Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive


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But Washington and the Federalists were rightly terrified of war with the powerful British Empire.


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Washington unilaterally proclaimed that the United States would be neutral. The power to make treaties, they said, was jointly lodged in the president and the Senate; how could Washington unilaterally interpret or change the terms of the treaty of alliance with France? Although Congress was limited to its enumerated powers, the executive could do literally anything that the Constitution did not expressly forbid. In times of crisis, power flows to the executive; too rarely does it flow back.

T he system that the Framers developed for electing the president was, unfortunately, as flawed as their design of the office itself. But he immediately conceded that popular election would hurt the South, which had many slaves and few voters relative to the North. Scholars still debate whether the Framers foresaw the prospect of a contested presidential election, followed by a peaceful shift of power. Remember that, as Shakespeare pointed out in Richard II , kings left office feet first. Some members of the founding generation believed that a duly elected president would simply be reelected until his death, at which point the vice president would take his place, much like the Prince of Wales ascending to the throne.

Perhaps as a result, the mechanics of presidential election laid out in the Constitution quickly showed themselves to be utterly unworkable. The text of Article II contained no provision for a presidential ticket—with one candidate for president and one for vice president. Instead, each elector was supposed to vote for any two presidential candidates; the candidate who received the largest majority of votes would be president; the runner-up would be vice president.

In , this ungainly system nearly brought the country to civil war. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as a team; their electors were expected to vote for both of them.


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That would have given Jefferson the larger majority, with Burr winning the vice presidency. But due to a still-mysterious misunderstanding, all the electors voted for both candidates, producing a tie in the electoral vote and throwing the election to a House vote. More important, the imbroglio exposed the fragility of the election procedure. This was the first patch on Article II, but far from the last—the procedures for presidential election and succession were changed by constitutional amendment in , , , and None of this fine-tuning has been able to fix the system.

In , , , and , the Electoral College produced winners who received fewer popular votes than the losers, and it came startlingly close to doing so again in ; in , , and , it also produced prolonged uncertainty and the prospect of civil unrest—or the fact of it. Even when the election system works passably, a president-elect must endure another indefensible feature of the succession process.

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In England, a new prime minister takes office the day after parliamentary elections; in France, a newly elected president is inaugurated within a week or two. But when Americans choose a new leader, the victor waits 11 weeks—nearly a quarter-year—to assume office. The presidential interregnum is a recurrent period of danger. This long delay nearly destroyed the nation after the election. By March , when Lincoln took office, the Civil War was nearly lost, though officially it had not even begun. In , Franklin Roosevelt crushed the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, but had to wait four months to take office.

During that period, Hoover attempted to force the president-elect to abandon his proposals for economic reform. Roosevelt refused to commit himself, but the resulting uncertainty led the financial system to the brink of collapse. The Twentieth Amendment, ratified in , cut the interregnum nearly in half, but 11 weeks is still too long. After his defeat in , President George H. Bush committed U. The mission turned toxic, and Bill Clinton withdrew the troops the following year. Clinton was criticized for his military leadership, perhaps rightly—but the Constitution should not have permitted a repudiated president to commit his successor to an international conflict that neither the new president nor Congress had approved.

As the elder Bush did, an interregnum president retains the power of life or death over the nation. As Clinton did, an interregnum president may issue controversial or corrupt pardons. In either case, the voters have no means of holding their leader accountable. Taking advantage of this deficiency, runaway presidents have at times committed the country to courses of action that the voters never approved—or ones they even rejected.

Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive

John Tyler, who was never elected president, was the first runaway, in William Henry Harrison had served only a few weeks; after his death, the obscure Tyler governed in open defiance of the Whig Party that had put him on the ticket, pressing unpopular proslavery policies that helped set the stage for the Civil War. Andrew Johnson was the next unelected runaway. Politically, he had been an afterthought. He treated the party that had nominated him with such scorn that many contemporaries came to believe he was preparing to use the Army to break up Congress by force.

