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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Result was not designed or foreseen


result was not designed or foreseen;

or rather it was to an extent foreseen, and deliberately though unsuccessfully guarded against. The American revolutionists were almost as much under the influence of classical antiquity as the French. From it they drew the noble conception of "the Republic," the public thing acting with impersonal justice towards all citizens. But with it they also drew an exaggerated dread of what they called "Caesarism," and with it they mixed the curious but characteristic illusion of that age--an illusion from which, by the way, Rousseau himself was conspicuously free--that the most satisfactory because the most impersonal organ of the general will is to be found in an elected assembly. They had as yet imperfectly learnt that such an assembly must after all consist of persons, more personal because less public than an acknowledged ruler. They did not know that, while a despot may often truly represent the people, a Senate, however chosen, always tends to become an oligarchy. Therefore they surrounded the presidential office with checks which in mere words made the President seem less powerful than an English King. Yet he has always in fact been much more powerful. And the reason is to be found in the separation of the executive from the legislature. The President, while his term lasted, had the full powers of a real executive. Congress could not turn him out, though it could in various ways check his actions. He could appoint his own Ministers (though the Senate must ratify the choice) and
they were wisely excluded from the legislature. An even wiser provision limited the appointment of Members of Congress to positions under the executive. Thus both executive and legislature were kept, so far as human frailty permitted, pure in their normal functions. The Presidency remained a real Government. Congress remained a real check.

In England, where the opposite principle was adopted, the Ministry became first the committee of an oligarchical Parliament and later a close corporation nominating the legislature which is supposed to check it.

The same fear of arbitrary power was exhibited, and that in fashion really inconsistent with the democratic principles which the American statesmen professed, in the determination that the President should be chosen by the people only in an indirect fashion, through an Electoral College. This error has been happily overruled by events. Since the Electoral College was to be chosen _ad hoc_ for the single purpose of choosing a President, it soon became obvious that pledges could easily be exacted from its members in regard to their choice. By degrees the pretence of deliberate action by the College wore thinner and thinner. Finally it was abandoned altogether, and the President is now chosen, as the first magistrate of a democracy ought to be chosen, if election is resorted to at all, by the direct vote of the nation. At the time, however, it was supposed that the Electoral College would be an independent deliberative assembly. It was further provided that the second choice of the Electoral College should be Vice-President, and succeed to the Presidency in the event of the President dying during his term of office. If there was a "tie" or if no candidate had an absolute majority in the College, the election devolved on the House of Representatives voting in this instance by States.

In connection with the election both of Executive and Legislature, the old State Rights problem rose in another form. Were all the States to have equal weight and representation, as had been the case in the old Continental Congress, or was their weight and representation to be proportional to their population? On this point a compromise was made. The House of Representatives was to be chosen directly by the people on a numerical basis, and in the Electoral College which chose the President the same principle was adopted. In the Senate all States were to have equal representation; and the Senators were to be chosen by the legislatures of the States; they were regarded rather as ambassadors than as delegates. The term of a Senator was fixed for six years, a third of the Senate resigning in rotation every two years. The House of Representatives was to be elected in a body for two years. The President was elected for four years, at the end of which time he could be re-elected.


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