The little-known story of the dramatic political maneuverings and personalities behind the creation of the office of the president, with ramifications that continue to this day.
On June 1, 1787, when the Federal Convention first talked of establishing a new executive branch, James Wilson moved that “the Executive consist of a single person.” To us this might sound obvious, but not so at the time. Americans had just won their independence from an autocratic monarch, and they feared that a single leader might commandeer power or oppress citizens. Should the framers even flirt with one-man rule? For the first and only time that summer, there was silence. Not one of the loquacious delegates dared speak up.
Eventually Benjamin Franklin rose, then others. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Mason joined the debate, and for three months their deliberations continued. By early September the framers had made up their minds. A chief executive, the “president,” would be appointed by Congress to serve for seven years. He could not be reelected, and his powers were tightly constrained. He could neither negotiate treaties nor appoint Supreme Court justices and ambassadors. The Senate would do all that.
Suddenly, less than two weeks before the convention adjourned, all this changed. How? And who made it happen? Enter Gouverneur Morris, the flamboyant, peg-legged hero of this saga, who pushed through his agenda with amazing political savvy and not a little bluster and deceit. For the first time, by focusing closely on the give-and-take of the convention’s dynamics, Ray Raphael reveals how politics and personalities cobbled together a lasting, but flawed, institution.
Charting the presidency as it evolved during the administrations of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, Raphael shows how, given the Constitution’s broad outlines, the president’s powers could easily be augmented but rarely diminished. Today we see the result—an office that has become more sweeping, more powerful, and more inherently partisan than the framers ever intended. And the issues of 1787—whether the Electoral College, the president’s war powers, or the extent of executive authority—continue to stir our political debates.
About the Author
Ray Raphael’s fifteen books include A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (2001) and Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past (2004). He is also coeditor of Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation (2011). Having taught at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods and all subjects in a one-room public high school, he is now a full-time researcher and writer. He lives in Northern California.
“In Mr. President, historian Ray Raphael explores the birth and early molding of the presidency. The journey is an illuminating one, throwing off wisdom that resonates as the nation prepares to choose its president again. . . . Mr. President provides a rich harvest of insights for reflection during the next five months of political bloodletting.” —The Washington Post
“In Mr. President, Raphael . . . provides a careful, engaging and at times surprising account of the origins and early evolution of what is now the most powerful political office in the world. . . . Mr. President also presents lively and lucid lessons in civics.” —Glenn Altschuler, Tulsa World
“In a time when many find themselves questioning the efficacy of the presidency (seemingly regardless of party affiliation), the eligibility of future candidates, and the efficiency of the election process, a look back at the origins of the highest office in the U.S. is particularly timely. In this engaging narrative, Raphael elucidates the goings-on of the Federal Convention. . . . Meticulously detailed and thoroughly researched—Raphael cites the papers of many icons of the nation’s birth, such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin—this is a valuable read for Democrats and Republicans, as well as historians and those interested in contemporary American politics.” —Publishers Weekly
“Far from dryly legalistic, Raphael’s presentation, with its context of the partisan 1790’s, ensures the avid interest of early-republic buffs.” —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist
“Renowned historian Raphael delivers an authoritative biography of the Constitutional Convention and the herculean task faced by the representatives. . . . Raphael’s exceptional history of the beginning years of the United States should be required reading, especially in an election year.” —Kirkus (*starred review*)
"[A]n insightful narrative. . . . The author's lucid treatment explores in grand detail how delegates . . . constructed what became the most powerful office is US politics. . . . Raphael's superb study is well suited as a general introduction to the topic." —CHOICE
"It’s not easy to find something new to say about the most powerful office in the world. Ray Raphael succeeds through the ingenious expedient of taking us back to the time when we had a country but no president, and reminding us how much work it took to fill that void. All fans of presidential history will need this book." –Ted Widmer, Director, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University and author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World
"This is a fascinating and fresh narrative that takes the reader from the fierce debates establishing the federal executive at the Constitutional Convention through Thomas Jefferson’s election which tested the framers’ handiwork. It makes you wonder why it’s never been told before." –Joyce Appleby, author of The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
"Ray Raphael’s Mr. President presents to the reader a careful, lively, and in many respects, wholly surprising history of the origins and early development of the American presidency. His analysis of the years immediately preceding the Constitutional Convention of 1787 helps us understand better why the job of creating an American presidency was such a difficult one for the framers; and his meticulous examination of the records of the Convention yields a wholly novel conclusion: the man who played the most important role in determining the character of America’s executive branch was not James Madison or James Wilson, but the flamboyant, outspoken delegate from Pennsylvania, Gouverneur Morris. This book will command the attention of both professional historians and the general reader for decades to come." –Richard Beeman, author of Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution
"Ray Raphael’s Mr. President is a brilliant analysis of why our Founding Fathers thought a Chief Executive was necessary for the American democratic experiment to flourish. The shrill arguments between Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Mason (and other law wizards) are recounted in these pages in vivid detail. A classic work of history!" –Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America