Presidential Selection, ch. 1 (Ceaser)

Ceaser, James W. 1979. Presidential Selection: Theory and Development. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


  • In the first chapter of Presidential Selection, James Ceaser explores the Founders’ understanding of how a president should be chosen and how that understanding was reflected in the Constitution.
  • Ceaser argues that the method of selection was less important to the Founders than the outcome of that selection: The Founders sought a certain kind of person for office—one who was capable and inclined to pursue the public good—and so designed a system that would have the greatest likelihood of elevating such people into office.
  • In particular, they sought to avoid demagogues, who would cultivate popular appeal in a way that threatened not only the public good but also the institutional checks and balances found in the Constitution.
  • Believing that institutions can affect behavior, they therefore sought an electoral system that would encourage candidates to cultivate a reputation for virtue and merit rather than popularity.

Although we tend to ask whether the Electoral College is democratic, the Founders were more concerned about the kind of president who would be selected and structured their selection process to result in a certain kind of choice.  Indeed, the Constitution allows the Electoral College to be chosen in more or less democratic fashion (by the people or by the state legislatures), but the Founders believed either method would result in a similar, “moderate” outcome, not anticipating the kind of partisan elections we see today (Ceaser 1979, 40-46).

The Founders, Ceaser argued, sought to elevate men distinguished by “talent and merit,” rather than birth or wealth.  The state legislatures, however, came to be dominated by “a meaner kind of opportunist” who used politics as a means of advancing their own interest, and the legislatures themselves—as both Madison and Tocqueville lamented—came to dominate politics, justifying their authority as expressions “of the popular will.”  The Founders intended to create “a more moderate form of popular government” (Ceaser 1979, 47-9).  The president’s role was to pursue “the public interest as a whole” rather than any particular interest, earning  “the people’s respect” without having pursued their support.  He should not only provide energy but also statesmanship, which necessitated some distance “from the immediate pressures of public opinion.”  All of this had to be done within the overall system of checks and balances that prevented any branch from dominating (Ceaser 1979, 50-1).

Ceaser emphasizes that the Founders believed the process of selection would affect “the character of the office.”  Fearing tyranny, they believed that a president whose authority derived from “the popular will” could override the constitutional constraints on the office, as history had often shown.  They sought to avoid “popular leadership”: “Popular refers to the source of the authority, and leadership indicates its noninstitutional character.”  Precisely because the United States was a form of popular government, the danger was not that of politicians resisting popular pressure but rather surrendering to it too easily.  Seeking authority through popular support thus undermines the possibility of statesmanship.  Elected officials who claim popular support find it easier to act outside constitutional limits (Ceaser 1979, 52-5).

Choosing a president based on popular appeal might deter those more capable of governing wisely than campaigning effectively.  Moreover, relying on popular authority helps candidates who cultivate an image grounded in an emotional response [think “buzz words”], rather than a reputation for capable leadership based on achievements, and encourages candidates to place themselves at the head of certain movements opposed to the common good—that is, to engage in demagoguery: “the formation or arousal of a strong and divisive issue, based usually on a latent and deeply felt popular prejudice such as racial or class hatred.”  Yet, Ceaser notes, the difficulty in distinguishing demagoguery from more acceptable popular appeals may have made the Founders skeptical of popular authority in general, preferring instead the leadership either of the “broker” among various interest groups or of the statesman who transcends interests altogether (Ceaser 1979, 55-58).  By creating a large nation, as Madison argued in Federalist 10, the Founders believed they made popular leadership based on a single issue less likely—but they did not think they had prevented it.  Indeed they specifically, and rightly, feared sectional divisions over slavery and populist appeals (Ceaser 1979, 59-61).

The danger of popular appeals arises from the problem of political ambition, and the selection process was intended to affect the behavior of potential presidents.  Because the election was indirect, candidates would be likely to “adopt a public posture of unconcern with their own success.”  Yet Hamilton, in particular, doubted purely selfless individuals like Washington would be common.  Therefore, instead of relying on leaders who lacked ambition, he sought to connect the ambition of politicians to “the public good,” rewarding them for “long-term reputation” rather than popular appeals.  It was essential to satisfy their desire for “honors and power” while insuring the common good—or, perhaps, to find a way “to transform ambition into virtue.”  The office of the president is attractive to both those concerned with long-term glory as well as “the petty kind of demagogue.” Indirect election by the Electoral College, however, makes popular appeals less likely to succeed, especially on a national level; the Founders avoided direct election not to advance the interests of the wealthy but to make demagoguery less likely.  Believing that institutions can affect behavior, the Founders hoped that indirect selection would lead ambitious politicians to cultivate reputations for virtue and merit rather than “popular favor.”  Where the people did have a part to play, though, is in assessing whether a president deserves to remain in office based on his performance (Ceaser 1979, 62-73).

Ceaser suggests that contemporary political science research supports many of the Founders’ beliefs.  V.O. Key, for instance, found that voters do in fact assess a president’s performance when he runs for re-election, and it also seems true that, in non-partisan elections, reputation—“name recognition and the assessment of character”—play important, if not decisive, roles.  (Modern technology, however, allows candidates to develop a national image rather than acquire a national reputation.)  Although the Founders’ system limited a president’s ability to cross constitutional limitations on the basis of popular support, the contemporary imperial presidency derives, in part, from the Jeffersonian emphasis on popular approval rather than the formal mode of selection.  Such a presidency took a long time to develop when confronted by the Democratic Party’s skepticism of the federal government and the Whig/Republican skepticism of executive power, restraints that only were removed after WWII.  “What resulted was the doctrine of the powerful and popular executive backed by a popular mandate and unchecked by informal influences of any kind” (Ceaser 1979, 67-75).

Some of the Founders did express concerns that the Electoral College was not democratic enough: Gerry and Mason, who opposed the Constitution, believed a democratic but indirect election would have an oligarchic result because the wealthy were more likely to work together.  They proposed a less democratic mode of indirect election—by Congress—in order to achieve more democratic ends, that is, a president not chosen by the rich. Skeptical that men like Washington would arise frequently, Hamilton and Madison feared that allowing the House to choose the president might result in the candidate who received the most electoral votes, though not a majority, not being chosen (as did happen in 1824).  The result of that election led to calls for political parties that could create “national figures” that they met the other requirements for office and would make the House’s role unnecessary (Ceaser 1979, 76-82).

Ceaser concludes by discussing the Founders’ answer to the questions he identified as crucial to understanding any selection system.  Fearing ambitious individuals, they structured the Electoral College to weaken the attractiveness of popular campaigns based on “issue appeals”; they hoped  the president would transcend the various conflicts of interest as a statesman and base his authority on institutional rather than informal authority; they sought experienced and capable politicians, even if they doubted most presidents would be virtuous; they sought a republican, rather than a democratic, government, hoping that a suitable candidate would be supported by a majority; and they anticipated presidents would be judged on their performance in office by the people (Ceaser 1979, 83-4).

Ceaser does not fault the Founders for not anticipating partisan elections, arguing that they arose not from necessity but by accident and design.  He does, however, fault them for being overly reliant on leaders notable for virtue and merit, although even here circumstances matter: In limiting the scope of the national government, Jefferson’s Democratic party minimized the opportunity for great national service as a means of acquiring reputation, thus opening paths to those who acquired reputation either through military service (for example, Andrew Jackson) or through popular appeals.  Even so, he claims, reliance on candidates known for military deeds is closer to the founders’ intention than elevating candidates on the basis of “popular leadership” (Ceaser 1979, 84-7).