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Mr. President
Cover of Mr. President
Mr. President
How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
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The little-known story of the dramatic political maneuverings and personalities behind the creation of the office of the president, with ramifications that continue to this day.
 
On June 1, 1787, when the Federal Convention first talked of establishing a new executive branch, James Wilson moved that “the Executive consist of a single person.” To us this might sound obvious, but not so at the time. Americans had just won their independence from an autocratic monarch, and they feared that a single leader might commandeer power or oppress citizens. Should the framers even flirt with one-man rule? For the first and only time that summer, there was silence. Not one of the loquacious delegates dared speak up.
 
Eventually Benjamin Franklin rose, then others. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Mason joined the debate, and for three months their deliberations continued. By early September the framers had made up their minds. A chief executive, the “president,” would be appointed by Congress to serve for seven years. He could not be reelected, and his powers were tightly constrained. He could neither negotiate treaties nor appoint Supreme Court justices and ambassadors. The Senate would do all that.
 
Suddenly, less than two weeks before the convention adjourned, all this changed. How? And who made it happen? Enter Gouverneur Morris, the flamboyant, peg-legged hero of this saga, who pushed through his agenda with amazing political savvy and not a little bluster and deceit. For the first time, by focusing closely on the give-and-take of the convention’s dynamics, Ray Raphael reveals how politics and personalities cobbled together a lasting, but flawed, institution.
 
Charting the presidency as it evolved during the administrations of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, Raphael shows how, given the Constitution’s broad outlines, the president’s powers could easily be augmented but rarely diminished. Today we see the result—an office that has become more sweeping, more powerful, and more inherently partisan than the framers ever intended. And the issues of 1787—whether the Electoral College, the president’s war powers, or the extent of executive authority—continue to stir our political debates.
The little-known story of the dramatic political maneuverings and personalities behind the creation of the office of the president, with ramifications that continue to this day.
 
On June 1, 1787, when the Federal Convention first talked of establishing a new executive branch, James Wilson moved that “the Executive consist of a single person.” To us this might sound obvious, but not so at the time. Americans had just won their independence from an autocratic monarch, and they feared that a single leader might commandeer power or oppress citizens. Should the framers even flirt with one-man rule? For the first and only time that summer, there was silence. Not one of the loquacious delegates dared speak up.
 
Eventually Benjamin Franklin rose, then others. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Mason joined the debate, and for three months their deliberations continued. By early September the framers had made up their minds. A chief executive, the “president,” would be appointed by Congress to serve for seven years. He could not be reelected, and his powers were tightly constrained. He could neither negotiate treaties nor appoint Supreme Court justices and ambassadors. The Senate would do all that.
 
Suddenly, less than two weeks before the convention adjourned, all this changed. How? And who made it happen? Enter Gouverneur Morris, the flamboyant, peg-legged hero of this saga, who pushed through his agenda with amazing political savvy and not a little bluster and deceit. For the first time, by focusing closely on the give-and-take of the convention’s dynamics, Ray Raphael reveals how politics and personalities cobbled together a lasting, but flawed, institution.
 
Charting the presidency as it evolved during the administrations of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, Raphael shows how, given the Constitution’s broad outlines, the president’s powers could easily be augmented but rarely diminished. Today we see the result—an office that has become more sweeping, more powerful, and more inherently partisan than the framers ever intended. And the issues of 1787—whether the Electoral College, the president’s war powers, or the extent of executive authority—continue to stir our political debates.
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  • From the book

    Part IPrecedents

    (for better and mostly worse)

    Chapter One

    "Little Gods on Earth": Monarchs and Their Governors

    Most of the men who pondered James Wilson's motion in silence had been raised to honor and love their king. Benjamin Franklin spent his early years under a female monarch, Queen Anne, but for the rest the protector and benefactor whom they were taught to include in their prayers had been either King George I, who ascended to the throne in 1714, or his son, King George II, who succeeded him in 1727.

