Friday, February 26, 2016

Deus ex Virginia: A Tale of Cabbages, Kings, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Indispensable Mr. Washington

I recently came across this essay, written as a contribution to a series of talks organized by my peers up on the mountain in the Department of History and Philosophy of the University of Virginia's College at Wise in the ancient age of 2012 - I enjoyed writing it and I'm not sure if I've ever shared it in any other venue.  Read it and enjoy in good health!

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1899?) "African American school children
facing the Horatio Greenough statue of George Washington at the U.S. Capitol"
via Wikimedia Commons


History is littered with the corpses of tyrants who were once heroes, men who led forces in the defense of their ideals only to turn upon their own people and, on pretense of salvation or compensation, enslave them.  These bastards, I fear, are legion.  Everyone can recount the names of the most famous – Caesar, Bolivar, Napoleon, not to mention a host of other petty thugs and parasites, wrapped in flags and fancy words.  This is, however, one reason that the United States is an interesting place, a political system born out of violence, its population entirely enamored with its military savior, in which said leader not only did not seize upon the reins of state and dictatorship hungrily, but in point of fact was a critical force, perhaps the critical force, in preventing tyranny from being thrust upon him.  

This essay is the tale of that very leader the man who would not be king.  It is a story about how he became our President, of how he endowed that title with meaning, of how he turned down absolute power and in so doing saved the Republic, and of how he died of a broken heart, as most good men do.  It is also a story of Greek plays, political intrigue, class warfare, medieval imperial and religious institutions, and a key. 

Act I. The Newburgh Conspiracy

Democracy is not normal.  Never believe that it is – virtually all political systems in human history have been autocratic, dominated by one or a very few people. Democracies are fragile, easily upset and rarely enduring.  There is a lesson in this fact for we Americans – we are not normal, and we should never be under the illusion that our experience is typical.  Though, it can be said, it very nearly was. 

On October 19th, 1781 General Cornwallis surrendered to a joint Franco-American military force commanded by the good Mr. George Washington.  With his concession major fighting ended on the North American continent, though the war proper would continue until the spring of 1782.  By November of that year preliminary articles of peace had been signed, and finally, on September 3rd of 1783 the British and Americans would sign their portion of the Peace of Paris. 

During this period of neither war nor peace the Union very nearly collapsed.  Congress, a weak and ineffective organ under the Articles of Confederation, could only beg monies from the states who, unshockingly, were hesitant to either increase their taxes to cover the difference or to decrease their share of the tax income they already collected.  As such, Congress had virtually no income relative to its debts and expenditures, and it was unable to pay retiring officers and soldiers either their back pay or pensions.  Dissatisfaction built upon itself until ultimately a cabal of officers began to consider taking things into their own hands.  The result was the emergence of an officer’s cabal, the Newburgh conspiracy.

There is a great deal of debate as to the actual intentions of the Newburgh conspiracy – certainly it did demand that Congress immediately provide restitution to both officers and enlisted men or else be left undefended and to its own devices, effectively depriving it of any claim to sovereign rule and derailing the Union in its infancy.  There were also clearly those, both within and without the conspiracy that felt that the Union was fundamentally unstable.  Congress was inept, it was argued, and the Union could not hope to remain united under it.  If the Union fell, they reasoned, then war amongst the former colonies, against European powers seeking to reestablish domination over North America, and against deeply antagonist native American peoples would almost immediately commence.  The republican experiment’s failure would, they feared, lead to the failure of the American experiment as a whole.  As a result the possibility of an out and out coup d’état was very real, with the end of the coup ultimately being the installation of a military government led by a dictator or a European-style monarchy ruled by a king (if this seems unlikely, consider the histories of our various neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere).  In both cases, one man’s efforts would have made such a coup both inevitable and successful – the hero of the revolution, Mr. Washington.  Yet the conspirators knew Washington sympathized with both his men and the young Congress, and fearing he would moderate them planned on bypassing him insofar as possible – after all, Washington had already (in 1782) rebuffed a suggestion by several of his officers that he establish himself as king of the United States.

Provincially, Washington learned of the Newburgh conspiracy before it had taken significant actions.  On March 12th of 1783 the conspirators had called for a meeting of the army’s officers to discuss their demands and plans.  Washington responded by cancelling the meeting and calling his own three days later. 

The crowd was angry and hostile, from all reports, and Washington was beaten and tired.  When be prepared to speak, he drew his glasses from his pocket, unfolded them, and said only, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."  He began to read, and the Republic was, by the end of his letter, saved. 

Act II. The General Retires

On November 25th the final British forces east of the Appalachian Mountains would sail from New York harbor.  Their withdrawal was overseen by General Washington who, over a period of weeks oversaw the steady reoccupation of the city.  Almost immediately he made plans to return to Virginia, his wife, and Mount Vernon – he hoped to be retired and comfortable well in time for Christmas. 

Washington was very nearly late.  Heralded as he was as the savior of the Republic, his presence was demanded for speeches, ceremonies and dinners all along the long path from New York to northern Virginia.  One of these stops, however, was of fundamental importance to both the good General and the Union as a whole – Annapolis, Maryland. 

Annapolis at the time was serving as the capital of the United States, and Washington walked into a well-choreographed series of ceremonies (whether he wished for them or not).   

Finally, on the 23rd of December Washington was received by Congress and read a speech both brief enough and of adequate sentiment that, with your permission, I’ll quote it in its entirety here. 

“Mr. President," it began:
The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.

Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the oppertunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.

The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, encreases with every review of the momentous Contest.

While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War.


At this point, reported witnesses, the good General began to shake and grip the papers of his speech tightly.

It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.

Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire form the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.


Washington resigned his commission, handing it to the president of Congress, received a speech delivered by Thomas Mifflin but largely written by Jefferson, and then, after the members of Congress had ceremoniously doffed their hats, Washington retired both from the army of these United States and, he hoped, from public life in general.  By Christmas Eve Washington was across the Potomac and home, a mere civilian enjoying the holiday with his wife, family, and friends. 


Act III. The Second American Revolution


"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes - ships - and sealing-wax - Of cabbages - and kings -  And why the sea is boiling hot - And whether pigs have wings."

Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872)


It is probably not an overstatement to assert that the first constitution of the United States of America was an abject and utter failure.  The Federal government had little power and was essentially born bankrupt, the various states plunged up to their elbows in every imaginable type of excess, and the Union found itself in a general condition of insolvency and insecurity.  The problems of the Union arose from three key characteristics of the government established in the Articles of Confederation.  First off, virtually every decision of significance required either a supermajority or unanimity.  Secondly, the Federal government had few if any real tools for compelling coercing the states into obeying national policies or cooperating with one another, thus allowing economic, social, and political factionalism to skyrocket.   Finally, the Federal government had virtually no power to independently tax and was, as such, obliged to beg the various states for whatever scraps of income they might begrudgingly provide them with.  Add to this the complete lack of an effective executive, the virtual nonexistence of a navy or army able to project power beyond American borders, and the rapid emergence of protectionist and pyramid schemes in the various states and the Union seemed, once more, damned in its youth. 

