Where Did the Idea of an "American President" Come From?
The President of the United States might be the most powerful position in the world. But where did we get the idea of having a president? Why not just have a king or no leader at all? It might surprise you to know that the position of “president” is an American invention, berthed during the debates over America’s political future at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787. At that convention the founding fathers created the presidency, a position where the leader is elected, serves for a definite term, does not inherit his position, and has specific and prearranged powers granted to him in a written constitution. This essay is devoted to helping you better understand those conditions that led to the creation of the American presidency.
In order to better understand how the presidency came to be created, it’s important to grasp the American’s initial rejection of executive authority and the historical lesson they learned that a single executive might be an evil, but it was also a necessary one.
The Rejection of Executive Authority
Probably the most important question pertaining to the creation of the presidency is “why didn’t the Americans have a king”? After all, they lived under a king prior to declaring independence. And, even after the war was over, Americans still looked back to their British heritage for guidance on legal and political controversies. Many, like Alexander Hamilton, still felt that the “English model [of government] was the only good one.” But, in the end, the Americans rejected the monarchical form of government and even executive authority in general. Why?
Here I offer the following reasons for the aversion to monarchy: the king’s betrayal, resistance to the royal governors, movements such as republicanism and whiggism, and finally, the Bible.
The Betrayal of Monarchy—At first, Americans supported their sovereign, George III (1738-1820) of Great Britain. Like any good British subject, the Americans esteemed their monarch. Throughout the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, the Americans blamed the onerous taxes on Parliament and on Parliament’s ministers, but George III continued to stay in the good graces of the Americans. Even though he was German, he was esteemed as a “Patriot King.” It was only after word came from London that the King had denounced the Americans, declaring them rebels and outside his protection, that prompted the swift reversal of attitude toward George III. In the words of historian Forrest McDonald, “No people could have felt more betrayed.” 
While the people turned their heart away from the king, their minds were slowly being turned as well. One of the events that shows this change of mind was the popularity of Thomas Paine’s book, Common Sense. This book marked the first major written attack on monarchy in the colonies. Paine argued that the idea of monarchy was irrational. A person, after all, should be the ruler because he’s qualified, and not merely because he inherited the position. Paine also said that the British system was too “complex” which led to corruption. In the end, Paine encouraged the colonists to declare independence which they eventually did.
The Resistance to Royal Governors—A second reason for the rejection of executive authority was the bad experiences that colonials had with their royal governors. By the eighteenth century, most of the thirteen colonies were royal colonies which meant, in part, that the King of England appointed a governor to oversee the colony. The King granted the appointed governor a commission, a document which he took with him to prove that he was the King’s appointed governor in the colony. That commission would contain the powers granted to the governor. Governors typically had powers such as the power to veto, pardon, and make treaties with Indian tribes.
As the English colonists interacted with these governors, their antimony toward them increased. The governors were too often abusive, incompetent, or both which led the assemblies to oppose them. After Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 took place in the colony of Virginia, Governor Dinwiddie hanged 20 of the rebels. Once word reached the crown of Dinwiddie’s draconian measures, Charles II is said to have remarked, “That old fool has taken away more lives in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father.” 
Whether that story is real or the projections of the colonists, it reflects the low esteem in which the governors were held. Now, the governors had an advantage in that they had the authority and the powers granted to them by the Crown; the advantage of the assemblies over their governors was that they held the purse strings. Very few financial resources came from the Crown, so the governors were dependent upon the colonists to finance their projects.
In large measure, the history of colonial America was a history of these assemblies slowly usurping the power of these governors. By the time of the Revolutionary War, many of the people were fed up with the governors, some of them renouncing the idea of having a governor at all. However, for all their contempt for the royal governors, the Americans kept the office. As for the status of monarchy, it never had a real chance. In the end, it was rejected.
Republicanism—The rejection of monarchy and the resistance to the royal governors were born out of the experiences of the colonial Americans. However, some of the rejection of executive authority came from elsewhere. One of these ideas was republicanism, born out of a movement against the Stuart monarchs in seventeenth-century England. Republicans (or “Commonwealthmen”) such as James Harrington (1611-1677) and the poet John Milton (1608-1674) advanced a regime where the focus would be on the protection of rights. Powers should be dispersed to other political actors so as to avoid a king-centered system. Britain did, in fact, establish a republican government, the Protectorate (1653-1658), which was administered by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), with Cromwell ruling under the title of “Lord Protector.” England had no monarch from 1649, the year that King Charles I (b. 1600) was executed until 1660 when the monarchy was restored under Charles II.
