Paul Greenberg

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Once this infant republic styled the United States of America adopted a new constitution, all would be well. With a single, energetic executive to lead the way, our borders would be secure, our trade protected, our flag respected. A president and commander-in-chief would give the country what it desperately needed: energy in the executive.

Alexander Hamilton explained it in Federalist Paper No. 70 ("The energy of the executive is the bulwark of the national security..."), and so long as the president was George Washington, his thesis would prove perfectly sound, even prophetic. The young republic had finally got a strong hand on the tiller in its first president.

Trusted by all, the old general could solicit the most diametrically opposed counsel -- from Hamilton on one side, Jefferson on the other -- and steer a statesmanlike course between them.

Indeed, the new Constitution had been framed with Washington as the model for its chief executive. And he lived up to expectations. He could withstand outbursts of public reaction against those of his decisions that were as unpopular as they were necessary at the time. For example, Jay's Treaty sealing the peace with Great Britain even at a time of nationalist fervor when anti-British feelings still ran strong.

At home, he put down the Whisky Rebellion against the new excises on that popular commodity. He acted decisively yet mercifully, pardoning all once the rebellion was over and order restored.

Washington remained steadfast throughout, exercising a constancy of purpose that served him and his country well, as it always did.

But once Washington and his generation were gone, the Constitution proved a less than perfect guard against the passions of the multitudes. For no system can be any better than those who are in charge of it. Not even the Constitution of the United States, our political bible.

By the time Alexis de Tocqueville was writing his study of "Democracy in America," our French visitor was wondering whether a democracy like ours, or any democracy, was capable of framing and following a coherent foreign policy.

Tocqueville did not deny that a democracy might handle domestic affairs well enough, even superbly. His admiration for this new species called Americans was almost unbounded in that respect. But the conduct of foreign affairs, he argued, required quite different capacities:


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.