Washington was in retirement but he was hardly ignorant of the condition of his young nation.  He was an avid correspondent, exchanging letters constantly with statesmen, scholars, and thinkers of his time.  Washington was also a voracious reader, not merely of books – though his library was in excess of 1000 volumes at the time of his death – but of magazines and newspapers as well, subscribed to from throughout the United States and Britain.  Indeed, his letters from the years immediately preceding the Constitutional Congress reflected his concern that the United States was already amidst a dangerous crisis and that, without active efforts to reform the American polity it would surely decline into misery and conflict.  Indeed, brief perusal of his letters from the mid-1780s reveal his ongoing horror that, as the crisis deepened, public tolerance for the adoption of a constitutional monarchy  was growing, rather than fading (in particular see his letter to John Jay on the 15th of August 1786).

By the time of the Annapolis Convention in 1786 that group of powerful thinkers and statesmen we so often call today the Founding Fathers had collectively decided that some effort must be undertaken to rescue the Union from its rapid deterioration.  The decision was made to call a convention of delegates, representing each of the states, together in Philadelphia to discuss the implementation of some radical reforms of the American constitution, though from the beginning the degree and nature of reform was in debate.  The first delegates met on the 14th of May of 1787, but a quorum of seven states was only reached on the 25th, and states continued to saunter into Philadelphia until late July when New Hampshire’s finally arrived.  Certainly there was no guarantee of success – 74 of the 55 appointed delegates never arrived, and Rhodes Island refused to even send any.

In fact, Washington nearly didn’t attend the convention himself.  His brother had recently died, he was recovering from a number of illnesses, and he was hesitant to participate in any convention which did not include all of the great minds of the early Republic.  It was only after months of coaxing by Madison, who felt that the good Mr. Washington’s presence would legitimate the event in the eyes of both participants and observers, that he finally gave in.  Upon formally convening Washington found himself unanimously elected as chair of the proceedings, an office he neither enjoyed nor desired, particularly because he felt that it made him unable support the strengthening of the Federal government, which he felt was essential to the survival of the Republic, in a forthright way.

The Constitutional convention is essential to this story because it created the institution of the American presidency as we now know it, including the system by which our elected monarch takes office.  Originally, under the Articles of Confederation the United States had no independent executive officer or officers.  Certainly there was a president, but this individual was selected by the unicameral confederal Congress as the head of parliamentary procedure for that body during its debates, discussions, and votes – he exercised no independent political authority.  Indeed, this is how the American executive came to take on the odd name of “president” – the term, in its original form, refers not to an individual holding power in his or her own right, such as principe or prince, king, imperator or emperor, dictator, and monarch (to name only a few), but rather to one who presides over a meeting – a keeper of order.  This, indeed, is typically regarded as one of the fatal flaws of the Articles.  The Congress was ill-equipped to fulfill its legislative duties, much less engage in the kind of bureaucratic and military oversight which allows a polity to function in an efficient and timely way. 

It was not that the writers of the Articles were naïve, mind you.  They simply regarded the monarchic principle as one to be avoided – they understood monarchic systems as concentrating entirely too much power into the hands of a single person who need only guarantee the loyalty of the military to transform a polity of laws into a tyranny.  Yet the experience of the Revolution and the post-bellum years had left most of the founders convinced a monarch of some type was necessary.  The most radical proposal was probably that of Alexander Hamilton who, among other things, proposed a powerful monarch serving for life or “time of good behavior,” put in place by a college of electors, specifically and consciously modeled on the British monarchical system. 

Ultimately, however, the tide of opinion among the founders turned in the direction of a periodically elected monarch, one who would serve comparatively short terms before having to stand for reelection.  The question then became one of how would the monarch be chosen.  Here, it seems, there are two models which have dominated most of history – the democratic electoral model and the parliamentary model. With regards to the former, the people, which is to say that part of the people regarded as citizens, would directly elect the president by some variety of majority vote.  The parliamentary model, however, would duplicate the method by which the prime minister of the United Kingdom received his office, allowing one or both houses of the legislature to participate in the selection of a president from their own ranks.  Each of these plans, however, carried their own seeds of destruction.

The democratic electoral model potentially invested enormous trust in the poor- and middle-classes.  The founders were not insulting of these classes, who worked hard, were ethical, and perhaps smelled of cabbage, but they did fear the age old phenomenon of “bread and games” – that is to say the tendency of the masses to give up their liberties and political rights in exchange for promises of security, entertainment, and wealth.  On the other hand, the founders feared the possibility that a cabal might form in the legislature that selected only puppet executives, giving them effective control over the apparatus of state and, again, leading the republic down the short road to tyranny. 

The solution, it seems, was to draw upon an institution that many Americans whose origins most Americans today, and I expect at the time, were largely if not entirely unfamiliar with – the electoral college. 

Two of the most important political systems in the history of the Western world were (and in one case, is) presided over by monarchs elected by colleges of aristocrats. One of these is the Papacy, or the Bishopric of Rome, in which the College of Cardinals meet in conclave and elect a Pope to serve as the Roman Catholic Church’s monarch in matters temporal and spiritual; upon his death or retirement, the College reconvenes and a new Pontiff is elected.   The other of these is the Holy Roman Empire in which the Emperor, or King of Rome, was elected by seven Kurfürsten, or Electors, all of whom were temporal or church aristocrats or monarchs.   Neither of these institutions could be described as new in any sense – the method of papal election was solidified by Gregory X in 1247’s Ubi periculum bull, while the method of imperial election was issued by the Reichstag of the Empire in 1356 in the form of Charles IV’s Golden Bull.  Yet their use as a model for the Americans, who feared centralized authority of both the monarchical and aristocratic types, is nonetheless surprising. 

Yet when the Committee of 11, the convention’s working committee, proposed the Electoral College as an alternative to the more popular Virginia Plan-based parliamentary mode, the proposal was accepted on the basis that not only did it prevent the development of a legislative cabal, but it further guaranteed the relevance of the states and regions, and their independence with regards to influencing the presidential election – the southern states generally preferring to leave the decision to the state legislators, the northern states tending towards popular elections determining the electors.  In other words, the institution of the presidency was designed, quite consciously, to be powerful enough to actually do things yet still eternally dependent on the will of both the masses and the elites within the context of each region and states’ biases.  The system was complex and difficult to understand and it was built on a total lack of trust among the founding fathers with regards to themselves, their respective state governments, and the people as a whole.  Save one man, it would seem.  The good Mr. Washington. 

