampshire 1776 "Town Paper" discussing the need for a strong executive (from Chapter II, "State Executive Power, 1776-1787):

This power is the active principle of all governments: it is the soul, and without it the body politic is but a dead corpse. Its department is to put in execution all the laws enacted by the legislative body. It ought, therefore, to have the appointment of all the civil officers of the State. It is at the head of the militia, and therefore should have equally the appointment of all the military officers within the same. Its characteristic requisites are secrecy, vigour, and despatch. The fewer persons, therefore, this supreme power is trusted with, the greater probability there is that these requirements will be found. The convention, therefore, on the maturest deliberation, have thought it best to lodge this power in the hands of one, whom they have stiled the GOVERNOR. They have, indeed, array'd him with honours, they have armed him with power, and set him on high. But still he is only the right hand of your power, and the mirror of your majesty. Every possible provision is made to guard against the abuse of this high betrustment and protect the rights of the people. ...

Thach explains how the experiences with runaway legislatures and weak executives in the various states led to the building of a strong President. He quotes Oliver Ellsworth's contemporary remarks in summarizing "The true purpose of the Constitution":

We allow the president both an influence, tho' strictly speaking not a legislative voice; and think such an influence must be salutary. In the president all the executive departments meet, and he will be a channel of communication between those who make and those who execute the laws. Many things look fair in theory which in practice are impossible. If lawmakers, in every instance, before their final degree had the opinion of those who are to execute them, it would prevent a thousand absurd ordinances, which are solemnly made, only to be be repealed, and lessen the dignity of legislation.

Thach concludes his book with some stirring words:

... Weak men have occupied the office without the ability to support its great responsibility. But there have always come into office at critical times men who would utilize its powers fearlessly, independently, and with a full acceptance of responsibility, striving each to be the "man of the people," to serve as a mouthpiece for the national will, to be the guardian of those great national interests intrusted to him, the conduct of war, maybe, the management of foreign affairs, the honest conduct of administrative business. These men have kept the original spirit of the Constitution alive.
...
... [I]t may not be amiss to recall two facts: that never yet has the choice of the people put into office a corrupt President, and that the office as organized successfully has withstood and completely recovered from the violent assault of a hate-blinded Congress. This in itself is no slight tribute.

Well, maybe when Thach was writing in the early 1920's ...

(There are also some good vocabulary words along the way, including "onubilate" meaning to cloud over, confuse, or obscure; it's probably a typographical error for "obnubilate", and appears in a quote from James Wilson on page 174.) - ^z - 2008-07-04


(correlates: EmersonOnRace, SorryForYourLoss, CaveThought, ...)