Whigs—Closely related to Republicans were is Whigs. In Britain, Whigs tended to be large Protestant landowners that supported the Parliament in its opposition to a strong monarchy. Whigs saw the Parliament as the source of liberty and the monarchy as the source of tyranny. Both the Whigs and the Republicans of seventeenth century Britain found themselves in opposition to Stuart absolutism.
The Bible—It’s interesting that many saw in the Bible their basis for rejecting monarchy. Ministers reminded people of the events played out in First Samuel, how that God had governed the people by judges. However, there came a time when the Israelites rejected the Mosaic economy and desired to have a king like the other nations around them. The Bible relays that both God and Samuel were disappointed by this desire; however, God told Samuel to anoint a king. Samuel then proceeded to warn the people that a king would take the best of their land, its produce, their son, daughters, and servants and make them his own. However, the Israelites rejected Samuel’s warning and insisted on a king anyway. Colonial Boston minister Jonathan Mayhew summed it up by saying, “that God gave the Israelites a king in his anger, because they had not sense and virtue enough to like a free commonwealth.” Armed with a response from holy writ, an apparent common refrain of the revolution was “no king but King Jesus.” One royal governor wrote to the British Board of Trade, telling them, “"If you ask an American, who is his master? He will tell you he has none, nor any governor but Jesus Christ."
The "Sigh for Monarchy"
British and American history has a long train of resisting or outright rejecting executive authority. However, if the Americans learned any lesson throughout the 1780s, it was that some form of executive authority was needed. This lesson was learned during the tenure of their first national government, the Articles of Confederation. This government did not have a national executive with traditional executive powers like the power to pardon or veto. Rather, executive functions were carried out through committees in the Confederation Congress. There was a “President of the United States” under the Confederation government, but this president was not an executive in that he did not have the traditional executive powers like being commander-in-chief or pardoning criminals.
Some Americans were learning that it was rough going without a chief executive. Even in the states, the republican spirit tended to prevail as there was considerable opposition to giving significant powers to the state’s executives, their governors. Most governors were chosen by the legislature for a one-year term. They had few executive powers and they provided a meager if not absence of any check against “legislative tyranny.” New York was the exception. In their 1777 Constitution, New York provided for a strong executive in the hands of the governor.
While the voices of republicanism tended to dominate the Congress throughout the war, after the war those that advocated an “energetic” executive, like Alexander Hamilton, began to gain ground. Even George Washington said that he recognized “the necessity of the form” of monarchy. The discussion of a “national executive” was prevalent among America’s upper class. For some, they “sighed for monarchy.”
In fact, having a king over the United States was not too far-fetched. During the 1780s there had been talk of possibly inviting a European monarch to govern the United States and this discussion had a brief stint at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. Prince Henry of Prussia and Frederick, Duke of York (George III’s son) were candidates for this honor. However, since the Convention favored an executive that was strong and independent, the fear that a foreign power would have such independence of the legislature was a problem. So the delegates nixed the rumors by making the requirement that the chief executive be natural-born.
At the Constitutional Convention
At the Constitutional Convention, many of the delegates had lived through the experience of lacking a national executive and weak state executives. Men like Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and John Dickinson came to the convention advocating an executive that was sufficiently “energetic” and that could act with “dispatch.” In the end, they created the presidency, a national executive that was a rival leader to the legislature with an array of powers such as the power to veto, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and appoint ambassadors and other officers of the federal government, including judges. The title of “president” was chosen because it was uncontroversial. At the time, a few governors carried the title of president. Usually a “president” was the man that chaired a business meeting. For example, at the Constitutional Convention, George Washington's position was “President of the Convention.”
While the delegates created a powerful position in the president, they sought to create a position that was adverse to tyranny. They gave the president the power to appoint government officers and make treaties, but he must also get the Senate’s approval on these matters. The president is commander-in-chief, but Congress both creates and funds the military. And, the president does have the power to veto acts of Congress, but Congress can override his veto with a two-thirds vote in both houses.
In the end, the president has many of the same powers that a King of England possessed prior to the Glorious Revolution. However, the president’s powers are constrained by the acts of Congress and by decisions of the Supreme Court. This has led some, like historian Forrest McDonald to conclude that “the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good…than perhaps any other secular institution in history.”
 Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 124.
 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper/Collins, 1997), 104.
 McDonald, 6.
© 2010 William R Bowen Jr