On the 17th of September in the year 1787 the convention passed the Constitution as we have it today, sans amendments.  Over the course of 1788, after one of the most philosophically informed (and occasionally brutal) bouts of national politics, the Constitution was gradually passed by each of the thirteen states, in no small part because of the machinations of James Madison and concessions to the Anti-Federalist factions which led to the adoption of the ten amendments constituting the Bill of Rights by 1791. 
The United States now had a Federal Government.  It remained only to populate it with demi-gods or, in lieu of them, Virginians.


Act IV. The Election of 1789


There was never any question of who it had to be.  The new, indirectly elected monarch of the United States, invested with infinitely more power than the founders had ever envisioned providing any political leader with at the dawn of the Revolution, had to be someone who could be trusted.  He had to be trusted as a statesman, as a leader, and as an individual.  He must be someone who transcended the factions of religion and region, someone who was seen as both militarily competent and utterly dedicated to the civilian rule, someone who would evoke fear in neither aristocrats nor the ordinary folk.  This first president would indeed preside over his nation, his every action becoming precedent to be carefully mimicked for centuries to come, his decisions establishing, more than any other official of the Union in history, the political cultural and norms of the Republic. 
There was no doubt Washington would be elected, but the landscape of the election was, especially to modern eyes, odd.  The legislature of New York deadlocked over their allotment of electors – not over the supporters of Washington in his bid for the presidency, but over electors who would vote that most ignoble of offices, the vice-president.  Neither North Carolina nor Rhodes Island had ratified the constitution and, as such, they were ineligible even to participate.  Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, and South Carolina’s electors were chosen exclusively by their legislatures – an indirect election of the indirect electors to the presidency.  The other states either directly elected their electors (a tongue twister) or allotted them, through elections via electoral districts.  In all states participating the first vote by their electors, that which determined the President, chose Washington – still the only Electorally unanimous president, and likely to be the last.

There is some debate over whether the good Mr. Washington wanted the office.  Consider the first paragraph of his inaugural address:


Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years—a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions all I dare aver, is, that it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just appreciation of every circumstance by which it might be affected. All I dare hope, is, that if, in executing this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens, and have thence too little consulted my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me, my error will be palliated by the motives which misled me, and its consequences be judged by my country with some share of the partiality in which they originated.


Indeed, if Washington was honest, as I suspect he largely was, he was at best ambivalent about the honor accorded him in by the office of the presidency – he knew very well that the success or failure of the Republic, rightly or wrongly, accurately or inaccurately, would largely be laid upon his lap and his reputation, so far unsullied, could only receive injury from participating in what he calls “civil administration.”  I imagine that Washington’s situation was not unlike that of Midas or Solomon, those great leaders-cum-parables who got what they long wished for, only to realize that the object of their desire entailed costs unimagined.



Socrates: It will, I imagine, seem ridiculous that things are made manifest through imitation in letters and syllables; nevertheless it cannot be otherwise. For there is no better theory upon which we can base the truth of the earliest names, unless you think we had better follow the example of the tragic poets, who, when they are in a dilemma, have recourse to the introduction of gods [from] machines. So we may get out of trouble by saying that the gods gave the earliest names, and therefore they are right.”


Plato, Dialogue of Cratylus, 425d (4th Century BCE, translation Harold N. Fowler, 1921) 


Historians and social scientists are men and women in search of regularities and patterns.  Particular events take on importance in no small part because they are reflections of general principles – absent general principles, events are mere trivia. 

But occasionally events do not seem to hinge upon general principles.  Once in a very long while the thundering stampede of history, so often following the same path, curves away because of one event or one person.   The ancient Greeks and Romans referred to these sorts of events as instances of “god from the machine,” a reference to the propensity for Greek religious dramas to have their plots resolved in ways that seem counter the apparent path of events as a product of the unforeseen (at least by the plays’ characters) intervention of supernatural beings.  This hero should have died, save for the intervention of this goddess lowered from the ceiling; this ruler would have led a happy people had he not raised the ire of that god who himself is raised from a trap door; and so forth.  Change anything else, the story merely goes along as it would have.  But the intervention of the divine changes everything. 

The real world is like this, it seems.  Imagine a world where George Washington died in a firefight during the French and Indian War – the United States likely loses the War of Independence, or at least is in a far worse position when the time for negotiations finally arrives.  Imagine a world where Washington dies during the American Revolution, or retires before full British withdrawal, and the emergence of 13 petty tyrannies perpetually at odds or a national pattern of military dictatorships resembling those of Latin America in the 19th and 20th Century.  Imagine a world where George Washington had preferred the Greeks to the Romans in his reading, a world where he modeled himself after Plato’s philosopher-king instead of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the farmer who would not be king, a world where he became dictator or king, or merely His Royal Highness, President of the United States.  Imagine a world where George Washington, wracked with grief at his brother’s death and physically exhausted by his efforts during the revolution, refused to attend the Constitutional Convention, leaving it devoid of legitimacy and his command of the delegations.  Imagine a world where the first election was never accepted by any of the factions out of their mutual distrust, or a world where factions were quashed before they philosophically matured.  Imagine a world where Washington ran for a third term, or perhaps more, and designated his heir in the manner of the “good” Roman emperors.

In any of these scenarios, and many besides, all is lost.  Everything that makes the United States good, a model, a beacon of any importance and any note beyond the rust and grime of power, all of it is lost before it begins.  No one person was ever so important to the United States, and no election so critical as that which brought him into office. 


Deus ex Virginia.


Act V. The President Retires

“Where may the wearied eye repose; When gazing on the Great; Where neither guilty glory glows, Nor despicable state? Yes—one—the first—the last—the best— The Cincinnatus of the West, Whom envy dared not hate, Bequeath'd the name of Washington, To make man blush there was but one!”


George Gordon, Lord Byron

From Ode to Napoleon Buonoparte

Washington was sworn into office on the 30th of April in 1789 on Wall Street in New York City, on the balcony of Federal Hall. He would serve two terms as president (the second even more grudgingly than the first) and would refuse to stand for a third term, and in so doing Washington would set yet another precedent.  As Washington says in his Farewell Address:


The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this, previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea.


When Washington retired he despised the office of the presidency.  Anti-Federalists, led by Jefferson and Monroe, had steadily aligned against him and begun slander campaigns directed at Washington and members of the Federalist faction.  Washington was also troubled that he had been obliged to militarily put down insurrections on the frontier and that relations with France had steadily deteriorated due both to the more powerful nation’s desire to use the Union as a puppet and the radicalization of French liberal philosophy during the French revolution.   Washington feared that American government was on the verge of both usurpation by foreign influences and degeneration into ethical morbidity.  The old man was tired, physically pained by years of military service and emotionally wrought by the pains of political service and the dissolution of old friendships.  Indeed, in a letter of 1796 from Washington to Jefferson it is possible to glean a real sense of the former’s sense of betrayal:


Perceiving, and probably, hearing, that no abuse in the Gazettes would induce me to take notice of anonymous publications, against me; those who were disposed to do me such friendly Offices, have embraced without restraint every opportunity to weaken the confidence of the People; and, by having the whole game in their hands, they have scrupled not to publish things that do not, as well as those which do exist; and to mutilate the latter, so as to make them subserve the purposes which they have in view.

