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To the Founders, Congress was king

(Page 2 of 2)

The great concern of the Founders was tyranny. After all, they had just barely escaped the clutches of King George, who would have happily drawn and quartered Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, or George Mason if his Redcoats could have seized them during the American Revolution. The last thing they wanted was a power-hungry president, a domestic King George, to replace the English one. The Founders did not trust men's natural inclinations.

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As Berkin notes, the chief "truth" that guided the Founders was "that men were corruptible and that power always corrupted." They believed that "greed and lust for power ... were inquenchable in mortal men." Although he was ordinarily known for his buoyant optimism, Franklin observed during the debates that even with good fortune, the new government might succeed for only a decade. Franklin warned of the "inevitable decline" of the Republic "into a tyranny of one, a tyranny of a few, or a tyranny of the majority."

Jefferson, who was ambassador to France, and Adams, the ambassador to Britain, did not attend the Convention. But each shared this concern over tyranny. For Jefferson, the chief concern was the "tyranny of one." For Adams, the tyranny of the aristocracy, or the monied classes, was the great risk.

Looking at today's politics, Berkin says: "The Founders would be appalled, perhaps the most, in that the president presents a program to the Congress, and the Congress is expected to argue over it. This is the tail wagging the dog. Their view was just the opposite - with the president executing [the policies proposed and approved] by Congress."

Yet most "modern Americans" assume the president is the leader, Berkin says. This was reflected in a comment this week on Washington's CBS-TV affiliate, where anchorman Todd McDermott said authoritatively, "On Inauguration Day, the president sets the path for America's future."

Franklin would hardly believe his ears.

Berkin says the two major political parties have been a driving force in turning the original system upside down. Big, strong parties reduce the effectiveness of the check-and-balance system, in which Congress and the president are supposed to watchdog one another. Instead, parties "weave together all three branches of government. Even the [Supreme] Court is subject to the influence of parties."

The public ranks Congress as successful, or not, depending on whether it enacts the president's program, Berkin says. Such an attitude would leave the Founding Fathers with "their mouths on the floor," she says. Yet fighting against the president's program can be the political death knell for a member of Congress, especially if the party cuts off support in the next election.

Professor Greenstein says the shift in public perception between the two branches of the government can be seen in the way the nation's newspapers handle stories about the government. In the 1800s, for example, front-page stories focused on the giants of the Senate, such as Daniel Webster or Henry Clay. Today, it is the president who gets the big headlines.

Congress still asserts itself, of course. But it often treads lightly. As Greenstein notes, both President George H.W. Bush, and his son, George W. Bush, "made it clear" that whether Congress approved or not, they "would go ahead in the Mideast wars."