The Presidents And The Presidency


The White House is much on our minds today. Whether we look ahead to the next election, or back to September 24, 1955, the day of President Eisenhower’s heart attack, we are more aware than we we have been for years of the central position the presidency occupies in our scheme of things.

The importance of this noble office, both as instrument and symbol of American democracy, can be most accurately measured by making a list of the major functions the President performs in the American system of government. With the passing of generations the President has become a majestic Pooh-Bah who combines in his person all these essential and delicate roles:

Chief of State , the ceremonial head of the government of the United States, the man who does for the American people what the Queen does for the people of Britain.

Chief Executive , the one official commanded by the Constitution to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the one official expected by the people to secure an ethical, loyal, efficient, frugal, and responsive administration.

Chief Diplomat —in John Marshall’s words “the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, ami its sole representative with foreign nations.”

Commander in Chief , in peace and war the supreme head of the armed forces, the living guarantee of the American belief in the “supremacy of ihe civil over the military authority.”

Leader of Legislation , a “third house of Congress” intimately associated with every stage in the legislative process.

Chief of Party , since Jeffferson’s day the active leader of his own party and thus the nation’s top “boss.”

Voice of the People —in Woodrow Wilson’s words “the spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country.”

Protector of the Peace , a one-man riot squad ready to muster up troops, experts, food, money, loans, equipment, medical supplies, and moral support in the event of natural disaster or social disorder.

Manager of Prosperity , an economic overseer expected by Congress and people to act decisively “to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.”

Leader of Coalition of Free Nations , or at least permanent presiding’ officer of various committees of his peers, the leaders of nations united in the face of Soviet pressure.

It is not too much to say that the outstanding feature of American constitutional development has been the growth in the power and prestige of the presidency. This growth has not been steady, but subject to sharp ebbs as well as massive flows. Strong Presidents have been followed by weak ones: in the aftermath of every “dictator” Congress has exulted in the “restoration of the balance wisely ordained by the fathers.” Yet the ebbs have been more apparent than real, and each new strong President has picked up where the last one left off. Lincoln took oil’ from Jackson and Polk, not from Pierce and Buchanan. Franklin Roosevelt looked back to Wilson over the barely visible heads of the three Presidents who came between them. In the face of history, it seems hard to deny the inevitability of the upward course of the presidency—discontinuous, to be sure, but also irreversible.

Why should the presidency have developed into so powerful an office? Why has it outstripped both Congress and Court in the long race for authority and prestige?

The search lor an answer to this fascinating question begins in tin: Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, for out of this “assembly of demigods” came Article 11 of the Constitution, the firm and spacious foundation on which die modern presidency still .stands. The presidency outlined in the Constitution was largely the work of three men: James Wilson, who campaigned tirelessly for an executive who could operate “with energy, dispatch, and responsibility”; James .Madison, who swung around slowly, but in the end decisively, to Wilson’s views: and Gouverneur Morris, who led die battle for a strong executive on the door of die Convention and then sealed the victory by writing the final draft of the Constitution. Executive power was greatly mistrusted at the time, and persistent voices were raised against almost every arrangement that eventually appeared in Article U. Wilson and his colleagues were able to score their final success only after a series of debates, decisions, reconsiderations, references to committees, and private maneuvers that still leave the historian befuddled. In the end, eight clear decisions on the structure and powers of the executive were taken by the Convention, every one of them in favor of a strong and independent executive: