Bye Bye, Bozo

From The Washington Post:

The Biden campaign has said that should [you know who] refuse to leave on Jan. 20, “the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House” . . . 

But weren’t the Founders obsessed with the encroaching nature of tyranny [e.g. presidents who won’t go away]? Didn’t they worry constantly about a president having too much power?

Most of them did, yes, though not all. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton floated the idea of presidents serving for life, but when put to a vote, the proposal failed 4-6.

The power that scared many founders the most was that of commander-in-chief.

Though not necessarily tied to an election loss, ”there was a lot of discussion of the possibility that a president with control of the Army might refuse to relinquish power,” said Michael McConnell, a constitutional law professor at Stanford . . .

At the Virginia ratifying convention, Patrick Henry said, “If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for 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 meditation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design.”

Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the preamble to the Constitution, warned that if a president was limited to one term, he might “be unwilling to quit his exaltation … he will be in possession of the sword, a civil war will ensue, and the commander of the victorious army on which ever side, will be the despot of America.”

Perhaps most ominously, one prominent Pennsylvanian identifying himself only as “An Old Whig,” wrote about this in Anti-Federalist No. 70, and is worth quoting at length:

“Let us suppose this man to be a favorite with his army, and that they are unwilling to part with their beloved commander in chief … and we have only to suppose one thing more, that this man is without the virtue, the moderation and love of liberty which possessed the mind of our late general [Washington] – and this country will be involved at once in war and tyranny.

… We may also suppose, without trespassing upon the bounds of probability, that this man may not have the means of supporting, in private life, the dignity of his former station; that like Caesar, he may be at once ambitious and poor, and deeply involved in debt. Such a man would die a thousand deaths rather than sink from the heights of splendor and power, into obscurity and wretchedness.”

Some Founders who supported the Constitution still predicted that it wouldn’t stop a president from seizing power.

“The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” Benjamin Franklin said, referring to Washington. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards. The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”

So why didn’t the founders plan for this particular scenario, of a president simply denying that he had lost an election? Because they couldn’t even fathom it, [according to Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University].

“They couldn’t fathom two things: a person who had become president who was so utterly lacking in classical virtue that they would deign or dare to put their own interests above the unity of the country. And the second thing is, I think they couldn’t fathom how any president who would so vividly display disdain for the unity of the country, and mock and undermine the legitimacy of American democracy, why that person [wouldn’t have] already been impeached and removed from office.”


But the Founders never imagined the Republican Party.

Anyway, it’s much more likely our president will have vacated the White House long before January 20th. He now spends most of his time watching TV, all alone, sulking. Next stop, Xanadu.


American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis

American Creation is an excellent summary of what Ellis calls “the Founding Era”, defined as the 28 years between the start of the War for Independence in 1775 and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The author’s method is to focus on six key periods or events: the 15 months between the violence at Lexington and Concord and the signing of the Declaration of Independence; the Continental Army’s winter at Valley Forge, “a pivotal moment” when George Washington realized he could not win the war by winning full-scale battles with the British; the political battle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists to ratify the Constitution; the approval of the Treaty of New York in 1791 between the United States and the Creek Nation; the beginning of party politics with the creation of the original Republican Party by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, mainly in response to Alexander Hamilton’s proposed Bank of the United States; and finally the Louisiana Purchase, when President Jefferson doubled the size of the United States but set the stage for the Civil War by ignoring the issue of slavery’s expansion to the new territory.

Being relatively ignorant about the history of this period, it was especially surprising to read about Thomas Jefferson’s checkered career and the creation of the first Republican Party, which later became the Democratic-Republican Party and eventually split into two parties, the Democrats and the Whigs (it’s ironic that the current Republican Party is known as the Grand Old Party, even though the Democratic Party is 30 years older). Jefferson and his follower Madison engaged in all kinds of bad behavior premised on the bizarre idea that people like Washington and John Adams wanted to restore monarchy to America.

The other especially surprising story is the attempt by members of Washington’s administration to create a policy that would protect the interests of the Indians east of the Mississippi. The Creek Nation occupied much of the American South and was lead by Alexander McGillivray, an expert negotiator who was only one-quarter Indian. McGillivray eventually agreed to the Treaty of New York, which reserved a large part of the South for the Indians and included the promise that Federal troops would stop any further settlement in the area by American colonists. As with most treaties between the United States and the Indians, the agreement was immediately broken by the Federal government, mostly because there weren’t enough Federal troops to enforce it.   

One of Ellis’s principal conclusions is that the struggle over the balance of power between the central government and the states was built into the Constitution from the beginning and has defined much of American history, even to the present day. My conclusion is that we’ve been lucky to do as well as we have, given the political and economic conflicts that have existed since the Founding Era and will apparently never be resolved.