In 1878, the eminent British statesman, William Gladstone, paid homage to the Framers when he described the U.S. Constitution “as the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” The delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not invent from a blank slate either Congress or the Supreme Court, precedents for which were drawn from English institutions and practices, as well as American experiences under the Continental Congress, state constitutions and a wealth of literature. But the creation of the American Presidency affirms the enthusiasm—and wisdom—of Gladstone’s observation, for the office was unique, experimental and marbled, drawn from the Framers’ experiences, historical impressions, theories, hopes and fears. The concerns that they harbored, reflective of the uncertainties inherent in the creation of such an important office, were assuaged by their assumption that the first President would be George Washington. Indeed, it was the nation’s good fortune that the first incumbent was a man universally admired for his integrity, character and judgment. His election fortified Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that America “had made a good start.”
The Office of the Presidency was an American original. The creation of the Presidency surely warranted Gladstone’s admiration as part and parcel of the Framers’ newly-minted conception of a Constitution, but for another reason as well: It was one the United States’ greatest contributions to the world of political science. It was unlike any other national executive in the course of human history.
The invention of the Presidency was largely a reaction to the failure of the Articles of Confederation, which provided no executive branch, an omission of great importance. The Presidency was an experiment, but the ideas about executive power on the basis of which it was formed, represented an eclectic distillation of the best ideas, historical practices and theories that influenced and shaped the American political tradition. As we shall see, the Framers’ conceptions of executive power were derived from a shared body of the thoughts and wits of historians, commentators, political theorists, and colonial, revolutionary and early statehood experiences. While these sources left a deep imprint on the Founders’ conceptions of the role of the president, the most distinctive, immediate and compelling rationale for the creation of a chief executive was seen in the organic weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.
Few of the Founders were more alive to the flaws and deficiencies of the Articles than James Madison, whose paper, “Vices of the Political System,” drafted to persuade Americans to agree to the establishment of what would become the Philadelphia Convention, pointed an accusatory finger at the Articles. “Our situation is becoming every day more and more critical,” Madison wrote to Virginia’s Governor Edmund Randolph from the Continental Congress. “No money comes into the federal treasury; no respect is paid to the federal authority; and people of reflection unanimously agree that the existing confederacy is tottering to its foundation.” The British in the Northwest, the Spanish in the Southeast, various Indian tribes in the West and pirates in the Mediterranean, who were undeterred from their predation against American ships by the lack of a navy, all posed threats to the fledgling nation’s security.
The weak government under the Articles could not maintain order. In 1782, army units stationed at Newburgh, New York, threatened mutiny over back pay. In 1783, troops ransacked arsenals in Philadelphia and forced Congress to flee to Princeton while the Pennsylvania militia put down the mutineers. Congress was incapable of devising a pay plan that was acceptable to states.
Without a reliable army, Congress could not intervene decisively in the struggles between debtors and creditors, of the sort that gave rise to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. Although both sides were restrained, the “rebellion,” which involved little bloodshed, nonetheless exploded in the consciousness of Americans and illustrated the impotence of Congress in the broad sweep of public affairs which, as Madison pointed out, was likely to doom the new nation. The event, coupled with disorders in other states, prompted men of continental vision throughout the 1780s to correspond with one another about changes that might be made in the governmental system. George Washington, in the grip of despair by virtue of the various problems that afflicted the nation, wrote to Thomas Jefferson on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, “The situation of the General Government (if it can be called a government) is shaken to its foundations and liable to be overset by every blast—In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy and confusion will inevitably ensue.”