Article 2, Section 1, Clause 1

Document 18

St. George Tucker, Blackstone's Commentaries 1:App. 316--25, 328--29


The author of the Treatise on the English Constitution, considers the unity of the executive among the advantages peculiar to that, as a free government. The advantages ordinarily attributed to that circumstance, are supposed to be a necessary and unavoidable unanimity; promptitude and dispatch, as a consequence of it: and, immediate and obvious, responsibility. If such are the real advantages of a single executive magistrate, we may contend that they are found in a much greater degree in the federal government, than in the English. In the latter it exists, only theoretically, in an individual; the practical exercise of it, being devolved upon ministers, councils, and boards. The king, according to the acknowledged principles of the constitution, not being responsible for any of his acts, the minister upon whom all responsibility devolves, to secure his indemnity acts by the advice of the privy council to whom every measure of importance is submitted, before it is carried into effect. His plans are often digested and canvassed in a still more secret conclave, consisting of the principal officers of state, and stiled the cabinet council, before they are communicated to the privy council: matters are frequently referred to the different boards, for their advice thereon, previously to their discussion, and final decision, in the council. Thus, in fact, the unity of the executive is merely ideal, existing only in the theory of the government; whatever is said of the unanimity, or dispatch arising from the unity of the executive power, is therefore without foundation. And with respect to responsibility, we have already observed that the nominal executive, is absolved from it by the constituion: all the responsibility that the government admits, is shared between the different ministers, privy council, and boards. The unity of the nominal executive, therefore, so far from ensuring responsibility, destroys it. If then the constitution of England be relied on as proving the superior advantages of unity in the executive department, it does not support any part of the position.

In the United States the unity of the executive authority is practically established, in almost every instance. For, the senate are constituted a council, rather for special, than for general purposes. It may reasonably be doubted, whether they have a right to advise the president, in any case, without being first consulted; and whether, when consulted, he is obliged to carry into effect any measure which they may advise: the constitution is perhaps defective in both these cases. To illustrate them, let it be supposed, that the senate, without being consulted should advise the sending an ambassador to a foreign court: is the president bound to nominate one to them for that purpose? Or, suppose an ambassador to have concluded a treaty, which the president disapproves, but, which the senate advise him to ratify; is he bound to do so? The constitution says, "He shall have power, by, and with, the advice and consent of the senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the senators present, concur; and shall nominate, and by, and with, the advice and consent of the senate shall appoint ambassadors." These words appear rather to confer a discretionary authority, that to impose a mandate, or obligation. . . . But although the president may perhaps constitutionally decline the ratification of a treaty, or the appointment of an ambassador, notwithstanding the advice of the senate, yet he cannot adopt any measure, which they may advise him to reject, if the constitution requires their advice, or assent: so that, in general, whatever he does must have the sanction of the senate for it's support: whatever he omits doing, is chargeable upon him, only, unless the measure shall have been submitted to the senate and rejected by them. The conduct of the first magistrate of a nation is as frequently liable to censure for his omissions, as for his acts. Whatever, therefore, is left undone, which the public safety may require to have been done, is chargeable upon the neglect of the president, exclusively: whatever may be done amiss is likewise chargeable upon him, in the first instance, as the author and propounder of the measure: although it should afterwards receive the approbation and consent of the senate. Responsibility, then, pursues him in every situation: whether active or passive; sleeping, or awake.

But although a king of England be not responsible, it is said that his ministers are; for they may be impeached: so may a president of the United States. . . . But I lay no stress upon this point, as a practical means of enforcing responsibility, for reasons that will be more fully explained hereafter. The true point of responsibility rests upon the shortness of the period for which a president of the United States is elected, and the power which the people possess, of rejecting him at a succeeding election: a power, the more formidable, and energetic, as it remains in their hands, is untramelled by forms, and the exercise of it depends more upon opinion, than upon evidence. When brought before such a tribunal, in vain would a culpable president seek shelter under the flimsy veil, of advice of council; such a cobweb, like the net of Vulcan, would only expose him, more effectually.

On the ground of responsibility, then, an immense preference is due to the constitution of the United States: it is at least equal to that of Great-Britain on the ground of unanimity: for, as every executive measure must originate in the breast of the president, his plans will have all the benefit of uniformity, that can be expected to flow from the operations of any individual mind: let it be supposed that the senate reject one of his proposed measures; possessing a perfect acquaintance with the whole system of his own administration, he will naturally be led to adopt some other course, which shall neither retard, nor counteract any other part of his system. No British minister, whose measures are opposed in the cabinet, can do more; probably not so much: for a substitute may, perhaps, be obtruded upon him, by some other influential minister. But no such substitute can be obtruded upon a president of the United States; the power of the senate consisting rather in approving, or rejecting, than in advising or propounding, as already hinted.

