Oct 15

Issue: Presidency RSS

Book excerpt: "Washington" and executive power

Posted 3 years, 6 months ago.


When the Obama administration appointed various “czars” to oversee policy, many pundits believed that it was yet another example of the expansion of executive power in recent years. From bailouts to the Patriot Act, the power of the executive branch has grown under the past two presidents, a fact that would terrify many of the founding fathers.

In his new book, Washington: A Life, award-winning historian Robert Chernow describes how the delegates decided on a single-person executive branch detailing how the job description for George Washington was written with him in the room. Which founding father wanted an executive council? If the delegates had not held Washington in such high esteem, would we have a weaker executive branch?

Chernow will be at the Center next week to discuss his book with Dr. Steve Frank, better known around these parts as Publius 2.0. Read an excerpt from Chernow’s book about Washington’s take on executive power below:

From Washington: A Life

The debate over the executive branch was likewise steeped in controversy. Delegates had difficulty conceiving a mighty presidency that did not look suspiciously like a monarchy, and they trod gingerly in this treacherous territory. The idea of a separate executive branch with a president independent of the legislature and able to veto its laws was regarded as heretical in some quarters. Benjamin Franklin so distrusted executive power that he pushed for a smaller executive council instead of a president. In advancing this idea, he had the courtesy to note, with a figurative nod toward Washington, that the first president would likely be benevolent, but he feared despotic tendencies in his successors.

Benjamin Franklin so distrusted executive power that he pushed for a smaller executive council.

That the delegates overcame their dread of executive power and produced an energetic presidency can be traced directly to Washington’s imperturbable presence. Pierce Butler doubted that the presidential powers would have been so great “had not many members cast their eyes toward General Washington as president and shaped their ideas of the powers to a president by their opinion of his virtue.” As convention president, Washington sat through extensive discussions of what was turning into his job description. There was a tacit assumption that, the office having been conceived with him in mind, Washington would serve as the first president. With his image before their eyes, the delegates were inevitably governed by their hopes instead of their fears. Still, with memories of the Revolution fresh, they reserved significant powers for Congress, endowing it, for instance, with the authority to declare war, thereby avoiding the British precedent of a monarch who retained this awesome power.

Rob ChernowRon Chernow is the prize-winning biographer of political and financial luminaries such as Alexander Hamilton, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and now George Washington. His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award in 1990.