Have our presidents become kings?

Presidents’ Day, the holiday Richard Nixon designated to celebrate the pomp and glory of the executive branch, is here again. The holiday is an opportunity to reflect on executive authority, and hence, it would be instructive to remember how the founding generation thought presidential powers would be implemented and interpreted while the Constitution was in the process of being ratified.

Proponents had to sell the document to several wavering delegates to the state ratifying conventions. Executive powers received a thorough examination, for these men feared the effects of an oppressive executive over all else. They had, after all, fought against executive abuse for over a decade and the Declaration of Independence was in large part an indictment of the “Tyrant,” King George III. The Articles of Confederation did not have an executive branch for that reason, and though by 1787 the majority of the founding generation considered an executive necessary, they did not want to revive the king of Great Britain on American shores.

Article II is perhaps the most misunderstood section of the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton’s ruminations that the executive needed vigor are often cited as the definitive statements on the issue, particularly by those who believe in executive power, and while he spoke for the nationalists in the founding period, there were many others who feared the potential problems a powerful executive could bring. Benjamin Franklin even said in the Philadelphia Convention that they all trusted George Washington, but were not sure what would follow. The founding generation understood from personal experience what a powerful, vigorous executive could do to liberty. George Clinton, the governor of New York, feared that the Constitution would create an executive that the Founders “heretofore reprobated as odious,” and the famous opponent of the Constitution “An Old Whig” urged the state ratifying conventions to pause “If we are not prepared to receive a king …” In fact, when James Wilson of Pennsylvania first proposed a single executive at the Philadelphia Convention, the men sat in stunned silence, aware that such a proposition would smack of the very government they denounced during the war for independence.

Proponents of the Constitution reasoned that the entire rancor surrounding the executive branch was unjustified. One delegate to the first North Carolina ratifying convention reasoned that the president would never be “maintained in pomp and splendour, at an enormous expense to the nation …” and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, one of the strongest supporters of the Constitution in his state, insisted that the people of the states had nothing to fear from the executive branch because its powers would be “circumscribed” by the Constitution. The president was there to execute the laws of Congress and serve as head of state, but he was no king. And more famously, Hamilton outlined the differences between the king of Great Britain and the American president in Federalist No. 69, among them that the president could “prescribe no rules concerning the commerce or currency of the nation,” and that the president was in no way the “supreme head” of government.

Today, we spend millions of dollars per year on vacations for the president and his family — Michelle Obama reportedly spent $10 million on luxurious vacations last year alone — while the executive branch routinely violates the Constitution. The Founders’ statements are a reminder of how far we have come from the original understanding of executive power and why Americans should hold our noses while we vacation on Presidents’ Day.