”If your American Chief (President) be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it or him to render himself absolute: The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him; and it will be the subject of long mediation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design; and, Sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens? I would rather infinitely, and I am sure most of this Convention are of the same opinion, have a King, Lords, and Commons, than a Government so replete with such insupportable evils.”
Thus Patrick ‘give me liberty or give me death’ Henry, founding father and one of the key anti-Federalists, the group of revolutionaries who fought a desperate battle against the ratification of the Constitution in the wake of the War of Independence. Henry and his fellow anti-federalists believed that the nascent country was departing from its initial vision as a union of free states, and becoming the very thing it had sought to escape – an infant imperial power ruled by an (elected) despot.
The most conservative of the American revolutionaries had believed that the routing of the English would be followed by the creation of an American king – and even John Adams had suggested that the official form of address to the new President be ‘his royal highness’. Anti-federalists believed that that the only way to prevent the US drifting from liberty was to give the states veto power over national legislation they did not like, thus making it practically impossible for the Federal government to project power either internally or abroad. The Presidency would be a sort of co-ordinating body, managing international diplomatic relations, and waging war – but only when authorised to do so by Congress.
The anti-federalists lost that debate. Were they to come back today they would doubtless believe themselves vindicated. Two hundred years after the debate between Federalists and anti-Federalists, the Presidency may well be divvied up between two families over the course of a quarter-century – if Hillary Clinton were to win two terms, by 2016 one third of all Americans will have lived their entire lives under either a Bush or a Clinton – and the powers of the Presidency have grown formally and otherwise, to the point where the President, by the use of ‘signing statements’, statements of intent regarding Congressional laws, can effectively ignore much of what is set out by the other branches of power.
Is this the tyranny that Henry and others feared? Or simply a recognition that a trillion dollar economy with a nuclear arsenal cannot be run along the lines developed by an eighteenth century agrarian republic? What, in the twenty first century, is the US Presidency?
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