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We the People: THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION AFTER 200 YEARS : Mr. President : The sheer force of George Washington's presence shaped the powers of the office.

September 13, 1987|DAVID LAUTER | Times Staff Writer

On Aug. 18, 1787, the people of Philadelphia awoke to a most unusual article in the Pennsylvania Herald--a leaked report from the Constitutional Convention. In three months of deliberations, it was the first word on the convention's proceedings that directly quoted a delegate.

From its opening in late May, the convention's business had been shrouded in careful secrecy. Inevitably, the secrecy had bred rumors, and the statement published in the Herald was directed at the most pernicious of those rumors: "We are well informed," it began, of "reports idly circulating, that it is intended to establish a monarchical government. . . . Tho' we cannot, affirmatively, tell you what we are doing, we can, negatively, tell you what we are not doing--we never once thought of a king."

The extraordinary disclaimer reflected the fact that an extraordinarily difficult topic for debate in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787--as it chanced to be in Washington during the summer of 1987, and many summers in between--was the power of the President.

'Most Difficult' Issue

How much control should the chief executive wield? Who should elect him? What should be his role in foreign affairs? What about the appointment of judges? On the method of election alone, the delegates in Philadelphia voted 60 times.

In delegate James Wilson's view the presidency was "the most difficult (issue) of all on which we have had to decide."

And the resolution of that issue, while it would affect almost everyone in the original 13 states and cast as long a shadow down through succeeding generations as any decision the Founding Fathers made, was decided on surprisingly personal grounds. The powers of the presidency set down in the final draft of the Constitution were significantly influenced by the delegates' feelings about one individual--George Washington.

As the convention's presiding officer, Washington sat in almost total silence from beginning to end, but it was universally assumed--both by the delegates in Philadelphia and, later by Americans in all walks of life as they deliberated over ratification--that he would become the first President.

What swung the convention toward a powerful chief executive was the delegates' extraordinary regard for Washington's personal character.

Shapes Idea of Power

In fact, delegate Pierce Butler of South Carolina complained afterwards, the powers granted to the President by the Constitution were "full great, greater than I was disposed to make them. The members cast their eyes towards General Washington as President; and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his virtue."

James Monroe, the future fifth President, wrote of Washington: "His influence carried this Government. For my part, I have a boundless confidence in him nor have I any reason to believe he will ever furnish occasion for withdrawing it."

The confidence that Washington could be trusted not to abuse great power was based on more than mere conjecture. In February of 1783, the commander in chief of the Continental Army was encamped with his troops near Newburgh, N.Y. The soldiers had accomplished miracles, having by then defeated the British at Yorktown, but they were near the point of mutiny over Congress' failure to pay them. As tensions mounted, his officers presented Washington with what amounted to a plan for a coup. Washington refused to participate. The officers decided to go ahead without him and called a meeting for March 15.

Pleads With Officers

Shortly after the meeting began, Washington unexpectedly strode in. "Do not open the flood gates of civil discord," he pleaded with his men. Hoping to assuage their concerns further, he announced that he would read to them a letter from a member of Congress on the question of pay for the troops. And then, this man of great reserve and considerable vanity took his glasses from his pocket. "I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country," he explained. The assembled officers wept.

As the delegates in Philadelphia well knew, history contains more Caesars than generals who said no to absolute power. Two decades later, for example, Napoleon, faced with a similar entreaty, had himself crowned emperor. Washington's refusal to go along with his officers was crucial to the establishment of a republic in America, and reports of his courage and his dedication to civilian rule spread rapidly through the new nation.

Even in Washington's own time, his life was becoming the stuff of legend. Today, the layers of myth lie thicker still. "No American is more completely misunderstood than George Washington," wrote his biographer James Thomas Flexner.

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