Defining the Office

The Founders at Philadelphia in 1787 were confronted with a series of fundamental questions as they fashioned their executive creation. Would the president possess almost monarchical authority, or would his powers be more like those of the state governors? Should the presidency encompass a single individual or perhaps a panel of executives? Would the federal legislature (Congress) elect the president or would the nation's voters? Should the president serve only a single, lengthy term or be eligible for reelection to several shorter terms?

These were difficult issues for the Founders to resolve. Many had resented the powerful royal governors who had presided over their states before the Revolution. Others had equally strong feelings about the perceived weaknesses of the Executive under the Articles of Confederation. Despite their differences, however, the Founders agreed on who should serve as the first president – he was sitting in the same room with them. George Washington, the hero of the Revolution and now the presiding officer of the Philadelphia Convention, was to many a living embodiment of the presidency. In no small measure the powers granted to the Executive are a testimony to the confidence placed in Washington's personal qualities of leadership and integrity.

Henry Clay Almanac, 1844.Abraham Lincoln biography, 1860.

Henry Clay Almanac (1844) and Abraham Lincoln biography (1860). During the nineteenth century, political parties emphasized the character and accomplishments of their candidates in carefully crafted campaign biographies.

The institution of the presidency as created by the Constitution represented a bold new experiment in government. The president was to be many things – the head of the executive branch, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the head of state. His powers were wide-ranging and included the authority to command the armed forces, veto congressional legislation, negotiate treaties with foreign powers, appoint officials (including ambassadors and Supreme Court justices), grant pardons and reprieves, receive foreign ambassadors, and call Congress into special session.

The constitutional process that they established for electing the president reflected the Founders' concern that the right person be selected for a job with a four-year term of office and unlimited possibility for reelection. The ideal candidate would be, like Washington, a leader of national stature who possessed the experience and maturity necessary to carry out his duties. With so much power entrusted to the presidency, the delegates chose not to enact a system in which popular votes alone could determine the outcome; they feared that voters might select regional candidates lacking in national perspective.

To prevent this possibility, the Founders created the Electoral College. In this body, each state was allocated as many electors as it had senators and representatives in Congress. Members of the Electoral College were chosen through methods determined by the state legislatures. To elect a president, electors would meet in their respective states to cast their votes. The candidate with the greatest number of votes would be named president, and the candidate with the second greatest number of votes would be named vice president. (This procedure was modified in 1804 by the Twelfth Amendment, which placed the president and vice president as a "team" running on the same ticket.)