Omnipotens Presidensus

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In
studying history, in particular the history of Western Europe in
the centuries prior to the American Revolution – as well as the
evolution of political philosophy in the 17th and 18th
centuries – one becomes informed of the influences that shaped the
Founding Generation. Without re-examining every detail in the collected
works of Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Washington and Monroe,
it does seem fairly clear that these thinkers dreaded absolute power
and placed no trust in individuals or groups unfettered by the rule
of law. For this reason they created divided government and proscription
of powers, checks and balances.

Their
forsight and fears were prescient – as within a decade of the Constitution
the excesses of absolutism were on vivid display in the reddened
streets of Paris, where government had succumbed to Rousseau's doctrine
of the "General Will," better known today as "the
Will of the People." My suspicion is aroused whenever I hear
a politician use this phrase – as in, "we must continue to
recount until we ascertain the will of the people."

The
presidency, that institution which executes the laws (not the abstract
"will") is but one in a triumvirate of power. Keep in
mind what power actually means in reality, on the ground, in peoples
real lives. It is the power to coerce, to enforce, in some degree
or other. The Founders knew from the hard lessons of history that
this power to coerce had to be held in very tight check.

We
know the early history of the Republic – the tensions between centralism
and the periphery. During this period the power of the presidency
waxed and waned, but mostly towards greater power – especially in
periods of war. The big change came in the 1860s, when Lincoln and
the Republicans defied the Constitution in order to save it. Lincoln
himself said as much in defending the suspension of the writ of
habeus corpus, suppressing dissent, arresting and exiling opposition
politicians (in the North) and suppressing the Maryland legislature.
Not to mention sending armies into the seceding states. These acts
will be debated for ever – but the point here is that the power
of the presidency was enhanced, distorted and exaggerated in ways
that changed it forever.

From
the 1860s onward, the original separation of powers and equal co-governance
has been dramatically altered, resulting in the very concentration
of power (ability to coerce) which the creators of the Constitution
sought to guard against.

With
every successive war the occupant of the White House has grasped
more power. The Twentieth Century has seen the further consolidation
of power in the Executive, augmented by the new phenomenon of celebrity,
which is just a reincarnation of the old phenomenon of allegiance
to the strong man or the cult of personality. What used to be a
nation of citizens in the model of the ancient Athenians, has been
eroded by war powers, emergencies, propaganda and usurpations into
a mass population of quasi-citizen consumers, largely misinformed,
easily manipulated and reduced to being brain washed into believing
that democracy and freedom is about voting every four years between
two guys in a decision about who you dislike least.

Either
way, with each election and subsequent ratification of legitimacy
the presidency gathers an almost omniscient power. From the modest
and humble servant, the citizen-soldier George Washington, we have
arrived at the great Father of the People, or if Hillary gets her
way, the Great Mother. Just behind the facade of geniality and overt
empathy sit the agents of coercion and enforcement: a personal army
(FBI, ATF, Secret Service, IRS, NSA) which dwarfs the praetorian
guard of any tyrant in the history of the world.

Witness
the last eight years, which saw more military excursions and interventions
than in the previous four administrations. Clinton attacked Serbia
without a declaration of war and continued to bomb that country
despite Congressional votes to stop. Regardless the merits of the
intervention, which may be honestly debated, it was a clearly unconstitutional
act that only a few Congressmen and journalists protested.

We
have become accustomed to Executive usurpations, so much so, that
they have practically taken on the force of law in practice.

But
there is reason for mirth this Yuletide season. Whichever one of
the latest lusters for power accedes to the throne, that throne
will be just a wee bit smaller and tighter and tarnished. Either
man may be seen as a pretender – diminished, cheapened, in a word – human. Anything that reduces the power of the presidency, anything
that restrains the occupant of the office, whoever he is, is to
be welcomed, even if with only a small sigh of mere temporary relief.

The
United States may or may not be the last best hope for mankind.
History is long. Civilizations come and go. But right now, along
with a handful of free democracies with viable institutions in Western
Europe, its all we've got. There are many reasons to fear trans-national
corporations, ruthless tycoons and financial despots – but ask yourself,
where is the greatest concentration of power? Who holds the power
to tax, to coerce, to confiscate, to emprison, to conscript, to
wage war?

The
Founders knew well the lust for power in the human heart and understood
that government institutions needed to be held in strict control.
We have allowed things to get way, way out of control. Maybe this
deadlocked election, frustrating and exasperating as it seems at
first glance, is a blessing in disguise.

When
I hear a justice, journalist, pundit or lawyer talking about "determining
the intent of the voter" or "looking for the will of the
people" I hear the echos of a thousand feet on the cobblestones
of La Place de la Concorde and the shrill sound of metal slicing
into flesh.

November
25, 2000

Ron
Maxwell, film writer, director, and producer, is best known for
his landmark film “Gettysburg.”
Ron is currently involved in preproduction work for his next two
feature films, “Gods & Generals” and “Last Full Measure,” the
prequel and sequel to “Gettysburg,” altogether comprising an epic
Civil War Trilogy.

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