The “Plebiscitarian Principle”

U.S. Capitol. 1800.

The president’s role in the government in the early Republic was different than today, and sometimes, it was unclear exactly what role the president would play in the federal government. With the election of 1800, the newly elected Republicans introduced the “plebiscitarian principle,” according to one scholar, Bruce Ackerman. Bruce Ackerman, The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 85.

The plebiscitarian principle was the new belief that the President of the United States owes a duty to the voters who gave him the electoral mandate to rise to the prestigious office. See id.

Thomas Jefferson had a similar belief. See Thomas Jefferson to John Garland Jefferson, Papers of Jefferson: Retirement Ser., 2, (Jan. 25, 1810), 183. Jefferson stated that the president’s duty was “to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people” so he could “produce an union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body & one mind.” Id.

This principle, that the President of the United States was to owe a duty to the entire population of the country and lead them as one, helped form the presidency that we recognize today. It created a balance between the monarchical principles that the Federalists had come to admire about England and the decentralized, less powerful federal government that the Republicans had advocated for in the early Republic.

Even as the power of the presidency has expanded, few would question that the President of the United States should only serve a portion of the population. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Americans hold tight the belief that a president should represent the entire country and lead the entire country.

The critical question that has existed and will always exist is what direction each president should take in leading the country. Some would argue that the reason we can have that healthy debate is because of the election of 1800 and the creation of the plebiscitarian principle.

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