As you have mentioned the subject yourself, it would not be frank, candid, or friendly to conceal, that your conduct has been represented as derogatory from that opinion I had conceived you entertained of me. That to your particular friends and connextions you have described, and they have denounced me, as a person under a dangerous influence; and that, if I would listen more to some other opinions, all would be well. My answer invariably has been, that I had never discovered any thing in the conduct of Mr. Jefferson to raise suspicions, in my mind, of his insincerity; that if he would retrace my public conduct while he was in the Administration, abundant proofs would occur to him, that truth and right decisions, were the sole objects of my pursuit; that there were as many instances within his own knowledge of my having decided against, as in favor of the opinions of the person evidently alluded to; and moreover, that I was no believer in the infallibility of the politics, or measures of any man living. In short, that I was no party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.

To this I may add, and very truly, that, until within the last year or two ago, I had no conception that Parties would, or even could go, the length I have been witness to; nor did I believe until lately, that it was within the bonds of probability; hardly within those of possibility, that, while I was using my utmost exertions to establish a national character of our own, independent, as far as our obligations, and justice would permit, of every nation of the earth; and wished, by steering a steady course, to preserve this Country from the horrors of a desolating war, that I should be accused of being the enemy of one Nation, and subject to the influence of another; and to prove it, that every act of my administration would be tortured, and the grossest, and most insidious mis-representations of them be made (by giving one side only of a subject, and that too in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket). But enough of this; I have already gone farther in the expression of my feelings, than I intended.


And so Washington left office in 1797, returned to Mount Vernon and attempted to hide from public life, an effort at which (with the exception of taking on formal military title again in order to help Adams prepare for the possibility of a French invasion, a position at which he, perhaps for the only time in his life, expressed his disdain for Anti-Federalists openly and, rather imperiously, demanded, but ultimately did not receive, the right to appoint senior officers) he largely succeeded. 

Washington’s retirement, in and of itself, was unremarkable.  Each day he would tour his farm by horseback, returning home for dinner.  At dinner he was normally beset by guests (most of whom, he would bemoan in letters, he did not know), would go out for a constitutional, and then would take tea.

After tea he would busy himself about the house until dusk, and once the candles were lit he would retire to his study, sitting at his writing desk, to read and engage in correspondence until, tired, he would go to bed.  In 1799 Washington would write two wills, one of which Martha burnt at his request on the day of his death, the other of which in tremendous detail outlined his bequests, including his request that his slaves be freed  and supported with proceeds of his estate.

In December of that year, Washington would develop a sore throat after riding in poor weather.  After bleeding and medicines he became convinced of his rapid decline.  He explicitly requested that he buried in a simple manner, with no ceremony or speeches, political, religious, or otherwise – a request that was respected largely in its neglect.  He sat for a few hours, before dying, by the fireplace privately with Martha before returning to bed, where his final words were simply, “Tis well.”  Within days his correspondence was censored – much of his private correspondence was burned by his relatives, including most of his letters to and from his wife. 

In an oration before Congress the day after Christmas Washington’s old friend Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, III eulogized Washington famously.  He said:


First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere—uniform, dignified and commanding—his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.


Jefferson would concur, many years later, repenting of his earlier slights in a letter of 1814:


On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.

I thank you for your time and attention.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Cabana Boys, Confucians, and Constitutions: Defining the American Presidency for the American Voter

Warren K. Leffler or Thomas J. O'Halloran. (1964) Delegates and Stage of the 1964 Election
 U.S. News & World Report Magazine, via the Library of Congress 

We are in the midst of a season, a year-long series of ceremonies and contests and debates: melodrama in the most true sense of the word.

It’s election season. 

Though there will be many elections in the coming year, only one dominates the national media, demanding the complete attention of every reporter, analyst, campaigner, and (insofar as possible) voter: the race for the presidency. 

This is a frustrating time for me, as a political scientist.

On the one hand this is the time of the political scientists – our particular species of monster is again on the wax as the media remembers my kind exists and reports seeks us out in our caves and warrens and ivory towers.  I try to act indignant, as if hurt that I wasn’t remembered for three years, but honestly, I’m not.  I am excited.  I’m relevant. 

But on the other hand I am annoyed.  I’m annoyed because the questions I’m asked, all too often, aren’t the right questions.  Sometimes they reflect a misunderstanding of the American political process, the barest outlines of complex truths, leading to error after error.  Other times they are loaded, directed, intended to lead me to an ideologically charged conclusion.  

The effect can only be described as something akin to being the prettiest girl at a prom full of gentlemen who think I really like being punched in the gut, or pretend to think as much, which is much the same thing in the end. 

I want to write a bit, with your patience, about one of these misunderstandings – the fact that most Americans don’t know what the president’s job actually is. 

*   *   *

Earl Leaf (1946) from The Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images via Best of the Web Shrine 
This isn’t unimportant.  Think of it like this – imagine you’re hiring for a job – one of the jobs I had in my youth was that of a – well, let’s call it what it was – I was cabana boy.  I prepared and served drinks for people who were sitting beside of a swimming pool, usually with alcohol, sometimes with fruit. 

I hated this job, but it was easy and it paid, so for a few months it met my requirements. 

Now, in this job I needed certain skills – I needed to be 21, I needed to be literate, I needed to know how to mix a relatively narrow range of alcoholic drinks, I needed to be able to take orders and speak formally to people, I needed to be able to maintain a sanitary workplace. 

Another job I had, which I also wasn’t fond of, but which again was easy and paid, was milk guy.  I don’t think this is a formal term for the job, but I hesitate to write milk man since that implies a Technicolor wonderland of gentlemen in uniforms delivering creams and milks and butter to the porches of Mr. and Mrs. All-American.  No, I had none of that – this was the 1990s and such pleasantries were well past. I worked in a grocery store and, usually, my job was dealing with milk and milk-related products.  Stacking them.  Unstacking them.  Arranging them.  Checking them for freshness. Giving useful milk-based advice.  Storing them.  Recording their movements like they were chimpanzees and I was Jane Goodall. 

Milk guy. 

Okay.  Now imagine you’re hiring cabana boys and you don’t really spend any time thinking about what cabana boys actually do.  You might have hired me because of my perfect, chiseled abs and rock-hard body (cough), reflecting your familiarity with PoliceAcademy 5: Assignment Miami Beach but not your understanding of alcoholic beverage control laws or the principles of bar management.  It is entirely possible, dare I say it likely, you might hire a milk guy, and the only drinks served properly would be white Russians (which, by the way, are not ordered with any frequency poolside).  The effect – failure, in the worst instance, or at least a long and steep learning curve that, had the definition been known and adhered to in the hiring process, would not have been necessary for the bar to endure. 

