A Setting Sun

"I would rather that the people should wonder why I wasn't President than why I am."
—Salmon P. Chase

Contra Ecclesiastes, the American presidency was something new under the sun. With no explicit precedents to guide them, the Founding Fathers constructed the office and defined its parameters by analogy. In his richly detailed, elegantly written, and closely reasoned book, Forrest McDonald undertakes to investigate the origins and development of this unique institution.

As the foremost student of the Constitution, McDonald boasts an intimate knowledge of the intellectual world of the Founders. The English monarchy, he shows, constituted the most immediate and accessible representation of executive power for them. After 1776, they had to "devise an institutional substitute for the crown." Yet McDonald is careful to point out that by 1776 the English had fashioned a stable constitutional monarchy that provided the ordered liberty Americans sought. Americans traced the progress of limited monarchy not only in their examination of English history, but in their study of the English legal and constitutional tradition.

During the 18th century, Americans—especially those who read for the bar—routinely consulted the commentaries of Henry Bracton, Sir John Fortescue, Sir Edward Coke, Matthew Hale, and Sir William Blackstone....

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