Federalist Project 17

“Creating the Presidency” and Federalist 75 – 77

Rakove continues his discussion of the origins of the presidency with some more very prescient worries voiced by the Anti-Federalists, many of which speak to present-day shortcomings in our political system. One issue of particular import was how the Constitution would check against (or alternatively, bolster) native elements within American society that would support (or detract from) healthy democratic rule. Patrick Henry, that legendary orator from the revolutionary era, made a strong argument that may surprise modern readers in its conclusion: “Henry’s point was not that it would be better to establish a nobility, but that in the absence of a true aristocracy, senators would seek to convert themselves into an aristocracy of ambition” (272). In this, and elsewhere in the Anti-Federalist critique, we sense a ripe anxiety as to how well national self-governance would suit a people that had chucked the class-obsessed hierarchies of the Old World in favor of a romantic, if ineffable, belief in the “natural aristocracy” of talent and hard work.

The seemingly paradoxical worry that in lacking a time-honored class structure that distributed power and influence based on inherited station Americans might carve a path to power (and indeed, wealth) through the “emoluments” of office-holding – which to Henry seemed almost more sinister, because less predictable – is not a difficult one to reconcile. One need only look at the trend of “ordinary men” being championed on the political stage as evidence that in some ways American egalitarianism is as rigid and random as European class obsessions were ossified: such candidates don’t remain “ordinary” for long. In the same vein, Americans have begun to notice that many congressional representatives and senators (and some presidents) arrive in the job from the middling classes, but tend to leave office quite wealthy. Henry was previewing that very likelihood in important ways. In a more class-fixed society, political power offers fewer temptations for personal aggrandizement.

The Anti-Federalists also wondered whether a president would be an effective check on legislative authority or merely a tool of the Senate: “Whatever ‘weight and importance’ the president enjoyed would depend on ‘his coincidence with views of the ruling junto in that body.’ In practice, the president ‘may always act with the Senate, but never can effectually counteract its views,’ the Federal Farmer warned, and in contest between the houses of Congress, the executive might similarly ‘aid the Senatorial interest when weakest, but never can effectually support the democratic [House] however it may be oppressed” (270). In the contemporary partisan landscape of divided government, with the Senate’s use of the filibuster as the go-to instrument of minority opposition, we can see just how insightful the Federal Farmer was in binding the president’s fortunes to the whimsies and biases of the Senate.

In two respects, however, the Anti-Federalist critique falls short in anticipating current dynamics in the American political landscape: “In their criticisms of Article II, they found no middle ground between the specter of monarchy and the danger of cabal within the Senate; they could not imagine the president acting as an independent source of political influence within the government, much less being the focus of political agitation without” (275). In other words, the framers were inordinately concerned with a limited set of possible abuses of political power. They had no way of predicting the influence that well-funded lobbies and entrenched special interests could potentially have on a single political actor. A prominent critique of President Obama recently published in the New York Times notes his failure to use the bully pulpit in crafting an honest and constructive narrative to bridge American differences and calm fears about economic decline. Many rebuttals have faulted that critique for perpetuating the myth of presidential oratory as the prime mover of political change. In either case, in the very argument itself we see the expectation that the president potentially could have had a degree of influence that goes well beyond what the Founders imagined, particularly in their belief that “[e]xecutive power in the United States could never turn monarchical because presidents must derive all their authority and influence from the Constitution itself” (276).

The extent to which the Founders believed the president would remain a modest executor of the laws crafted by Congress and not an independent and charismatic political force in his own right may strike us as naive, smacking of the same kind of idealism we see in Federalist 76, in which Hamilton ascribes fear of rejection as guiding the president’s choices in submitting nominations for high office: “The possibility of rejection would be a strong motive to care in proposing. The danger to his own reputation, and, in the case of an elected magistrate, to his political existence, from betraying a spirit of favoritism or an unbecoming pursuit of popularity to the observation of a body whose opinion would have great weight in forming that of the public could not fail to operate as a barrier to the one and to the other. He would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure” (458). It’s worth quoting this passage at length if only to illustrate how much trust ardent Federalists like Hamilton and Madison placed in the character and straightforwardness of the presidency.

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