The advantages of information, and dispatch, are probably equally in favour of the constitution of the American executive. The constitution of the United States has made ample provision for his aid in these respects, by assigning to him ministers to whom the conduct of each of the executive departments may be committed; from whom he may require all necessary information, as also their opinions in writing, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices; and whom, he may, moreover, remove at pleasure. Here we find a single executive officer substituted for a numerous board, where responsibility is divided, 'till it is entirely lost, and where the chance of unanimity lessens in geometrical proportion to the number that compose it.

The perpetuity of the office, is another boasted advantage of the constitution of the supreme executive magistrate in Great Britain. "The king never dies." . . . But Henry, Edward, or George may die, may be an infant in swaddling clothes, a superannuated dotard, or a raving maniac. Of what benefit is the immortality of the kingly office, in any of these instances? Can the puling infant, or the feeble hand of palsied age wield the sceptre, or can it be entrusted to the raving Bedlamite? A president of the United States cannot be the first: it is highly improbable that he will ever be the second; the constitution has provided for the third case; and for all others, of a similar kind. For, in the case of the removal of the president of the United States from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the same shall devolve on the vice-president; and congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation, or inability, both of the president and vice-president, declaring what officer shall then act as president, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a president shall be elected. Such provision has been accordingly made by law, and the executive authority in such a case, would immediately devolve upon the president of the senate pro tempore; or if there be no president of the senate, upon the speaker of the house of representatives, for the time being. Nothing is wanting to the perpetuity of the office, but a provision for it's continuance in case no president shall be elected at the period prescribed by the constitution. Such a case will probably not happen, until the people of the United States shall be weary of the present constitution and government, and adopt that method of putting a period to both. And it is, perhaps, among the recommendations of the constitution, that it thus furnishes the means of a peaceable dissolution of the government, if ever the crisis should arrive that may render such a measure eligible, or necessary. A crisis to be deprecated by every friend to his country.

To pursue the parallel between a king of England, and the president of the United States, a little further. A king of England is the fountain of honour, of office, and of privilege. Honours, as distinct from offices, are unknown in the U. States; so likewise are privileges. At least there are none, which a president of the United States can constitutionally create, or bestow. It is not so with respect to offices; these he can not constitutionally create; they must first be established by law. But when established, he has the exclusive right of nomination to all offices, whose appointments are not otherwise provided for by the constitution, or by some act of congress, to which his assent may be necessary, or may have been previously given. The influence which this power gives him, personally, is one of those parts of the constitution, which assimilates the government, in its administration, infinitely more nearly to that of Great Britain, than seems to consist with those republican principles, which ought to pervade every part of the federal constitution: at least so long as the union is composed of democratic states. On this subject we shall offer some further remarks hereafter.

The heir of a king of England may be born with all the vices of a Richard; with the tyrannical disposition, and cruelty of the eighth Henry; with the empty pride and folly of a James; with the cowardice and imbecility of a John; or with the stupid obstinacy, bigotry, or other depravity of temper, of any of his successors; he must nevertheless succeed to the throne of his fathers; his person is sacred and inviolable as if he were an Alfred; and unless his misdeeds are so rank as to bring him to the block, or force him to an abdication, he continues the lord's anointed all his days. A president of the United States must have attained the middle age of life, before he is eligible to that office: if not a native, he must have been fourteen years a resident in the United States: his talents and character must consequently be known. The faculties of his mind must have attained their full vigour: the character must be formed, and formed of active, not of passive materials, to attract, and secure the attention, and approbation of a people dispersed through such a variety of climate and situation, as the American people are. This activity of mind and of talent must have manifested itself on the side of virtue, before it can engage the favour of those who acknowledge no superiority of rights among individuals, and who are conscious that in promoting to office, they should choose a faithful agent, not a ruler, without responsibility. And should it happen, that they are after all deceived in their estimate of his character and worth, the lapse of four years enables them to correct their error, and dismiss him from their service. What nation governed by an hereditary monarch has an equal chance of happiness!

