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.