    All but a handful of delegates were old enough to remember the death of King George II and the ascension of his twenty-­two-­year-­old grandson, King George III. The date was October 25, 1760, shortly before the first hints of colonial unrest. The youngest, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, had been born just a week and two days before, while Benjamin Franklin, by far the oldest, was fifty-­four years old. Respected internationally for his scientific achievements, Franklin was then in England, politicking on behalf of Pennsylvanians who were trying to limit the special privileges and power of the Penn family, the colony's proprietors. The British Crown was a likely ally in this endeavor, he reasoned. If Pennsylvania could be changed from a proprietorship to a royal colony, it would be freed from the Penns' grip. Thus, for the most practical of reasons, Benjamin Franklin on the eve of the Revolution was a Royalist. He broke off from vacationing with his son William to attend King George III's coronation.

    George Washington, aged twenty-­eight in 1760, and his neighbor George Mason, then thirty-­four, had reasons of their own to seek the Crown's good graces. Mason held shares in the Ohio Company of Virginia, which needed the approval of the British king to stake claims in the North American interior. Washington, while serving as the company's surveyor back in 1753, had explored its alleged holdings west of the Appalachian Mountains, and the following year he led an assault on a small party of French scouts at Jumonville Glen, a minor skirmish that by 1760 had turned into a global war. Had the king's army not come to their aid, Virginia militiamen under Colonel Washington would have been no match for their French and Indian opponents. To acquire land and defend it, Washington, Mason, and all other colonial speculators were beholden to both the legal authority and the military might wielded by King George II or King George III or whoever else might sit on the British throne.

    Robert Morris, aged twenty-­six at the ascension of King George III, had spent the first half of his life in Liverpool, England. As a teenager he settled in Philadelphia, where he rose quickly to a partnership in a prominent mercantile firm, and by the time of George III's ascension the French and Indian War was treating this merchant prince well. By selling scarce and strategic goods, and also through state-­sponsored piracy known as privateering, Morris was setting himself on a trajectory that would make him the richest man in America, but he could not possibly ply his trade across the high seas without the protection of HMS Vanguard, HMS Sutherland, HMS Nightingale, and all the rest of His Majesty's ships in the king's navy. Robert Morris had every reason to bless the power of the British monarch.

    So it went, down the line.

    In 1760, James Wilson, the delegate who offered the motion for a single executive, was an eighteen-­year-­old student living in Scotland. Five years later, when he immigrated to America, Wilson would not have to alter his allegiance to the British Crown, for he would still be living...

About the Author-
  • Ray Raphael’s fifteen books include A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (2001) and Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past (2004). He is also coeditor of Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation (2011). Having taught at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods and all subjects in a one-room public high school, he is now a full-time researcher and writer. He lives in Northern California.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 5, 2012
    In a time when many find themselves questioning the efficacy of the presidency (seemingly regardless of party affiliation), the eligibility of future candidates, and the efficiency of the election process, a look back at the origins of the highest office in the U.S. is particularly timely. In this engaging narrative, Raphael (Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation) elucidates the goings-on of the Federal Convention; the Continental Congresses and the various committees and debates that stemmed from them; and the myriad questions (some of which we still ask today) that shaped the American presidency: "Who would elect a chief executive? How long would he serve? What authority would he exercise? Who could check his power?" Peopled by such well-known figures as James Madison and George Washington, Raphael's latest also includes notable characters like the brilliant, "flamboyant, peg-legged orator" Gouverneur Morris, and the man responsible for the initial motion that the presidency consist of a single individual, James Wilson. Meticulously detailed and thoroughly researched—Raphael cites the papers of many icons of the nation's birth, such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin—this is a valuable read for Democrats and Republicans, as well as historians and those interested in contemporary American politics.

