To the Founders, Congress was king
Such a glittering celebration! Such huge crowds! All of this to honor one federal officeholder - the president. What would the Founding Fathers make of it?
George W. Bush will be sworn into office Thursday for his second term amid a one-day torrent of bands, parades, floats, fireworks, gala dances, and adulating crowds worthy of a king. The festivities, including massive security measures to protect the participants, will cost more than $50 million (much of it corporate money). Some 750,000 people are expected to line the parade route and gather for the president's speech outside the Capitol.
This impressive political festival contrasts sharply with quiet ceremonies three weeks ago that the Founding Fathers might have considered much more important. In the House of Representatives, the "people's house," 435 freshly elected members from all 50 states were sworn into office. In the Senate, 34 newly elected and reelected members took the oath. The public hardly noticed. The Washington Post plopped the story onto Page 3.
America's Founders would surely be "surprised" by this turn of events, says Carol Berkin, a professor of American history at the City College of New York and Baruch College. Dr. Berkin is the author of "A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution."
The nation's Founders expected Congress, not the president, to be where the real action was, Berkin says. The president was supposed to be, well, more like an "errand boy" for Congress.
James Madison's wonderfully revealing notes at the Federal Convention of 1787 leave no doubt that the Founders - including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and dozens of others - envisioned a supreme legislative branch as the heart and soul of America's central government.
They assumed that Congress, drawn from all parts of the country, would initiate bills, set budgets, approve wars, provide national leadership, and if necessary, impeach and toss out a wayward president. After all, who would give supreme powers to one man, or woman?
The delegates who gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia during the steamy, black-fly-infested summer of 1787 to write the Constitution spent the bulk of their time arguing, cajoling, reasoning, writing, and rewriting the details of this all-important Congress.
The presidency was clearly secondary.
Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, says the long-term shift away from Congress and toward presidential power came primarily in the 20th Century. President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), the "trust-buster," and President Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), America's first "world war" leader, were "straws in the wind" in asserting White House power, says Dr. Greenstein.
Yet it was Franklin D. Roosevelt - who launched the unprecedented, government-funded New Deal, and who steered the United States through World War II - who really put political and bureaucratic muscle into the White House. Roosevelt built an extensive executive staff to help him manage the government. (By contrast, Abraham Lincoln relied on just two personal secretaries, and many state documents of the time were in his own handwriting, Greenstein observes.)
AMERICA'S expanding involvement abroad, and the need to maintain a large peacetime US military force in dozens of other nations, has also added to presidential power. Berkin says America's modern presidency, with all its trappings, would be "unimaginable" to men like Madison, Washington, and Franklin. Of all those historic figures at the 1787 Convention, perhaps only Alexander Hamilton would relish today's playing of "Hail to the Chief."
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.
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."