After Johnson rebuffed any attempt at compromise, the Republican House impeached him, but the Senate, by one vote, refused to remove him from office. American political commentators tend to think loosely about exertions of presidential authority. The paradigm cases are Lincoln rallying the nation after Fort Sumter, and Roosevelt, about a year before Pearl Harbor, using pure executive power to transfer American destroyers to embattled Britain in exchange for use of certain British bases. Because these great leaders used their authority broadly, the thinking goes, assertions of executive prerogative are valid and desirable.

Certainly there are times when presidential firmness is better than rapid changes in policy to suit public opinion. But not all shifts in public opinion are delusive or temporary.

Article excerpt

An executive should have some independence, but a presidency that treats the people as irrelevant is not democratic. It is authoritarian. Lincoln and Roosevelt asserted emergency powers while holding popular mandates. Lincoln had just won an election that also provided him with a handy majority in Congress; Roosevelt was enormously popular, and in his party outnumbered the opposition 3-to-1 in the Senate and by nearly seats in the House. But sometimes a president with little or no political mandate uses the office to further a surprising, obscure, or discredited political agenda.

Under these circumstances, what poses as bold leadership is in fact usurpation. When that happens, presidents too often do what George Bush did in —simply persist in the conduct that has alienated the country. Intoxicated by the image of the hero-president, unencumbered by any direct political check, stubborn presidents in this situation have no incentive to change course. When the voters turn sharply against a president mid-term, his leadership loses some or all of its legitimacy, and the result can be disastrous.

Clinton was decisively repudiated in November After the election, the administration and the new Republican Congress remained so far apart on funding decisions that the government had to shut down for 26 days in and Showing Average rating 3. Rating details. More filters. Sort order. Nov 01, David Schwartz rated it really liked it. Anyone interested in how we came to have a President must read this book. The author draws extensively from the Madison notes on the Constitutional Convention, and from the diaries of Gouverneur Morris, who was central to the creation of the office.

Quite illuminating, especially since he argues persuasively that the office was created not through some overarching political theory but through a complex give and take between those who feared a strong central authority and those who believed that Anyone interested in how we came to have a President must read this book. Quite illuminating, especially since he argues persuasively that the office was created not through some overarching political theory but through a complex give and take between those who feared a strong central authority and those who believed that the US would not survive without one.

It also traces the first three Presidents to show how and why the office became as powerful as it is today - indeed, those who think of Jefferson as a states' rights kind of guy will be surprised at the way he usurped Presidential authority during his administration. Mar 27, Travis rated it really liked it Shelves: jk-public-admin-us.

A great look at the founders' divergent views on what our chief executive s should look like, how our current setup was implemented, and all of the discussion, rancor, and maneuvering it took to accomplish all of it. Includes some explanatory material concerning the Electoral College and the Hamiltonian aversion to popular rule.

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Highly recommended A great look at the founders' divergent views on what our chief executive s should look like, how our current setup was implemented, and all of the discussion, rancor, and maneuvering it took to accomplish all of it. An incredibly interesting history of why there is a chief executive, what the framers intended, and the actualities of what the office of the president became in the first 20 yrs after. The differences in opinion and expectations between the congressional delegates shows the reason that the power of the president is what it is today even if it was always intended to be that way.

Oct 02, Larry rated it really liked it. This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.

Ray Raphael, Author at Journal of the American Revolution

Insightful book on the Constitutional Convention. The Articles of Confederation are discarded and the Constitution created during the long hot Philadelphia summer of NY's Gouvernor Morris is shown as a decisive player in creating the strong executive post. A lot of happenstance in the genesis of the post and its powers.

Some random choices changed it all. A very interesting read. Very interesting. I always wondered why Alexander Hamilton was never president, but given his penchant for monarchy-type rule, now I know.

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Jan 23, Sarah Mellington-Smith rated it liked it. People need to read this and 'educate' themselves! Wendy rated it it was amazing Jan 15, Hdkruger rated it it was amazing Apr 22, Tom rated it liked it Jan 04, Feb 05, Brian Gunderson rated it it was amazing.

Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

I liked the narrative parts of this book that take readers inside the action of the framers' development of executive power in the U.

Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive
Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive

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