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Why do we have a president, anyway?

September 9, 2012

Kenneth C. Davis in The Washington Post:

Setting out to sell the unratified Constitution to a wary nation nearly 225 years ago, Alexander Hamilton argued that the executive of this newly designed government must possess that trait above all else. Chances are, Hamilton’s vision of a “vigorous executive” did not include Theodore Roosevelt skinny-dipping in the Potomac River, Ronald Reagan chain-sawing brush on his ranch or George W. Bush careening down mountain-bike paths. He certainly didn’t imagine Barack Obama playing hoops.

But in this election year, as the nation nears the 225th anniversary of Constitution Day — which marks the document’s adoption on Sept. 17, 1787 — it is worth remembering that the very idea of a president was once as novel as the republic itself.

Today, we take the presidency for granted. From Rose Garden photo-ops and the commander in chief bounding down the steps of Air Force One, to the annual Kabuki performance called the State of the Union, the office and its trappings seem as if they always existed.

But in that steamy Philadelphia summer of 1787, as the Constitution was secretly being drafted and the plan for the presidency invented — “improvised” is more apt — the delegates weren’t sure what they wanted this new office to be. To patriots who had fought a war against a king, the thought of one person wielding great power, at the head of a standing army, gave them the willies.

Still, Hamilton asserted in the Federalist Papers that this experimental executive must have “energy” — a quality characterized by “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch.”  [More]

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