And there is the rub – the jobs of elected officials are, in every case, more important than the job of cabana boy.  

I know.  

The truth, sometimes, hurts. 

*   *   *
Associated Press (1964) Barry Goldwater Accepting the Republican Nomination
Via The Daily Beast 
No elected official is more powerful than the President of the United States – it has been said so many times that it is easy to miss the implications of the statement.  But I want to examine, for a moment, what it means.  First, there is the true part of the statement. 

No political system has ever been as powerful as the United States of America.  This is not hyperbole.  It is fact.  In absolute terms the United States dwarfs the power of any single political system that has ever existed previously.  We spend approximately half of the global military budget.  We have more nuclear weapons than any nation other than Russia, but ours are of higher quality and, frankly, are more likely to actually launch (not that one needs to play chicken over this – after all, there is no question both the Russians and the Americans have the ability to kill virtually all life on the planet in about 30 minutes at will).  The American economy is the largest that has ever existed in the history of humanity, its level of development rivaled only by a few, generally smaller states – and though its relative size has shrunk over the years from a peak of around 75% of the global total gross domestic product right after the Second World War to around 15% today, it still is easily the largest and most durable – around US$ 17.5 trillion a year, compared to around US$10.4 trillion for the People’s Republic of China, and US$ 4.6 for Japan – the European Union as a whole outstrips us, but it has no proper unified foreign policy and its economy is – well – problematic in terms of its degree of integration and quality – it comes in at around a US$ trillion larger than the United States, but it also includes 28 different independent states – so – problematic. 

The United States directly controls a continent and dominates absolutely an entire hemisphere.  The United States has the third largest population of any nation on earth – not just today, but ever, coming in at a third of a billion people.  American mass media dominates the discourse of the planet; American science and higher education remain the dominant intellectual force on Earth. Hell, you could even say, with only the slightest hyperbole, the reason the United States is relatively less powerful than it was in the 1950s is that we have been so successful at propagating our political and economic values and institutions around the world – for the first time in human history the majority of people live in systems with essentially free political and economic systems, entwined in a system of international institutions that, for all its flaws, has still generated a period of amazing peace – the longest period the world has gone without an international war between great powers in recorded history

The United States isn’t perfect.  But by god it is powerful.  Amazingly so. 

And, so, saying that the political actor who holds the most power in the United States, by definition the most powerful person in the Union, is the most powerful elected official in the world is a simple truism.

But the president is not absolutely powerful within the United States – were he (or perhaps, someday, she) would no longer be the president as we conceptualize the office today, but an authoritarian, an absolutist.  Thus as powerful as the president is, within his own nation he is not as powerful as the executives of many nations are within the bounds of their own nation. 

This is part of why knowing the president’s job description is so important – in an authoritarian regime the executive is responsible, ultimately, for everything.  The people need not worry whether their ruler is somehow ideal for a given job – he or she has all the jobs and, as such, will almost inevitably be pretty bad at it.  The reason?  Specialization, for one – we are better if we have the time to dedicate to building up particular areas of expertise (check with Plato’s Republic).  Secondly, and at least as importantly, is that rulers are human – they have limited time, limited abilities to process information efficiently and accurately.  The effect of giving too much power to any one person or institution is a sort of intellectual logjam. 

The other part is equally important.  The United States is one of many nations, historically and contemporaneously, where the political philosophy in action is premised on the belief that there should be limits on what governments should be able to do with regards to and for society.  The problem is that when people acquire power we almost instinctively and inevitably try to both preserve what power we have and to expand that power insofar as we are able.  There is nothing nasty or monstrous in this – it is simply our nature.  That said, it can lead to nasty and monstrous things – political systems which violate the ethics held by their citizens, becoming parasites on society rather than protectors and shepherds thereof. 

This is why we designed the system we have – one in which the various parts of the government check and balance one another.  Sure, they may do so in some instances out of altruism, but equally, they do so because the absolute success of any other branch would mean the complete loss of power by the members of the other two branches.  In other words, be they saints or selfish, a balance of power system is intended to make the American republic durable by limiting the job descriptions of the governmental bodies and, equally, making them rely on one-another in order to do their jobs. 

It is Byzantine.  It is labyrinthine.  It is all sorts of other words that mean confusing and over-complicated.  But by and large, it has been successful.   But it can only remain so as long as both the electorate and the three branches retain essentially the same understanding of each branch’s respective powers and responsibilities – their job descriptions.

*   *   *

Associated Press (1960) John F. Kennedy's Nomination Acceptance Speech,
via The American Prospect 
So, we’re all on the same page now.  We agree that the president actually doing the job assigned to him or her is important, both because it is the minimum expectation of the boss (us) and because it is the only way to prevent overreach and the decline and fall of democratic-republicanism.  Cool. 

So what is the president’s job description? 

I got crazy [irony] and decided to go to the job advertisement-in-chief.

That’s right.  The Constitution. 

When you go to the Constitution one of the things that is surprising about the presidency is that it is clearly not the principal concern of the founding fathers.  Why do I say that?  Because they don’t spend that much time on it.  Well, relatively speaking. 

Consider – the main body of the Constitution is divided into articles, each of which addresses a particular subject area.  The first three of these address the principle divisions of the Federal government – the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.  The legislative branch is the center of attention – it gets 2267 words across ten sections.  Now compare this to the executive branch – 1025 words total across four sections – less than half the same length. 

Of these only 357 words are actually dedicated to what the president actually does.  I know – I double-checked myself.  The founders dedicated less length to the job of the president than I usually have for an online recommendation letter for one of my students. 

*   *   *

Associated Press (1980) Reagan Accepts the Republican Nomination,
via Daily News
Before diving into the long and short of what the president must do it is worth noting what the eligibility limitations on persons hoping to run for the office are.  Why?  Simply because knowing these has the potential to inform our understanding of the office’s role as originally conceptualized – its significance relative to other positions in the Federal government. 

The Constitution is only clear about four minimum qualifications to be eligible for the White House.  First, to sit as president a candidate must have been an American citizen since their birth (unless they were born before the adoption of the American constitution – but since that was in 1789, well, unlikely).  This presents a bit of an interesting question – what constitutes citizenship since birth?  Well, it isn’t necessarily residency in the United States – in fact, the Constitution only requires that a president have been a resident of the United States four fourteen years prior to their candidacy (the second of our qualifications) – that of course means that they either have a legal residence in the United States or are stationed as an officeholder of the United States overseas – though the latter two interpretations, which allow for foreign serving diplomats and soldiers, for instance, to become president, is dependent upon court and congressional interpretations of the meaning of residency. 

Does citizenship mean that you were born in the United States in geographic terms?  Well, no – not really – of course sometime in the future Congress or the courts might redefine the meaning, but in the United States we generally stick to an approach to citizenship that is relatively flexible – if you are born in the United States you are a citizen (clarified and guaranteed under the 14thAmendment) if your parents have you so declared, or you are born to at least one American citizen while on the high seas or in another nation and your parent or parents declare you to be an American citizen.  That’s right – it rather much makes the Obama controversy a few years back seem awfully silly – his mother was an American citizen, so it doesn’t matter where he was born – Hawai’i, Chicago, Canada, Kenya, or Mars, he is a native-born citizen.  End debate. 

