Presidents’ Day was set aside so that America would have an opportunity to remember her greatest leaders. But it’s also worth reflecting on the institution of the presidency itself, both to celebrate its glories and to ponder its glitches.
In 1787, nothing quite like this office existed anywhere on earth. Hereditary monarchs and feudal lords held sway across the Old World, and American states generally allowed only propertied men to vote for or serve as governors. By contrast, the framers of the Constitution designed the presidency as an office that would be open to rich and poor alike, and imposed no constitutional property qualifications on presidential electors or ordinary voters. In the 1960s, the Constitution’s Twenty-fourth Amendment went a step further, freeing presidential and other federal elections from poll taxes that might limit voting by the poor.
This openness has been more than a formality. Many founding fathers lived to see low-born men vie for America’s highest office. The ascent of Abraham Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer with almost no formal education or early economic advantages, dramatizes a larger pattern: Roughly one third of America’s presidents rose from the lower-middle or bottom of the economic heap. Few of the world’s other great democracies can claim a similarly robust tradition of upward political mobility.
America’s presidency has also always been open to all religions. When the Constitution was written, eleven states had religious qualifications for office-holding, and around the world kings and czars headed government-established churches. But the Constitution outlawed “religious tests” for the presidency and all other federal posts. Two of the four men immortalized on Mount Rushmore—Jefferson and Lincoln—were not members of any official church when elected.
True, not all tests and qualifications were outlawed. Today, only “natural born citizens”—those who are citizens on the day of their birth—are constitutionally eligible. At the Founding, anyone who was already a citizen in 1789 was eligible, regardless of his status at birth. Seven of the Constitution’s thirty-nine signers were themselves foreign-born Americans, and several spoke against rules that unduly limited the political rights of non-native citizens. In general, the Constitution aimed to welcome new Americans into government service (in the House, the Senate, the Cabinet, and the courts), and perhaps future Americans will introduce further liberalizations by way of constitutional amendment.
The other key constitutional limitation, requiring presidents to be at least thirty-five years old, has worked to promote equality. As evidenced by two separate constitutional bans on “Titles of Nobility,” the founders took pains to prevent the seeds of monarchy and aristocracy from taking root in American soil. Without a constitutional age limit, young men with famous last names might have won the presidency before they had proved their merit. Part of the reason that George Washington was “first in the hearts of his countrymen” was that they knew that he lacked dynastic ambitions: He became father of his country because he was not father of any would-be successors. Of the first five presidents, only one had any (acknowledged) sons. That one was John Adams, whose heir John Q. did indeed become president, but only in his mid fifties after a distinguished political career in his own right.
Another defining feature of the presidency is that it ends on a date certain. Four years really means four years; incumbents have no right to manipulate election timing. Lincoln held a fair election on schedule in the midst of a civil war, and later presidents held regular elections throughout depressions and world wars. Many other democracies have yet to match this extraordinary tradition. Britain, for example, postponed elections during World War I, and held no elections between 1935 and 1945, leading Winston Churchill to remark in October 1944 that no Englishman under thirty had ever had a chance to vote.
Of course, the founders implicitly limited the presidency to men; they worried aloud about presidents becoming kings but never mentioned queens. Black slaves were wholly excluded from the process. But subsequent amendments have affirmed the right of all races and both sexes to vote and hold political office, and a biracial American is now president. True, America has never had a woman at the helm; along this axis we lag behind India, Israel, Britain, Norway, New Zealand, and Germany for example. But in the last dozen years, America has had no fewer than three female secretaries of state—Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton. (Historically, that post has served as an important stepping stone: Prior to the Civil War, half of those who held it for four years went on to become president.)
And then there’s the electoral college. In the nineteenth-century, this curious contraption systematically worked against blacks and women. The more slaves a state had, the more electoral votes it received. Whereas a system of direct national election would have enabled any state that enfranchised its women to double its clout, the electoral college gave no bonus to states with woman suffrage. But nowadays, it is unclear whether the electoral college systematically hurts any race, gender, or political party. Its main effect is to add to the political deck a pair of jokers—one red, one blue—who randomly surface to invert the national popular vote.
Many Americans (myself included) have long viewed the electoral college with disdain. But on a day dedicated to our greatest leaders, it’s worth remembering one thing that can be said for America’s odd election system: It gave us President Lincoln.
Akhil Reed Amar is Sterling Professor of constitutional law and political science at Yale, and author of America’s Constitution: A Biography.