04/10/2013 10:56 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

Has the U.S. Presidency Become Monarchical?

The president is referred to as the leader of our country, and the leader of the free world. Few Americans give that phrase a second thought. This is exactly what some delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia feared. Edmond Randolph warned that the presidency was "The Foetus of Monarchy." His fellow conventioneer, Patrick Henry, feared the office "squints toward monarchy."

Today's understanding of the presidency is essentially that the occupant is our Supreme Ruler. He is almost omnipotent. Thousands of Americans gather when the president appears in public to see him in person. He is treated as a rock star or a demigod.

The founders' concept of a limited presidency with specific enumerated powers is largely forgotten. The founding fathers set up a system of checks and balances amongst the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial). The U.S. Constitution balances power among these three branches of the federal government. By design, the president is not a superlative figure but a Constitutional equal to the other branches

The original concept of the American presidency was known as the president of the Continental Congress of the United States. This was largely a ceremonial office. Its occupants, beginning with Peyton Randolph in 1774, were members of the Continental Congress, elected by their colleagues to preside over Congressional sessions. The powers were so limited that Henry Laurens resigned the post because he concluded he could wield more power as a rank-and-file member of "the body."

The framers of the U.S. Constitution granted the presidency more powers than the original presidency, but concomitantly feared that the presidency, with its potential glitz and glamour, might become monarchical.

Today, the American presidency is the kind of office Henry and Randolph warned us against, and the Congress itself is complicit in the perilous expansion of presidential powers. Not since World War II for example has the Congress exercised its responsibility under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution to Declare War. Numerous times Congress has abrogated its role in amending trade legislation by granting the President Fast Track Negotiating Authority, which affords the Congress only the option of an up-and-down-vote. Furthermore, after being ruled constitutionally impermissible by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, there are still efforts in the U.S. Congress to endow the president with the line-item-veto, allowing him/her to veto specific provisions of a bill without vetoing the entire legislation.

With respect to veto power, George Washington only vetoed legislation he truly believed was unconstitutional. He did not veto legislation that he viewed as injudicious. In a radical departure from that precedent, Andrew Jackson vetoed legislation out of disagreement, most notably, an act to charter the National Bank. Jackson vetoed twelve pieces of legislation during his eight years as president. His seven predecessors had vetoed only nine bills combined. Today, the veto is considered an arrow in the president's quiver to scupper legislation unpalatable to him. Grover Cleveland vetoed 414 pieces of legislation in his first term. Gerald R. Ford earned the nickname: "Mr. Veto" by vetoing 66 pieces of legislation given to him by the Democratic Congress in his 895 days in office.

Similarly, the U.S. Constitution does not stipulate that the president must even appear before the U.S. Congress to deliver his State of the Union Address. It only dictates: "He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." George Washington and John Adams delivered their addresses in person. However, Thomas Jefferson halted this practice, believing it was too monarchical. In 1913, in an effort to bring about "a closer intimacy between the Congress and the executive," Woodrow Wilson delivered the address in person. Today, the political theater of a presidential State of the Union Address is standard.

We now expect to see the president barnstorming the nation promoting his legislative agenda. This was not inherent in the presidency as formulated by the founders. George Washington delivered only 25 public speeches during his two terms in office. Thomas Jefferson gave just three public speeches, and James Madison did not deliver a solitary public speech.

Andrew Johnson played a large role in making presidential speeches a part of the presidential itinerary when in 1866 he embarked on a 19-day train trip, speaking in ten states about his plan for Reconstruction following the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt took presidential public speaking a step further, using "the bully pulpit" by touring parts of the nation, urging Americans to tell their members of Congress to support the Hepburn Act, regulating the nation's railroads.

Maybe this is because we desire simplicity. We see the president as the nation's visionary and our members of Congress as the ones who help us when we do not get our Social
Security Checks on time, or when applying for federal funding for a new wing at the local Community College.

Alternatively, some of our presidents are apotheosized. Four in fact are enshrined in granite at Mount Rushmore. Their heads appear on our money, and there is even a federal holiday in their honor. They even have Presidential libraries and museums immortalizing their lives.

It may be prudent to re-examine the admonitions of Edmond Randolph and Patrick Henry, or to listen to William Howard Taft, one of the last presidents who understood the limits of the presidency: "... The president can exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power or justly implied and included within such express grant as proper and necessary to its exercise. Such specific grant must be either in the federal Constitution or in an act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof."

The presidency has grown well beyond its constitutional strictures. Its expansion and powers continue to increase, sometimes quickly, sometimes imperceptibly. The office has become what critics at the Constitutional Convention admonished it would become. It resembles a monarchy.