Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.
George Washington in Philadelphia
Philadelphia remains slightly miffed that Washington was so enthusiastic about moving the nation's capital next to his home on the Potomac. The fact remains that the era of Washington's eminence was Philadelphia's era; for thirty years Washington and Philadelphia dominated affairs.
Unwritten Constitutional Modification
It is so difficult to amend the Constitution, we mostly don't do it. Our system is to have the Supreme Court migrate slowly through several small adjustments, watching the country respond. Occasionally we have imported new principles, sometimes not entirely wise ones, adopted without the same seasoning.
It may seem a startling focus for a famous war hero, but one of the most important precedents George Washington wanted to establish as America's first president, was that he was determined not to die while in office. His original intention was to serve only one four-year term as president, only accepting a second term with considerable concern that it would increase his chances of dying in office. His reasons are perhaps not totally clear since he repeatedly stated his concern that he had promised the American public that he would retire from public office when he resigned his commission as General and was determined to seem a man of his word. While this sounds a little off-key to modern ears, it must be remembered his resignation as General had caused an international stir, even prompting King George III to exclaim that this must be the greatest man who ever lived. Washington may have sincerely thought he was following the pattern of Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen soldier who declined further public life in order to return to his farm. But in retrospect we can see that for a thousand years before Washington's military resignation it was essentially unheard of for a leader with major power to be removed by any means except death. Regardless of where he might have got the idea, Washington was consciously trying to establish a tradition of public service by those who were natural leaders, dutifully responding to the need of the nation, and stepping down when the service was completed. It was an important day for him and for the nation, when he stood before John Adams in 1796, honorably and humbly turning over supreme power to a successor who had been chosen, by others, in a lawful way. Peaceful succession is part of the original intent of the founder of the Constitution, if anything is.
Some have written that Washington was not our first president, but our eleventh if one counts those elected the presiding officers of the Continental Congress, under the Articles of Confederation. But none of them could be said to be the head of state, and absolutely none of them could be confident the public would re-elect them indefinitely. Washington was not so much aiming for a two-term limit as he was setting a pattern for returning the choice to the people after a stated term, and deploring anyone who sought unlimited power for its own sake. The office should seek the man, not the man seek the office, and even if the public got carried away by adulation, the man should in good time step aside. For over a century the two-term tradition was later unchallenged, until Franklin Roosevelt succumbed to exactly the temptations that Washington foresaw. We have seldom amended the Constitution, but after Roosevelt, it was soon amended to emphasize what so many had previously considered it unnecessary to state.
The idea of a fixed term of office has had an unexpected calming effect on partisanship in America. In parliamentary systems like the British, a prime minister answers weekly questions from his opposition, with a full realization that he can be dismissed from office at any moment he angers a majority into a vote of no-confidence. Under the American Constitution, a recent election mandate eats into the stated time in office, making it progressively less rewarding to evict the officer for the residual time before another election does it automatically. America does indeed have an impeachment process, but in fact, it has been rarely employed. In America, if someone is elected for a specific term, it is almost certain he will serve out the full term. There are times when partisanship seems unlimited, but in fact, we probably have less of it than if we encouraged partisan outcry to go on to evicting an incumbent from office.
Washington was not so successful in promoting another component of his ideal statesman. In his view, a district would naturally select the most prominent citizen available to represent the district, since that person would do it more ably than anyone else and give up the office when duty was completed; that was behind the stated ideal of republican government. Madison was for a time persuaded that such choices should be filtered a second time, with the House of Representatives electing Senators from its midst, but that failed to win approval. In the Eighteenth century, the concept of professional bureaucrats and professional politicians had not yet taken hold. In its place was the fear of "ambitious" leaders, who would be held in check by a tradition of underpaying elected representatives, or even of gentlemen of means who would refuse to accept any pay for doing their duty. It proved unanswerable when ambitious men assailed this republican concept by protesting the establishment of aristocracies, oligarchies, and failure of the upper class to understand the needs and anxieties of the common man. This viewpoint eventually replaced the "natural" local leaders with those who had experienced life in a log cabin or endured the purifying experiences of other hardships. The original idea of the founders was to elect leaders who could not be bought; ambitious men could be bought. When political parties made their appearance, a new thought appeared; perhaps ambitious men could be controlled.
As the practical realities of politics in action began to surface, members of elected bodies with varying degrees of ambition and altruism sought refuge from pressures being applied to them. After all, one of the undeniable implications of the Constitution was that every single member of an elected body had just as much power and rights as every other one. Out of this tension emerged the seniority system, another unwritten rule with the power of reality forging it into an implicit rule. In time, everyone would achieve seniority at the same point in his career, and hence the procedural powers necessary to running the place could be assigned with lessened fear of improper pressure. Newcomers regularly complain about the seniority system but eventually yield to it as the least bad accommodation to necessity. But even minor imperfections will be exploited if a system endures long enough. In this case, political parties in the home states are persuaded that the fruits of seniority might be disproportionately available to them if they elect young candidates and keep them in office indefinitely. Eventually, such stalwarts can rise to positions that allow them to reward the home district. This has the interesting consequence of creating political families, whose senior representative acquires the power to select his son or grandson to take his place in the rising chain of command. That's not as bad as an inherited aristocracy, perhaps, but it has several similarities.
Originally published: Wednesday, November 26, 2008; most-recently modified: Monday, July 22, 2019