Okay – two prerequisites out of the way.  The third is a matter of age – you can’t be president until your 35th birthday has come and gone.  This is merely an attempt by the Founders to bias the candidacy options towards greater maturity – unsurprising, it falls on a clear and regular trend line from 25 for eligibility for the House of Representatives and 30 for the Senate – the harder the job is to get, the older you have to be. 

Well, certainly that is part of it.  The other role age plays is probably a reflection of the logic of other representative systems of government, from some of the Greek city-states to many (if not most) native American nations.  Put simply, roles would be allotted in the government according to whether the representatives would be younger, and therefore more hot-headed and prone to support the active use of warfare as a political option, while other roles were allotted to older persons, under the assumption that their experience would have decreased their ardor for war, making them more likely to support diplomatic solutions to crises. 

In other words, the intention might have been to make the President, who will be (as discussed below) in charge of actually committing American military forces to combat, hesitant to do so and careful in how he or she does it.  Interesting, eh?

Finally, if you want to run for president you can’t have been president for too long a time already.  This is the presidential term limit – a bar for preventing presidents from becoming presidents-for-life (a disturbingly common phenomenon in many nations).  The Founders didn’t put this term limit into the Constitution – it was only added in the mid-Twentieth Century with the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment.  Let me quote the first sentence of that Amendment, which is what is really relevant to the discussion here: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.”

In other words, someone who is otherwise eligible to run for the presidency loses it upon either (1) his or her second election to that office or (2) his or her holding of the office in excess of two years. 

That’s it.  Those are the minimum requirements, the prerequisites, the gotta’-haves.   

Okay.  Well.  Maybe.

Check out Article 2, Section 4: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  Interesting, you say, but doesn’t this speak to questions of removing a president from office, not barring a candidate from becoming president?  Well, yes, but there is also an implication here – conviction of treason, bribery, high crimes or misdemeanors makes an individual ineligible for the office of the President if in office.  It is arguable, then, that the same would invalidate the eligibility of a potential candidate for the office.  Now, as far as I know, this hasn’t ever been heard by the courts, and one assumes that the filtering out of no-goodniks is a de facto outcome of the party selection process will for the foreseeable future prevent it from becoming a necessary object for the courts to consider, but nonetheless, the possibility remains. 

Put simply, the considerations for eligibility for the office of President are almost entirely practical matters and are kept as minimal and sensible as possible.  There are, as Article 6 makes clear and the Bill of Rights reiterates, no tests for candidacy – standards based upon religion, philosophy, ideology, or private (non-criminal) behavior are no bar from candidacy.  Add in the Reconstruction Amendments and the 19thAmendment and ethnicity, race, and gender cease to be the basis of bars from candidacy.    That isn’t to say that these aren’t things voters and factions and parties actually pay attention to – that would be naïve in the extreme.  Rather, it is a statement that it is for society to decide the relevance of beliefs and ethics as elements in their choice in electing a president, not for the government to enforce a particular vision of what such a president should believe. 

*   *   *

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Campaigns in Atlanta in 1932
 Roosevelt’s Little White House State Historic Site
via The Buffalo News
Fair enough – now on to the meat of things.  What constitutes the occupation of the president once he or she actually takes office? 

This is interesting in part because, well, despite all my insinuations to the contrary, elected officers of the governments are quite different from private employees in at least one essential way – they are invested with, temporarily but effectively, the sovereign power of a state, in part at least.  The power isn’t theirs, of course – it remains the collective property of society as a whole – but that power nonetheless is theirs to exercise.  

This exercise, in properly functioning democratic-republics, is defined in several ways, but essentially it comes down to three elements.  First among these are the responsibilities entailed in an office.  Second, these offices may be defined in terms of their powers – political rights above and beyond those of an ordinary citizen that belong not to the individual holding an office but the office itself.  These powers define the office by restricting and defining the means by which the responsibilities of the office might be achieved.  Finally, all offices may be understood in terms of what powers they do not hold – powers that are allotted exclusively to other offices of state or, alternatively are reserved to society or no-one whatsoever.   These are not in every case enumerated in an office’s description, but may be implied by the description of other offices or the social contract (in other words the constitution) in general.

This is important because it tells us how to read the constitution and, thereby, informs us as the actual constitutional powers inherent to the Presidency (as currently defined) – we need to understand each stated responsibility of the President not only in reference to itself but also in reference to its limitations in means and scope.  

My reading of the Constitution gives seven broad obligations to the Presidency in Article 2 – let’s tackle each in its own time. 


The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

Article 2, Section 2, Paragraph 1

This is, unquestionably, the most important of the powers assigned to the Presidency.  But the question is what does it actually mean?  Well, the President is the highest ranking military officer in the United States of America.  That means he or she is in charge of administering the military in accordance with the laws and regulations that govern the military, within the budgetary constraints thereof, and further those which govern questions of national security, defining American allies, enemies, partners, and peers.  That is it. 

Now, this is still, as wise men say, a helluva’ lot of power, but it surely isn’t omnipotence – it means that the essence of what the President’s responsibility is lay not in defining and generating security policy, though clearly he or she is essential in that, but, ultimately, lay in carrying it out as made and clarified by Congress.  This gets clearer when we look at Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution – in fact, let me reproduce the relevant sections here:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Now, I’ve trimmed this section down quite a bit, but certain things are clear – first, Congress is not part and party to the generating of foreign policy, but instead it is intended to be the central force thereof - this makes sense – it is the legislative branch of the state and the Presidency is, at least in theory, supposed to be principally an executive organ, carrying out the orders and requirements of Congress. 

This isn’t to say that the Presidency doesn’t hold some leeway when it comes questions of national security – of course it does, after all, questions of secrecy and expediency largely define our need to have an elected monarch in the first place, rather than just a legislature.  But presidents consistently overstep the bounds which the Founders set for them – including, by the by, some of the Founders themselves when they became presidents. 

In theory, at least, Congress recognizes this as a problem – that is why they passed the War Powers Act of 1973, in reaction to the presidential overreach that took an ugly little war in Vietnam and made it a decades long national nightmare (and caused the United States to violated both its own national principles and international law – international law the United States was, ironically, in many cases in large part responsible for the adoption of).  The response of the presidents?  To a one, since the passage of the War Powers Act, has been to assert that the legislation is unconstitutional and, insofar as possible, ignore it while keeping Congress just satiated enough to not to force the issue. 



. . . he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, . . .

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate . . . to appoint all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments. . .

