The passing of former President George H.W. Bush gives us a perfect chance to revisit the origins of our presidential system and how our elections were supposed to work, as Bush would have been exactly the kind of person the framers at the Constitutional Convention had in mind when they created the presidency.
George Washington was chosen by the framers of the Constitution as president of the Convention where they debated and hammered out our new republic. He had already proven himself on the battlefield and—what’s much more important—he had proven his character and trustworthiness to hold power by giving up that power once the war was won.
Too seldom remembered today, Washington’s resignation of his commission as commander-in-chief shook the world of 1783, as he did what no other conquering general had done in more than 2,000 years—he won the war and then resigned power and went home to his farm.
The framers had among them one who taught them exactly the kind of person they wanted in the presidency. But they struggled mightily to develop a system that might get that kind of person after Washington would pass from the stage.
For most of the Convention, members actually wanted Congress to choose the president, as they believed an elite already chosen out of the great body of the people would be best suited for the task. Because such an idea clearly violated the basic principles of separating powers, such a system had to be abandoned. They didn’t anticipate the president becoming a popular leader and didn’t assume the American people were best suited to choose a president.
Indeed, they were concerned that a popular election would divide and damage the nation as the passions of the moment would carry the public away from their constitutional moorings. Late during that summer of 1787, they hammered out the compromise that would become the Electoral College.
It would work to give a temporary elite—electors chosen in their states—the power to vote for candidates for president. Backing them up, in case they failed to give a majority of their votes to one candidate, was the House of Representatives where votes would take place in state blocks. Why did such a system emerge, and what does it have to do with George H.W. Bush?
Well, the linchpin of the system was to be one of deliberation. Electors were to meet in their states, deliberate on the possible candidates, and then vote for, as Alexander Hamilton said, “some fit person as president.” And what kind of person were they to vote for? Very different from modern expectations, there was little assumption that views on policy or promises of government action would drive the elections. Rather, electors would vote on the basis of their best judgment as to the wisdom, experience, and virtue of the candidates. They were looking for a type of person to hold the office, rather than one tied to a party or an agenda.
George Herbert Walker Bush was just the kind of person the founders would have expected to be elected. Though no George Washington, he was a combat veteran and an accomplished man in business. He served as ambassador to the United Nations, ambassador to China, CIA director, a member of Congress, and vice president. He had the experience and knowledge in government that dwarfed so many other candidates.
Presumably, he had acquired wisdom and judgment in those positions, and he had demonstrated his character in various challenges along the way. He was a dedicated family man and, as near-universal testimony has shown in the past few days, he had the virtue of staying a good man, even while holding power, and then every good grace in giving up power and going home.
We can agree or disagree with the policies and specific decisions of Bush. Modern America may or may not want or need his kind of leadership and his kind of decision-making in the Oval Office today. As times change, leadership challenges demand different kinds of solutions. However, we can say that with his experience, knowledge, and proven character, George H.W. Bush would have been just the kind of person our nation’s founders would have hoped to be elected president.
As Alexander Hamilton would have put it, Bush was a “fit person” for the highest office in the land and reminds us of our founders’ intent when creating the office and the Electoral College method of filling it.
Gary L. Gregg holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in leadership at the University of Louisville, where he is also director of the McConnell Center.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.