The Executive Branch
“Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.”
Federalist Papers, No. 70
After separating from the British, many Americans were hesitant to establish a strong executive that resembled the King of England. Including the terms of election in the Constitution addressed some concerns, but some were still fearful that an executive with too much power would eventually devolve into a monarchy of sorts. Balancing the powers of the executive with the legislative and judicial branches was a key issue in the Constitutional Convention. The selected documents here include arguments about and descriptions of presidential power and ideal qualities in an executive.
Locke on the Executive
In this chapter from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he explains the necessity of governments, whether a monarchy or republic, to have an individual executive with the ability to act on his own, sometimes outside or even against the laws created by the legislative branch. According to Locke, legislatures can be slow or too chaotic to make decisions effectively for the public good. On these occasions, it is up to the executive to deliver what the public calls for without interference from other government branches.
A vocal proponent of a strong executive, Alexander Hamilton wrote all 11 of the Federalist Papers on the subject. The selected papers below defend the President’s Constitutional powers including the veto, demonstrate the need for a singular executive, and explain how the powers of the executive and Senate are balanced.
After serving two terms as President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson retired from politics to Monticello. Though no longer a public figure, he was still well regarded and received many letters from his peers asking about contemporary issues. In this exchange with John B. Colvin, Jefferson responds to a question about circumstances in which it is appropriate for government officers, including the President, to act outside of the law.
In this letter to Albert G. Hodges, President Lincoln explains the difficult position he is in while believing slavery is wrong and believing that the President has no right to act to end slavery unilaterally. He describes the order of events that led to emancipation proclamation, the different judgments he had to make as President and Commander in Chief, and how changes in circumstances affected his decision-making.
Since 9/11, the expansion of executive power has been a point of concern for some political scientists. In this article, Benjamin A. Kleinerman uses Lincoln’s example to argue that, “we should not legalize, regularize, or institutionalize those powers that may be necessary to avert a crisis.” Kleinerman also references Locke’s understanding of executive power from his chapter “Of Prerogative.”