Article 2, Section 2

The term Bureaucrat-in-Chief is, well, it sounds silly – but it also captures the essence of his or her role as the head of the bureaucratic system.  The President is, essentially, the individual who oversees the operation of the various bureaucracies of the United States – this includes of course the military bureaucracy, as described above, and the diplomatic bureaucracy, as described below, but it also includes the other bureaucratic organs of the United States.  Right? 

Well, yes and no.  

Read the above quoted Constitutional lines again.  The power of the president over the bureaucracies seems, largely, to oversee the operation of the civilian departments in a rather basic way – force the generation of documentation of policies and.   Of course the president also has the ability to appoint officers to the various bureaucratic bodies, though he or she is limited to appointing only those officers that Congress invests the President before the fact with the right to appoint and only with the consent of the Senate.   The Founders weren’t even that clear as to whether or not the President had the right to remove officials from office or whether that power lay exclusively with Congress – though of course in practice that power is shared by both, with the president being infinitely more likely to exercise it in any given case. 

And that, it seems, is it.   This is markedly different from the president’s power over the military – in that instance the president is a member of the military, part of the chain-of-command, and while he or she has to obey the law of the United States, he or she is still definitively and directly the final arbiter of policy of the military.  With the civilian bureaucracy there is no such integration, control is far more limited, and this becomes steadily more the case over time as the bureaucracy increasingly grows and becomes ever more defined by the civil service principle – a professionalization of the bureaucratic apparatus and, insofar as possible, a depolitization of the various bureaucracies’, hiring, firing, promotion, and regulation powers.

In other words the President’s role seems to be to act as an organ of oversight of the civilian bureaucracy, on behalf of the Congress, and as a coordinator of policy generation and information collectivization across bureaucracies.  Of course there is also the president’s role in maintaining an immediate connection of the bureaucracies with the democratic impulse of society at any given moment, but that is again only in the limited form of public appointments which are limited by the Senate and, more broadly, by Congress in terms of the definition of what offices may or may not be appointed.   

What is intriguing is that Presidents typically exercise their influence over the bureaucracy through proclamations and executive orders – these are essentially statements of policy, often based upon acts of Congress, which not only confirm the existence of a law but interpret it into practical orders on which the bureaucracy is supposed to act.  While clearly there is reason to assume these executive actions are entirely sensible in the context of the military and foreign policy bureaucracy it is more difficult to argue that the Constitution gives this power to the President him or herself in terms of the remaining bureaucracy.  The assumption has long been that this is an implied power – how is the President to act as the executive of state if he or she lacks the ability to coordinate and organize the bureaucratic bodies, after all, other than through the blunt instrument of appointments and influence over budget and law through veto politics (see below)?  Yet there is no clear assertion of such a power in the Constitution and it seems that precedents established by early presidents, such as Washington, in their control over the very limited bureaucratic apparatus at their disposal (three departments – War, State, and Treasury – two of which the President’s right to issue detailed orders to is rather clear) have crept and expanded as the number of bureaucracies has expanded – despite the very real possibility that those other bureaucracies might have been intended to be more independent of the Executive power than has in fact become the case. 


. . . he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, . . .

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, . . . and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

                                                                 Article 2, Section 2

As you read the excerpts from Article 2 at the head of this subsection, you’ll note some overlap.  This is intentional, both on the Founders part and mine in the illustration.  It isn’t that the powers of the Presidency are identical in questions of foreign policy and domestic bureaucratic matters – as we’ll see, they aren’t – but the essential apparatus for regulating the relative powers of the President and Congress are doing double-duty in this instance. 

So then, what are the powers of the president over questions diplomatic?   On the one hand the President is empowered to appoint major diplomatic actors, both in the role of executives of particular bureaucratic organs and in roles as representatives of the United States in discussions with other sovereign powers.   Obviously in the first part diplomatic affairs hardly vary from domestic affairs – in the second, however, we see the essential extension of the Presidency, the executive office, into persons beyond the president him or herself.

Consider – the President is empowered to negotiate treaties on behalf of the United States.  Granted, this power is limited – the President must seek the advice and consent of the Senate, but the right of first innovation lay exclusively with the President.  This makes sense of course – too many negotiating positions presented simultaneously would both complicate the American position and undermine it.   As such, however, the President’s representatives are clearly interlocutors operating on his or her behalf – their negotiations have no meaning at all in the absence of presidential signature and, equally, are unable to reach the Senate in the absence Presidential presentation.   The effect is that the diplomatic corps are as effectively under the domination of the president as the military is – granted the foreign affairs apparatus remains essentially civilian in nature, but the equivalency in terms of presidential preeminence is nonetheless undeniable.  

Other Powers

The President’s other powers and duties, while not insignificant in their importance, are more elegant in their nature – they’re not only easier to explain but their scope and variety of implications are more limited as well.  There are five such responsibilities. 

First, the president has the power to make Federal judicial appointments – or, more particularly, the president is guaranteed the right to appoint judges to the Supreme Court, pending Senate approval, and such other courts that Congress both establishes and designates as being administered by officers of state appointed by the President.  This is interesting because generally it is taken for granted that, of Constitutional necessity, all judges, Supreme and inferior, must be appointed by the President but, in fact, that is not the case – Article II clearly states that such appointment power may be given to inferior executive officers or, even more interestingly, to the Courts themselves (a model which is increasingly common in other nations). 

This power is a one-off – Presidents have the ability to appoint, and assuming their appointments pass Senate scrutiny, they must have faith that their judicial appointees will continue to act according to their already established ideological patterns.  This is important since it, in effect, allows Presidents to continue to influence the generation and interpretation of policy long after they leave office – indeed, even after their death, through the principal of judicial review. Yet there is no guarantee that judges shall remain unchanged – indeed, judges frequently moderate over time and, occasionally, shift their ideological center radically. 

The second of these more discrete powers is the veto option.  The Constitution outlines the ins and outs of the veto, but it is easily understood – legislation passed in Congress may be vetoed by the President, and thereby prevented from attaining the status of law.  This veto must, in most circumstances, be accompanied by an explanation, explaining the reasons and rationale for veto – the reason for this being that the veto is, at least theoretically, intended to be a sort of discussion between the President and Congress, one in which the merits of a bill are considered and in which the President attempts to persuade Congress to amend or drop the bill, with the understanding that Congress can overturn the veto.  Of course in practice vetoes are rarely overturned – the Founders established an extremely difficult standard for veto overturn – a 2/3rds vote in both houses of Congress – in contrast to many nations where vetoes are “softer,” meaning that the necessary vote for an overturn is merely a revote with simple majority rule.    As such vetoes are constitute an important source of power in the United States and, rightly or wrongly, a stick that allows the President to force his or her way into legislative debates that, otherwise, very likely would not exist. 

Third, the President also has the ability to adjourn or convene Congress under very specific types of circumstances. The Adjournment power is, in essence, all but nonexistent – if the two houses cannot agree on when to end a session of Congress the President has the right to determine when such adjournment should occur and for how long.  More importantly, the President has the right to call Congress into emergency session in order to respond to, well, emergencies. 

