When Thomas Jefferson first read a copy of the United States Constitution, he was appalled. He was particularly scandalized by the office known as the Presidency, comparing it to the elective king of Poland. By using the dreaded and hated word "king," Jefferson became among the first to denounce the Presidency as a step backwards into monarchy—the very kind of government that the Americans had rebelled against in their revolution.
There were, of course, differences between the President and the elective king of Poland. For example, the Polish King did not have to be Polish, and many were not, while the President of the United States was an office that could only be held by someone who had been born in America. Furthermore, the king of Poland was elected for life; whereas the President was to be elected only for four year terms. Yet, in Jefferson's opinion, the fact that the President was elected for a limited term was only a cosmetic difference. After all, Jefferson was fully aware that the first President was going to be George Washington. Everyone knew that—just as everyone knew that the Presidency would remain in Washington's hands for as long as he wished to hang on to it. Washington, elected once, was in essence elected for life.
Just as Mozart wrote operatic arias that were specially customized to the talents of one particular singer, so the office of the Presidency had been originally customized for one particular man, namely, George Washington. The authors of the Constitution did not say to themselves, "Hey, let's create an office and call it the Presidency, and then let the people vote on who is to hold this office." On the contrary, they thought to themselves, "George Washington must be given sufficient power to keep the United States from disintegrating. He must, in effect, become a monarch—only, of course, we cannot call him a monarch. So let's invent a new title, the Presidency, and call Washington the President." Thus, by a process that Orwell would later dub "newspeak," the Constitution delivered into the hands of one man the power usually reserved for monarchs.
In fact, Jefferson's comparison of the Presidency with the elective king of Poland overlooked a profound historical difference between the two positions. The center of power in the Polish government had always been its aristocratic parliament, the Sejm. The Polish king was elected by the Sejm, and the Sejm, ever jealous of any encroachments on its traditional prerogatives, was not interested in creating a powerful king who would have the upper hand over them. Yet in the early days of the United States, there was no such countervailing source of power to check the ambitions of a power-hungry president. Thus, it was perfectly possible to imagine a scenario in which the United States Congress, rather than acting as a check on the power of the President, became the creature of the President, merely rubberstamping any measures he undertook to impose on them. Furthermore, there was no Supreme Court as we know it today—the power of the Supreme Court would only be established later, under the guidance of the immensely strong-willed John Marshall. There was nothing in the Constitution to suggest that the Supreme Court was originally envisioned as an institution that could check or even curb the power of the President. On the contrary, it was the President alone who held the awesome power of the veto, subject only to the provision that a law could be passed over the President's veto by a two-third majority of Congress.
In the early phase of the French Revolution, there was a bitter debate concerning what powers Louis XVI should retain as King of France. Louis insisted that he should be permitted to veto laws passed by the Legislative Assembly; he argued that such a veto was the minimal condition of monarchy. His wise advice, however, was ignored, and the French King was stripped of this critical executive power—a power, it should be noted, that the elective kings of Poland did not have. In Poland, the power of the veto remained firmly in the hands of the Sejm—indeed, any single member of the Sejm could veto any proposed law.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution, on the other hand, rejected the idea that a legislative body could govern their nation by itself. Americans had tried out this approach during the dismal days of the ill-fated Continental Congress, and they had recognized the perils of trying to operate a government in which there was virtually no one in charge. That is why they turned to George Washington—he had proven his ability to take command and to act decisively. Furthermore, he was a national hero, with wide support among the people and in every region. It was also known that Washington had flatly refused to entertain the idea of setting himself up as a military dictator when this proposal had been aired as the only remedy against the anarchy and disorder bred by the failure of the Continental Congress.
So here was the problem. Washington had to be given the kind of powers normally reserved only for kings and military dictators—yet it was politically impossible to declare him either one or the other. After all, America was a Republic, and Republics could not be governed by kings or dictators. Therefore, a solution was found in devising an hitherto unheard of office, namely, the Presidency. Though the word "president" had been used before to designate various appointed officials, it had never been used to designate a Head of State.
By a stroke of extraordinary good fortune, the man for whom this office was designed was also a man who was profoundly aware of the potential dangers inherent in the office that had been specially designed for him. Washington was keenly aware just how easily the Presidency could degenerate back to a monarchy, or worse; and, shrewd man that he was, he clearly saw that there was nothing in the written Constitution that could prevent such a process from occurring.
For example, there is a remarkable letter that Washington wrote, before assuming the Presidency, in which he argues that he is peculiarly qualified to be President because he has no son. Now imagine a candidate for the Presidency today making such a claim: Vote for me, because I have no son. How strange it would sound to our ears. Yet Washington regarded this as virtually an indispensable desideratum in a President—or, at least, in the first President. Nor is it difficult to see why this mattered to him so much. He did not want the office of the Presidency to become the possession of a dynasty.
The Constitution had made it clear that the President could be re-elected over and over again, and there was no doubt that Washington would have been re-elected over and over again until the day he died. How easy it would then be, Washington realized, for his own son, if he had one, to become the heir apparent who, upon his father's death, would naturally succeed him in office. There was nothing in the Constitution to forbid a President's son from becoming the President—and two have done so in our history. Thus, the combination of a popular President who retained office until his death, and a popular President's son who was available to succeed him, deeply disturbed Washington.
Because Washington had no son, this danger did not arise. Yet Washington recognized the danger of a popular President, such as himself, getting re-elected over and over for the remainder of his life. Here again the Constitution provided no solution, so Washington had to devise a solution of his own. He would not die in office; instead, he would be elected for two terms, and then he would not run again. Furthermore, by his renunciation of power, Washington would set a precedent and an example that would check the ambitions of all Presidents for nearly a hundred and fifty years, thereby providing a kind of unwritten amendment to the Constitution.
Take the case of the popular Theodore Roosevelt. He had inherited the office of the President after the assassination of McKinley, and served out the remaining three years of McKinley's term. But when he was finally elected in his own right, he immediately issued a statement that he would honor the spirit of George Washington's example by not running again when his term of office was up, arguing that no President should hold office for more than the eight years that Washington had served. Here again, there was nothing in the Constitution to prevent Teddy Roosevelt from doing so; it was only Washington's example that inspired him to make his declaration—though, subsequently, Teddy Roosevelt came to regret his rash statement, and in 1912, he would form his own political party, the Bull Moose Party, and take another shot at the Presidency.
When his cousin Franklin Roosevelt ran successfully for his third term, he knew he was violating the unwritten law established by Washington's example. The result was an inevitable reaction that culminated in the passage of a Constitutional Amendment limiting all future Presidents to no more than two elected terms. As Washington clearly saw, the American people needed to be protected not only from their enemies, but from their popular heroes as well—indeed, perhaps especially from them.
Today we now call it President's Day, and no longer celebrate Washington's Birthday. This is a pity. For without the greatness, wisdom, and humanity of our first President, the office of the Presidency would almost certainly have become something radically different from what any of us are familiar with—indeed, it might well have become something that none of us would feel much like celebrating. It was not the written document called the Constitution that protected us from tyranny; it was the shining example of a single man.