The ghost of George Washington haunts almost every page of Saikrishna Prakash’s new book, Imperial from the Beginning: The Constitution of the Original Executive. It is a man, not a text, that dominates Prakash’s investigation of the creation of the American Presidency. From the Philadelphia Convention where Washington presided over (and likely influenced) the drafting of Article II, to the military quashing of the Whiskey Rebellion with Washington riding at the head of the new federal army--it is the “imperial” presence and practices of General Washington that Prakash believes generally represent the original understanding of Executive Power.
This is a wonderful book for legal history buffs and anyone interested in the American Presidency. In addition to illustrating Prakash’s formidable grasp of historical theories of executive power, Imperial from the Beginning serves as a nice corrective to those who insist that the Founders abandoned altogether any notion of monarchical power. As Prakash recounts, the American Constitution created a quasi-monarchical Chief Executive whose powers were but partially constrained by Congress and the Courts. Understanding these powers requires less an investigation of the text than an exploration of a man. Washington’s practices as our first chief executive established traditions and understandings that have informed every subsequent presidency. In Washington, America came as close as it ever would to having a King and, according to Prakash, his practices illuminate the original understanding of executive power.
Kurt T. Lash, George Washington’s Constitution, The New Rambler Review (2016) (reviewing Saikrishna Prakash, Imperial From the Beginning: The Constitution of the Original Executive (Yale, 2015)).