The French and American Presidents: How Did They Begin?
In ancient times, political executives were known by such titles as king, “pharaoh,” or “Caesar.” In modern times, most of these executives have gone the way of the dinosaur and have been replaced with positions like that of “president.” In fact, some of the most influential nations in the world like Russia, Mexico, and Germany have a president as their head of state. This is also true of France and the United States. In order to help you understand more about the presidential form of government, this essay will compare the creation of these two presidencies.
In the Beginning
In both France and the United States, the office of the president was birthed during a period of government instability that was characterized by weak executive power. In America, the period following the American Revolution and leading up to the Constitution was referred to by historian John Fiske as the “Critical Period of American History.” It was regarded as a period of great instability, especially in the economy. Some of Founding Fathers like James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton, blamed the lack of a single executive for the lack of "energy" in the government. Those of the period that fancied themselves as “Republicans” flirted with the idea that a single executive was not necessary. They thought that it might be possible for the legislature to act as the executive. However, this was not the thinking of men like the New Yorker Hamilton who thought that a single executive was an antidote to the ineffective Confederation government.
Once the Constitutional Convention convened in May, 1787, it became apparent that other men also desired a strong single executive, with men such as James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris joining Hamilton in advancing a new government under a written constitution with a single national executive imbued with powers in excess of those given to most state governors. Although they did not get all that they wanted, suffice it to say that a powerful executive "president" was the result of that Constitutional Convention which convened in Philadelphia in 1787. Prior to that time, a “president” was someone that chaired a meeting which was fitting since the word comes from the Latin which means to “preside over.”
As for France, they had presidential positions reaching back to their first president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) of 1848. However, their modern presidency was born during a time of instability, much like the American presidency. After World War II, France had trouble creating a stable government following a period of legislative dominance, extremist politics (like that provided by the Communist Party), and the crisis in Algeria.
In both France and the United States, prominent military generals played in important role in the formation of their presidencies during their periods of instability. George Washington, the first president to occupy the American presidency, was close at hand with the creation of the American presidency, but his influence over its creation was much different than that of the founding father of the Fifth French Republic, General Charles de Gaulle. While de Gaulle had a vital hand in the creating of the office that he would later occupy, Washington did little to craft the actual office. There is no record that Washington was a major figure in any resolution put forward on the executive position. He was present when the national executive position was being crafted (he was the “President of the Convention”). So, even though Washington presided over the creation of the Constitution, other men at the Convention created the presidency, keeping in mind that Washington would probably be the man that would first occupy the office.
As for de Gaulle, he had a more direct hand in the creation of the modern French presidency. After WWII, the French nation had a difficult time sustaining a ruling majority for any length of time. With the Fourth Republic producing 24 governments across 12 years (1946-1958), de Gaulle felt that the reason for France’s decline as a world power had been because of unstable majorities resulting in unstable governments. De Gaulle had retired from politics, having served as president of the provisional government at the end of WWII. He reentered government in 1957 as prime minister and minister of defense. During the Algerian War, de Gaulle called for France to revise its government with a stronger presidency which he felt would stabilize the government. De Gaulle proposed a president that would govern under a seven-year term and with a prime minister that he would appoint. The new constitution would provide a strengthened president and a weakened parliament. By referendum, French voters overwhelmingly accepted the de Gaulle constitution.
In short, we can say that there are some similarities and differences in the creation of the presidency in these two countries. In both countries, the nation called upon a national hero which resulted in the creation of a new government. However, George Washington appears to have been the reluctant warrior. At age 55, he was content to live out the remainder of his days at Mount Vernon. For de Gaulle, it appears that he was eager to offer himself once again for his nation and certainly on his terms. As for their actual influence in the creation of the presidency, Washington appears to have had little direct hand in its creation, although many of those that were crafting the new government were intent on creating an executive with Washington in mind.
In the case of both the French presidency and the American presidency, both were created because of a belief that a stronger executive was needed. In the case of the United States, the nation lacked a single executive under the Articles of Confederation. The American framers created a single, powerful, but constitutional executive with powers such as veto, pardon and commander-in-chief. In France, the nation suffered from legislative-dominant governments following WWII, which facilitated instability in government, a malady which de Gaulle hoped to cure with a constitution of his own making.
© 2014 William R Bowen Jr