The nature of the presidency has evolved considerably over the course of American history, from the limited role the framers of the Constitution had in mind to the rise of the president-centered government of the twentieth century.
The framers of the Constitution were wary of executive power because they saw it as the most likely source of tyranny. King George III of Britain was, for many, the villain of the Revolutionary War; he was an example of executive power run amok. At the same time, the framers knew that the first president would almost certainly be George Washington, whom they all admired greatly.
As they wrote the Constitution, the framers decided not to provide great detail about the president. Instead, the framers gave the office only a few specific powers. They wanted a strong executive who could deal with emergencies, particularly those involving other nations, but who would not dominate the U.S. government. The framers expected that Congress would be the focal point of the national government, and they structured the Constitution accordingly. They made the president powerful enough to check and balance Congress but not so powerful as to overrun Congress.
For the first few decades of the republic, congressional delegations chose their party’s presidential candidate in a caucus, a meeting of political leaders to select candidates or plot strategy. As a result, the president was, to some extent, dependent on the representatives of his party in Congress. Critics derided this system as undemocratic, labeling it “King Caucus.” Starting in the 1830s, however, parties began using conventions to choose their presidential nominees. This change gave more power to party members outside of Congress, opening up the nomination process to increased public participation, a trend that has continued into the present day. The end of King Caucus gave more power to the president because he was no longer beholden to his party’s members of Congress and could act more independently.
Even though the end of King Caucus opened up the possibility of greater presidential power, presidents refrained from seizing that power because of long-standing attitudes toward the presidency. For most of the nineteenth century, political leaders believed that political power should center on Congress and that the president’s job should be to execute decisions made by Congress. Some scholars have referred to the presidency during this era as a “clerk in chief” because the president was not expected to initiate or guide national policy. Many nineteenth-century presidents acted more like clerks in chief, exercising little initiative or independent power.
Despite the general trend of weak presidents, several early presidents stand out for their assertiveness and importance. George Washington (president from 1775 to 1783) established the character of the office that nearly all his successors would emulate. Washington carried himself in a statesmanlike manner and set the standard of serving no more than two terms. He also created an indelible image of what a president should be: strong, capable, honorable, and above partisanship. Thomas Jefferson (president from 1801 to 1809), in contrast, acted without congressional approval a number of times, such as when he made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Andrew Jackson (president from 1829 to 1837) was another assertive president and was the first to appeal directly to the average voter as a means of building support.