  • Kirkus

    February 15, 2012
    Renowned historian Raphael (Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, 2011, etc.) delivers an authoritative biography of the Constitutional Convention and the herculean task faced by the representatives. The author paints a picture of heroes--Edmund Randolph, George Mason, James Wilson and James Madison, among others--noting that the founders developed a government presupposing that George Washington would be the first chief executive. They believed Washington would set a nonpartisan tone and establish precedents for the office. Knowing the first man at the helm would be a good one, they then had to imagine successors who might not be quite as upright and accommodating. In order to show how their views evolved as they toiled, Raphael explores the founders' writings in chronological order. The office developed slowly and with fervent discussions, and many wished the executive branch to be a committee out of fear of another monarchy like the one they had just rejected. They struggled with questions of popular or legislative election, term of office and re-eligibility before they ever began to worry about the powers the executive would wield. The question of direct election by the people was rejected out of hand, and selection by the senate would inextricably tie the executive to it. The electoral system involved the legislators while successively filtering the people's wishes. The fear of a strong executive played equally against the notion that the aristocratic senate would overpower the government as they debated the division of powers. Remarkably, by the fall of 1787 two branches of the government were up and running, only awaiting the appointment of judges to complete the third. Raphael's exceptional history of the beginning years of the United States should be required reading, especially in an election year.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    April 1, 2012

    This is a historical examination of the framing of the U.S. Constitution in relation to debates over the role of the chief executive. Discussing the Constitution's roots, Raphael (Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation) notes that even during disputes such as the Stamp Act of 1765, colonists were respectful to the king, blaming their grievances on his colonial representatives. Not until Thomas Paine's diatribes against George III's abuses in Common Sense (1776) did public opinion change, paving the way for revolution. But fear of a powerful chief executive led to the Articles of Confederation placing most governmental power in the hands of the states. By 1787, delegates at the Constitutional Convention realized that the existing form of government was too weak, but resistance to a strong central government persisted. Raphael draws primarily from James Madison's Notes on the Constitutional Convention and pays attention to related issues such as elections and the power of Congress. His clear style and entertaining stories make a complex subject understandable. VERDICT General readers, including high school students, interested in colonial and constitutional history will enjoy this book. An optional purchase for advanced readers on the subject.--Becky Kennedy, Atlanta-Fulton P.L.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    March 1, 2012
    Author of several populist histories about the American Revolution (e.g., Founders, 2009), Raphael here delves into the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to elucidate compromises that created the presidency. Saving readers the tedium of digesting Madison's secret journal of the proceedings, Raphael converts it and supplementary sources into a dramatized narrative that emphasizes how differently the office could have been framed. Setting up speakers advocating schemes of the presidency's term, mode of election, and scope of powers, Raphael elevates the importance of one member of the convention in particular, Gouverneur Morris, whose influence he credits with vesting appointment and treaty-making powers in the president. How those and other attributes of the executive would function, however, is the ensuing story Raphael tells through the incumbencies of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Events in their terms will remind readers that some presidential powers, such as executive privilege and the acquisition of territory, derive from precedents set by the first three presidents rather than from explicit constitutional clauses. Far from dryly legalistic, Raphael's presentation, with its context of the partisan 1790s, ensures the avid interest of early-republic buffs.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2012, American Library Association.)

  • The Washington Post "In Mr. President, historian Ray Raphael explores the birth and early molding of the presidency. The journey is an illuminating one, throwing off wisdom that resonates as the nation prepares to choose its president again. . . . Mr. President provides a rich harvest of insights for reflection during the next five months of political bloodletting."
  • Gilbert Taylor, Booklist "Far from dryly legalistic, Raphael's presentation, with its context of the partisan 1790's, ensures the avid interest of early-republic buffs."
  • Kirkus (*starred review*) "Renowned historian Raphael delivers an authoritative biography of the Constitutional Convention and the herculean task faced by the representatives. . . . Raphael's exceptional history of the beginning years of the United States should be required reading, especially in an election year."
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