As we celebrate this week the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, it is a fitting time to think seriously about the critical, but uneasy relationship of executive power and the rule of law that has existed since the founding.
America’s most revered statesmen – Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Roosevelt – all reveal that democratic leadership involves a vital connection between leaders and led. It requires first of all that the leader remain answerable to his followers. Even as the president takes bold initiatives and ignores public opinion in the short-run, he must enable his followers to hold him accountable in ways that are practicable and timely. Furthermore, extraordinary democratic statesmanship is not displayed in isolation. Party building and partisan leadership has been central to this task of civic education. Washington apart, America’s most celebrated statesmen were all central to either the creation or reconstruction of political parties. Episodically, periods of partisan realignment have given presidents the political strength to embark on ambitious projects of national reform.
These episodes, though they may appear to threaten our Constitution, have a revolutionary quality to them. These great political transformations have engaged the American people in popular contests over the meaning of their rights and how to protect them. Presidential statesmanship has provided a critical ingredient to these harsh partisan contests. They have required presidents to think constitutionally: to interpret the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the relationship between these two sacred political texts for their own time. In this sense, our most important presidents have truly been constitutional refounders, justifying Jefferson’s exalted, elusive hope that the Constitution would “belong to the living.”