Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Founders Head For The Kitchen

The Founders Head For The Kitchen

There is a great story about George Washington’s taste in food. He, and Martha, were apparently fond of English-style cooking, and particularly meat pies.  For Christmas one year, their kitchen turned out a favorite—a savory delicacy made of a bushel of flour for crust, stuffed with five different types of boiled fowl—pigeon, partridge, duck, goose, turkey, all baked on high heat for four hours.

When you think about how the Founders actually came to create the elegant mechanism known as the Constitution, you should disavail yourself of the notion that it emerged, somehow whole, as a product of a few men’s transcendent genius, arrived at after erudite discussion at the very  highest plane of thinking.  Rather, think of George and Martha’s groaning table, and all the grinding, steaming, and plucking that brought them holiday cheer. 

It is Spring, 1788, and George Washington has left Mount Vernon and arrived in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention.  He is, as always, punctual in the extreme, and so is one of the first people to get there.  Ultimately, nearly eighty delegates join him, and when they are not eating, drinking, dancing, and otherwise entertaining themselves (Philadelphia being a party town) they get down to the business at hand, conceptualizing the framework of a new government.  While much of the work is being done in the kitchen below, Washington is the center of attention, and the elephant in the room.     

It is hard for any of us to fully grasp the esteem in which Washington was held.  As a frame of reference, in 1788 there were no political parties, so we didn’t have 2/3 of the country immediately forming a fixed, partisan opinion.  There were no trails of emails or text messages, no inappropriate tweets, no votes on obscure riders that could be held against them, and no primary voters demanding fealty to a long set of articles of faith.  People judged Washington on his service to the fledgling nation, which was considered unsurpassed.   They saw him as incorruptible man, honor-bound to duty first.   Poems and songs were written about him, in the very best of 18th Century fulsomeness.  

Whether the popular opinion of Washington as a kind of a demi-god was entirely reality-based was irrelevant.  It existed, and was pervasive.  The strength of that belief had a profound effect on not just the ordinary citizen, but also the assembled delegates at the Constitutional Convention.  

To start with, his presence there gave legitimacy to the entire undertaking. If Washington attended, the population would assume that the results of the Convention would align with their needs—people assumed he would act as a sort of a tribune, in the old Roman sense of the word, a person who literally had the responsibility of protecting the plebeian citizen from arbitrary action by the patricians.  To those who had previously been subjects of a distant King, subject to his whims, his soldiers, and his taxes, this was a critical point.  

Second, Washington, was the obvious person to fill the role of chief Executive—if that role was actually agreed to by the Convention—there was none under the Articles of Confederation.  But that created a different set of stresses for the participants, because they hadn’t defined exactly what they wanted an Executive to do—or if they even wanted one.  There were really three points of view represented at the Convention and in the thirteen states.  Some believed the Articles were perfectly fine, except perhaps for a little tweaking.  Others accepted the idea that a new government was needed, with an executive office, but not a new strong Executive—whatever powers the head of state might have would be substantially circumscribed by a Legislature that would dominate. The third group conceive an Executive closer to the type of Presidency we have today.

All three of these points of view had their passionate, and eloquent adherents.  Roger Sherman of Connecticut (one of only two delegates—Franklin was the other—from a working class background) was profoundly skeptical of a centralized form of government.  John Dickenson of Delaware (who had opposed Independence initially in the Continental Congress) argued that the defects in the Articles should be fixed—by amending the Articles, not replacing them.  A majority of the Virginian and Pennsylvanian delegations supported what was known as the “Virginia Plan”  (mostly drafted by Madison) to establish a national government consisting of legislative, judicial and executive branches.  Within the group of supporters of an Executive, there was a split on actual authority, because the Virginia Plan seemed to take a considerable amount of what we think of as Executive power (war and peace, foreign affairs, pardons, etc.) from Congress and move it into the Executive branch, and, not surprisingly, not every future Congressman and Senator was all that enthusiastic about that. 

Figuratively, and literally in the middle of this, sat Washington himself.  Literally, because he was the (silent) Speaker of the convention.  Figuratively, because the Executive powers that the delegates were debating were going to be his to use.  Not to stretch a metaphor, but elephant in the room was particularly large.

This created an enormous stress, perhaps even creative stress.  Washington wasn’t going to take a sinecure, and everyone knew that.  Franklin had made that mistake by accepting the (toothless) Governorship of Pennsylvania, and a good General learns from history.  To get Washington to leave Mount Vernon and his personal interests and responsibilities, they would have to give him a real job.  And to give the Executive, and perhaps, by extension, the entire new form of government the intellectual and emotional heft and legitimacy it needed, they had to have Washington’s blessing—and that would be best represented by his heading it.  An unhappy,  taciturn Washington returning to his figs and vines wouldn’t really do.

But, the delegates were also faced with another issue—while the people (and most of them) trusted Washington personally to carry out his duties with responsibility, with restraint, and with honor, they had no idea who his successor would be.  Making the job big enough for Washington to accept might mean giving it more power than they would have been willing to give to a lesser man—and literally everyone who would succeed him was going to be thought of as a lesser man. 

Worse, they had to debate this right in front of Washington, under, if you will excuse the expression, his imperial glare.  Arguing against Executive power was essentially an argument against Washington, or at least against Washington taking the job.  So, when it came to discussing the actual nuts and bolts of the Executive power that might be implied in the Virginia Plan, there was initial hesitation in the room, until Franklin, of all people, encouraged people to speak up and framed the argument. It wasn't Washington who was the issue.  It was the office—and the expectation (or the fear) that the reach of the office would grow as future Executives sought and received more and more power, until eventually you would have a monarchy in all but name. 

Franklin opened the door, and the unspoken (or perhaps not publicly spoken) doubts and fears began to spill out.  In an foreshadowing of the battles later with regard to representation, some of the delegates worried that a single Executive would favor the region he came from to the detriment of the other states’ interests. Two of Washington’s fellow Virginians, Edmund Randolph and George Mason, perhaps mindful of disputes about slavery, wanted a triumvirate—a three person executive office, one chosen by each region.  That would have been a deal-killer for him.  There was no way he would have accepted any type of sharing, and there was no one remotely of his stature.  The success of the Convention hung in the balance, and perhaps mindful of that, the triumvirate proposal was ultimately rejected by a 7-3 state margin.    

So, after all that plucking, boiling and baking, it would be a single Executive. Washington could exhale after the iffy appetizer, but just how substantial a meal were the cooks really willing to give him? 

Back to the kitchen.

May 20th, 2015

Michael Liss

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