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You think our history prepares us for presidential elections? Think again

By T.H. Breen

Simon & Schuster

304 pages, $28

The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible

By David Sehat

Simon & Schuster

308 pages, $27

The Fight to Vote

By Michael Waldman

Simon & Schuster

351 pages, $28

By Edward Cuddihy

As our nation begins its quadrennial orgy of hyperbole, histrionics and sometimes downright hypocrisy, all in the name of a presidential campaign, it seems fitting to look to history for answers to some fundamental questions.

For starters, just what is this office the candidates and their supporters are willing to shell out an estimated $3 billion to secure?

If we look to the Constitution, only about 1,100 words are devoted to the presidency and it’s obvious from their clarity they were penned by lawyers. Most are devoted to how the states will elect the president, his qualifications, length of term, succession and potential removal from office.

Only about 350 words – the approximate length of a one-minute TV commercial – are devoted to the powers of the president. And except for a reference to a State of the Union message, there are no instructions on how to carry out the day-to-day duties of the office.

There is nothing about party caucuses, campaigns or campaign funding, nothing about primaries, polls or political conventions. In fact, there is nothing about a popular vote for president in the original document. So let’s see if history can help us determine how this system has evolved into the series of events we are witnessing this year.

A good jumping-off place is T.H. Breen’s “George Washington’s Journey,” a new book on our first president’s first two years in a job that lacked an instruction manual. A university professor and expert on the American Revolution, Breen defends the premise that Washington almost singlehandedly invented the U.S. presidency.

What’s more, Washington knew it. At one point, he confided to James Madison, the father of the Constitution, that his every action was establishing precedent.

Seemingly trivial questions needed to be ironed out. Should the chief executive of this new nation be addressed as “his highness” or “his eminence,” or as one major newspaper suggested, “his most patriotic majesty”? Congress, after due diligence and a little huffing and puffing, settled on “the President of the United States.” And that’s exactly how the president is introduced to Congress 228 years later.

A weightier question was: Who should be seated at the most prominent position at the table? The governor with his guest, the president, or the president whose authority outranks a state’s governor?

Breen treats us to behind-the-scenes wrestling between Massachusetts Gov. John Hancock and Washington over that question. Until it was settled, Washington ate at a public house. Eventually Hancock backed off and recognized the pre-eminence of the presidency, at least in matters of public dining.

Incidentally, Washington recorded in his diary, a major source of much of this book, that Hancock was a demagogue, on equal footing with another Washington favorite, Patrick Henry.

Such arguments strike us as petty today, but Washington instinctively recognized the wobbly vessel of the presidency would sink or float on the waves of public opinion and public perception, quite a new concept for government in the 18th century.

Washington’s greatest insight into the presidency, according to Breen, was his “seeing the need to perform his office on a new national stage. His incessant fear was that this new federal government would fracture and disintegrate once the British threat was removed and the people returned to their parochial thinking.”

His answer was to travel to each of the original 13 states and talk directly to the people, no mean feat in 1789-90. His message was the need for a strong central government to protect the new nation, to regulate commerce, and to speak with one voice in Europe. Not a word is recorded about gun legislation.

The 2,400-mile journey over two summers, with its triumphs and its dangers, an immense undertaking in a horse-drawn carriage over rutted wilderness roads, is the basis of Breen’s highly readable tale.

Washington, fully cognizant of the theatrical, would change into full military uniform and mount a handsome steed before entering town. His message of federal unity over states’ rights became an obsession. Washington was using the presidential bully pulpit a hundred years before the term was coined.

Washington’s journey offers a fresh insight into our first president, a man generally accepted as the most popular American of his era, but a man not well understood by succeeding generations.

So, lacking written instructions for the office, we come to the next logical question: What did the Founding Fathers write or say the office of the presidency should entail? Another new book, social historian David Sehat’s “The Jefferson Rule,” offers some insight.