I find the emergency session power important as well – it implies that the power of the President vis-à-vis Congress is, again, intended to be fairly limited – the President may act as a policy-innovator only in the very short term, and only within bounds already established by Congress – emergencies believed by the President to necessitate a change in those bounds, or the budgets that enable governmental action, well, Congress has to make those decisions.  Or, at least, it is supposed to.  

The President also has a fairly unique power – the ability to pardon or grant reprieve (a commutation of sentence) of the sentences of particular individuals.   This power is intended to allow the democratic urge to influence an elected official and generate a check on sentences deemed legally appropriate but, nonetheless, in some way, shape, or form unjust.  Ironically, pardons and commutations are fairly rare, despite their potential sources of policy influence for Presidents, since to use this power often threatens to make Presidents appear, in some lights at least, as if they are “soft” of crime.  As such, look for this power to be used principally in the months between a the conclusion of the last electoral cycle a President takes part in (as a candidate or an advocate) and the swearing in of the next President – a narrow window indeed.

Finally, the President is required submit a report of the state of the Union to Congress annually. While this is usually done in the form of a speech, and in the age of mass communication is shared publically on radio and television as it is delivered, there is no requirement that the report be delivered in such a manner – in fact, Washington himself typically delivered his as written reports that would also be published in the major newspapers of the day. 

The state of the Union address is important not because of it actually carries any intrinsic significance as a law-making or even a law-interpreting document.  Rather, its importance is as an agenda-setting tool – it is the single political document most universally disseminated by the Federal government each year, the most likely platform for the announcement of policy changes in the military and foreign policy, and a device for framing debate in terms advantageous to the ideological and practical agenda of the President and his or her allies. 

*   *   *

Peter Stackpole (1952) The 1952 Presidential Convention
 Time Life Pictures/Getty Images via Encyclopedia Britannica Kids
Something should be clear to even the most casual student of politics at this point.  The official description of the President’s job responsibilities and our common understanding thereof are in a condition of dissonance – to use a formal term, they’re all outta’ whack. 

I’m going to put aside the actual operation of the Presidency – it can be (and I’d argue should be) said that Congress has ceded too much power to the Presidency – some of this is natural, a gradual creep over time in which the President is empowered to deal with crises domestic and international, economic and strategic, repeatedly and constantly – it is rather like the guy in the office who always does everything, or the one person in a group project who does all the research and writing – whoever does the work, ultimately, does the work – except that in politics the whoever in question isn’t a finite individual working on a single project, but an institution building upon historical precedent over centuries. 

But I digress.

What is more important, at least for the purpose of this article, is how little the American people understand the obvious priorities built into the Constitution.  And by obvious priorities I mean this:

The President’s job is to run the foreign policy and national policy apparatus and, secondarily, to monitor, guide, and coordinate domestic bureaucratic initiatives, make appointments, and act as a check on radicalization of legislative agendas. 

That’s the job folks.  That’s the cabana boy. 

On the other hand, when Americans are polled about what issues they consider most important when selecting a president they nearly inevitably rank domestic economic and social affairs above international and security affairs.  Inherently this is not a problem – except that we allow this bias of attention to dictate our choice in not only of our local, state, and Congressional officials, but of President as well. 

Milk guy.

*   *   *
Theodore Roosevelt Campaigning in Los Angeles (1912) via The Los Angeles Times
Flip back to the front of this article.  Don’t worry.  I’ll wait here.  I’m a patient fellow. 

Back?  Good.  You probably noticed that while I’ve written a lot about the Constitution, and more than any political scientist in history has on the subject of cabana boys, I haven’t addressed the topic of Confucians yet.  Don’t worry.  I haven’t forgotten.

The Confucian politicalphilosophy is a fascinating one – really worth reading about if you have the time.  I’m not going to review the whole megillah here, however.  No, I’m going to only touch on one subject, an idea called the rectification of names. 

You see, Confucius argued that all of us were capable of becoming more ethical, of improving our degree of political and social responsibility through a lifestyle driven by conscious self-cultivation.  At the core of self-cultivation lay was process known as the rectification of names.

The idea of rectification of names is easy enough to understand.  First, and essentially, one must understand what titles, or names, are properly applied to oneself.  This is an act of introspection, and equally, a deeply social act – our names may be professional, but equally they are relational.  Emperor to minister; father to child; elder sibling to younger sibling; husband to wife – I could go on forever, but the point is clear enough – our relationships define us, they name us.

This isn’t the end of things, however. 

Each name that can be ascribed to us implies different moral obligations, Confucius would argue, different types of service, different types of obedience, different types of mentorship and different types of restraint.  To improve ourselves, to self-cultivate our persons, we must understand what these responsibilities consist of and, insofar as possible, seek to fulfill them.  In so we not only are acting morally but are modeling morality to others and, thereby, inclining them to right-living which have a sort of ethical domino effect through society.

I don’t agree with everything about Confucius’ understanding of the rectification of names.  He was gender-biased and authoritarian, far too hierarchist for modern American me, but I forgive him – he was a man of a very different time and culture, after all – and I try not to throw out the baby.  I accept, in other words, his notion that rectifying behavior to accord with the names ascribed to an office, or a relationship, as a way of ethical self-improvement I still find solid, though I might hold different notions of what the obligations of those offices and relationships might be. 

Indeed, I’d take Confucian thought a step further.  You see, East Asian thought never, to our knowledge, independently developed concepts analogous to the Western philosophical notions of democracy or republicanism.  This means, on the one hand, that the idea of a citizen in the sense of a majoritarian political system simply wasn’t addressed – the implications of that name, of the citizen, remain unaddressed.  Yet this is important.   Among other things, of course, being a citizen implies a responsibility to participate in the collective decision-making process of one’s polity – to vote in elections and referendums. 

This isn’t all though.  Merely voting is not a fully rectified name.  No – to vote in a way that is responsible, ethical, wholly proper, necessitates voting in an informed manner and, equally, voting on those points which are relevant to the question of the vote. 

This necessitates, of course, that the citizen remain continuously informed about the political events of the day, and that they acculturate themselves, reading the great works and honing their skills as intellectuals.  But equally it means understanding the nature of the objects of their vote – including the meaning of the names, or titles, that they are voting based upon. 

Mayor; alderman; governor; representative; senator, and, dare I say it? 


And this is the conclusion, the point where it all comes together.  If we want an ethical, successful nation we must engage in self-cultivation, the rectification of names.  That means being good citizens, on the one hand, and, as such, making the decision to vote for our leaders based not on pointless or facile or irrelevant points, but based on the meaning of the name inherent to the position and a simple question – does the candidate actually qualify for the position, do they live up to the name?  In the case of a presidential candidate, are they principally equipped to be national security and foreign policy specialists of the very highest caliber? 

Or, instead, are they just cabana boys?