Editor’s Note: Joseph J. Ellis is an American historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Founding Brothers.” He is the author of the new book “American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us.” The views expressed here are the author’s. View more opinion on CNN.
We have been headed towards a constitutional crisis ever since the improbable election of Donald Trump in 2016. It is psychologically impossible for Trump to acknowledge any limits on his executive authority because his mind cannot process information that is not aligned with his personal agenda.
Any attempt to engage Trump in a serious conversation about the powers of the presidency, therefore, is a waste of time and energy. He has never read the Constitution, is in fact cognitively incapable of doing so. For Trump, ignorance is not just bliss; it is the justification for his belief that evidence itself is irrelevant.
And so, as Trump contemplates declaring a national security crisis in order to build his wall on the Mexican border, or sending American troops to Venezuela without congressional authorization, or ordering the incoming attorney general to deep-six the Mueller report, I suggest that his White House counsel, or perhaps his daughter and son-in-law, read him the following story, perhaps at bedtime or before his afternoon nap. I have kept the story short and simple. Tell him it is about ghosts.
There were two ghosts hovering over the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. One of the ghosts, slavery, was too threatening to mention out loud. (Terms like “that species of property” were needed to circumvent the more dreaded term.) The other ghost, monarchy, was not just on everyone’s mind, but also on their lips. Whenever the question of executive power came up, they could not stop worrying out loud about monarchy.
It was the great danger to be avoided at all costs, the blinking red light on the republican road, the epitome of everything the American Revolution had claimed to reject. On June 18 Alexander Hamilton crossed the line during a six-hour speech that his ablest biographer, Ron Chernow, has called “brilliant, courageous and, in retrospect, completely daft.” Hamilton recommended that the president should be an elected king who served for life. For the rest of his own life, Hamilton was labeled a monarchist, a stain that never went away.
Delegates quickly discovered that they did not agree on any of the most basic questions about the office of the presidency: should it be one person or a trinity representing three different regions of the country? Should the person be elected by the Congress, the state legislatures, or the people-at-large? Could he be re-elected? How long should the person serve – three, four, or seven years? Was the president primarily a symbolic figure, one who merely presides? Or did he possess delineated powers over domestic and foreign policy? If so, what were those delineated powers?
Throughout these difficult debates, support for any robust expression of executive power faced a solid phalanx of critics who charged its advocates with creating what Edmund Randolph of Virginia described as “the fetus of monarchy.” He pleaded with his fellow delegates to “resist using the British government as our prototype.” Hugh Williamson of North Carolina went further, predicting that any singular executive was likely to evolve into a king, and their job should be “to postpone that event as long as possible.”
Delegates like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, who argued that the obvious inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation could only be remedied by a Constitution articulating a more fully empowered executive branch, were accused of sowing the seeds of tyranny, abandoning the republican faith, defiling “the spirit of ’76.” Any explicit projection of power by an American president was placed on the permanent defensive throughout the convention.
All the worrisome questions were eventually resolved, or artfully finessed, by hard-fought compromises that left no one fully satisfied. (That was especially true of the weird contraption called the Electoral College.) But the delegate who had the greatest impact on Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which outlined the powers of the executive branch, said nothing at all.
He did not need to. Everyone knew that George Washington was destined to become the first president. Everyone also knew that he could be trusted with power because he had demonstrated such a preternatural flair for surrendering it. Everyone agreed that he would never betray “the spirit of ’76” because, more than any man alive, he embodied it.
The chief powers granted the president in the Constitution, most of which focused on foreign policy, were drafted with Washington in mind. He would serve as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy,” a role he had already played in the revolutionary war. The authority to declare war, however, resided in the Congress. He could “make Treaties,” but only if “two thirds of the Senators present concur.” All his appointment powers were subject to “the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” The president could do more than preside, to be sure, but he was more a prime minister than a king.
A persuasive case can be made that Washington’s presidency itself, even more than the words in the Constitution, defined the extent and limits of executive power, because it rendered palpable what those words actually meant. Especially Washington’s actions at the end, not his words, left a republican message incompatible with any lingering vestiges of royalty. Always an aficionado of exits, his voluntary departure from office in 1796 did more than set the two-term precedent, later codified in the 22nd Amendment. He was also telling us, by showing us, that all presidents, no matter how indispensable, were disposable. They came and went. Unlike monarchs, they had limited lifespans. The primal source of sovereignty in the American republic was not the president, but “the people.”
We cannot find it written anywhere in the Constitution, but Washington became the one-man embodiment of the self-evident truth that, by definition, required no proof; namely, in a republic, unlike a monarchy, no one can claim divinely inspired omniscience or to stand above the law. And anyone who made that claim was thereby announcing that he or she is unqualified to serve.