Each time a president is sworn, the nation’s chief executive swears he – or possibly she – “will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Those words are not a tradition grown up over the years. They are the words prescribed by the Founders and specifically spelled out in Article II of the Constitution. And that’s good, otherwise presidents like Teddy Roosevelt would have felt compelled to embellish the oath.

Anyway, historian Sehat asks: What did the framers of this document have in mind for the new government and its chief executive? Surely they had some idea, considering every candidate for the position for the next two hundred years would quote them on it.

Sehat then uses 250 pages to craft a brilliant brief which concludes: “When politicians invoke the Founders, they call upon a querulous and divided group that didn’t and cannot offer the guidance we wish.”

Those who wrote and signed the Constitution could not agree on what the federal government should be, or on what a president might be allowed to do. (Jefferson, the darling of today’s right, neither wrote nor signed the document because he was in France on government service.) The framers could only agree that the president and the Congress should do whatever was necessary to govern the country.

It is no wonder every presidential wannabe can allude with impunity to the wishes of a Founding Father to make his case.

But when he does, is the speaker seeking the blessing of Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton, of Washington or Madison, of Massachusetts’ John Adams or South Carolina’s John Rutledge? The ideologies of these men often occupied the far ends of opposite poles.

When they knew they could not agree on a fundamental question like slavery or secession, they simply agreed to ignore it as if it didn’t exist. And even Jefferson, the quintessential ideologue, when he became the nation’s third president, chose to wink at his ideology and become a pragmatist.

Author Sehat traces the Founders’ raucous arguments or deliberate silence through the dilemma of Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War era, through the sea change of the Theodore Roosevelt era, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Civil Rights era of the 20th century and finally today’s Tea Party-establishment Republican split.

All sides invoke the Constitution and the Founders to prove their cases, and of course, all sides are correct. Sehat concludes that quoting the Founders is mere rhetoric, adding: “Politicians offer fables [the Founders’ wishes] to justify their policies ...”

So if we can’t look to the signatories of the Constitution for answers, we must fall back on Washington’s “will of the people.” But even that leads to questions like: Who are “We the People of the United States”?

For that, we turn to Michael Waldman, an East Coast constitutional law professor and his new book, “The Fight to Vote,” which goes a long way toward defining who “the People” have become over succeeding generations. Of course, in the political arena, “the people” always translates to people who can vote.

Here again, Waldman tells us, the Constitution obfuscated the topic, and the Founders were in hopeless disagreement.

New York’s John Jay argued: “Those who own the country ought to run it.” You call that “New York values.” Jay became the first U.S. chief justice. John Adams once wrote his wife, Abigail, that if you grant the riff-raff suffrage, before long, even women will demand a vote. He became the nation’s first one-term president.

But Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin sought universal male suffrage. To Franklin, whether a man owned a jackass (property) was irrelevant for if the jackass died and the man lost his right to vote, wouldn’t the jackass truly control the election. Ben had a way of cutting to the chase.

The argument continues today under the guise of campaign finance, one man-one vote, and so-called curbs on voter fraud, despite a Civil War, five Constitutional amendments to ensure the vote for blacks, women and anyone over 18, regardless of race, religion or national origin.

Waldman, while failing to disguise his strong left leaning, draws a clear picture full of amusing anecdotes of voting and voting rights over the past 228 years. He demonstrates how the political establishment, fearing change, usually has been behind the people on this question. And he has no answer for the phenomenon that has witnessed our voter turnout drop from extraordinary highs to current levels which rank near the bottom for Western democracies.

So much for history to help us understand this year’s presidential election.

The history of the American republic has been a jumble of contradictory self-interests and factious and contentious regional squabbling from the very start. Money – the rich, the landed aristocracy and the powerful lobbies – always has talked. Voting irregularities always have been charged, and often proven.

And both sides, no matter how divergent, have insisted they represent the will of the people. Yet somehow the American republic has endured.

Maybe history is telling us something about the 2016 election after all.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.