Who Makes War: The President Versus Congress
The Living Presidency: The Resources and Dilemmas of the American Presidential Office
The Presidency has always given us trouble. It was, from the beginning, the “dark continent” of American constitutionalism—the phrase is Charles A. Beard’s. There were ample precedents for the new legislative and judicial departments which the framers established, but none—except in a limited way in the states—for an elected executive who would serve at the pleasure of the people and on terms laid down by them. History, that great arsenal of morality, taught that all men in power were ambitious, vainglorious, and corrupt, and prone to aggrandize power to themselves: you could read it in Thucydides or Plutarch or Montesquieu or Gibbon.
Contemporary experience reinforced the teachings of history, and the framers were determined that the United States should never have a Louis XIV to ruin his nation by his extravagance, a Frederick the Great to plunge his people into ceaseless wars, a George III to corrupt elections. As James Wilson, himself a strong-executive man, observed early in the Convention, he “did not consider the Prerogatives of the British Monarch as a proper guide in defining the Executive powers.” All true enough. Yet after the near-breakdown of the Confederation, the nation needed a strong executive. And there was a further consideration—almost an embarrassment. Throughout the Convention, there sat George Washington presiding with awful dignity over the deliberations, the great man who would inevitably be the first President, whose rectitude was unassailable, and whose image would inevitably be reflected in the provisions for the presidential office.
As it turned out lack of precedents and experience produced grave difficulties. Article II was the most debated and the least satisfactory part of the new Constitution. It emerged from the debates a kind of masterpiece of ambiguity and evasion whose meaning we have been exploring ever since. Not surprisingly, it has been modified by no fewer than four constitutional amendments—XII, XX, XXII, and XXV—while only one amendment (XVII) has modified the legislative branch and one (XI, now universally forgotten) the judicial.
Because the powers of the President were not adequately defined, their character depended, from the beginning, on the Presidents who exercised them: that is why the game of classifying Presidents as “strong” or “weak,” or as “active-positive” or “passive-negative,” has fascinated so many historians. Certainly Presidents can define the executive powers far more easily than the Congress or the courts can define theirs, for within the Presidency there is no competition, no rival party to bargain with or accommodate to. We do not define the legislative branch by Madison or Clay, Sumner or Blaine, nor do we define the judiciary by Marshall or Story, Holmes or Warren. But we do define the executive by analyzing Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and L. B. Johnson.
All strong Presidents have aggrandized power just as all strong judges have “soaked up jurisdiction like a sponge.” Are we witnessing now a shift from aggrandizement to usurpation? The distinction, not always clear, is that the former functions within the hospitable and accommodating framework of the Constitution,…
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