But, the tumult of popular elections, and the danger in elective monarchies, will be insisted on, as counterbalancing the advantage which we claim in behalf of the constitution of the executive magistrate in the United States. With regard to the latter, something will be said hereafter, when we examine the mode of electing a president of the United States. As to the former: if the sovereignty of the people of the United States, like that of the Roman and Grecian republics, resided in the inhabitants of a single city, or a small territory, the influence of men of popular talents would doubtless produce in certain conjunctures, similar events to those recorded in the annals of those republics. But nature herself seems to be enlisted on the side of the liberty and independence of the citizens of United America. Our cities are few; the population inconsiderable, compared with many of the capitals of ancient, or modern Europe: that population (from the unfavorable influence of climate for some years past) seems not likely to be extended very far beyond its present bounds, and probably will never bear any great proportion to the population of the country at large. This circumstance alone, would probably defeat any attempt to establish an undue influence in any part of the union. Agriculture is, and probably will for ages continue to be, the principal object of pursuit in the United States; and the period seems to be yet very far removed, when their population will be equal to the extent, and fertility of the soil. Europe has so far got the start of us in manufactures, that it is also probable, our population will not depend upon, nor derive any great increase from, them. Until it does, our towns will be principally confined to the sea coast, and, the interior of the United States will continue, as at present, the nurse of a hardy, independent yeomanry. A strong barrier between the United States and the countries which abound in the precious metals is devoutly to be wished by all, who can appreicate, properly, the blessings of liberty and peace. Whilst the ambition of America is limited to the cultivation of the arts of peace, and the science of free government; to the improvement, instead of the extention of her territory, and to the fortefying herself against enemies from within, as well as from without, by fostering, and encouraging the principles of genuine liberty; local influence can never be so formidable as to endanger the peace or happiness of the union, on any occasion. But, whenever our evil genius shall prompt us to aspire to the character of a military republic, and invite us to the field of glory: when rapacity, under the less odious name of ambition, shall lead us on to conquest; when a bold, though raw, militia shall be exchanged for a well trained, well disciplined and well appointed army; ready to take the field at the nod of an ambitious president, and to believe that the finger of heaven points to that course which his directs; then, may we regard the day of our happiness as past, or as hasting rapidly to its decline.

That provision in the constitution which requires that the president shall be a native-born citizen (unless he were a citizen of the United States when the constitution was adopted,) is a happy means of security against foreign influence, which, where-ever it is capable of being exerted, is to be dreaded more than the plague. The admission of foreigners into our councils, consequently, cannot be too much guarded against; their total exclusion from a station to which foreign nations have been accustomed to, attach ideas of sovereign power, sacredness of character, and hereditary right, is a measure of the most consummate policy and wisdom. It was by means of foreign connections that the stadtholder of Holland, whose powers at first were probably not equal to those of a president of the United States, became a sovereign hereditary prince before the late revolution in that country. Nor is it with levity that I remark, that the very title of our first magistrate, in some measure exempts us from the danger of those calamities by which European nations are almost perpetually visited. The title of king, prince, emperor, or czar, without the smallest addition to his powers, would have rendered him a member of the fraternity of crowned heads: their common cause has more than once threatened the desolation of Europe. To have added a member to this sacred family in America, would have invited and perpetuated among us all the evils of Pandora's Box.

The personal independence of the president is secured by that clause, which provides that he shall receive a compensation at stated periods, which shall not be diminished during his continuance in office. To guard against avarice, corruption, and venality, it is also provided, that it shall not be encreased during the same period, nor shall he receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or either of them. His salary, as now fixed by law, seems to be fully adequate, though far below the income of many private persons in England, and even in America.

The political independence of the president of the United States, so far as it is necessary to the preservation, protection, and defence of the constitution, is secured, not only by the limitations and restrictions which the constitution imposes upon the legislative powers of congress, but by a qualified negative on all their proceedings, as has been already mentioned elsewhere. This share in the proceedings of the federal legislature, which the constitution assigns to him, consists, like that of a king of England, in the power of rejecting, rather than resolving; a circumstance on which both judge Blackstone, and de Lolme, lay considerable stress; and is one of the grounds upon which the latter founds his preference of that constitution to the republican system. In republics, he tells us, the laws usually originate with the executive; it is otherwise in all the American states. In England, the laws do, in fact, originate with the executive: a revenue bill is always proposed by the chancellor of the exchequer, or some member of that department; and it is understood to be the practice, that every other measure of considerable magnitude and importance is first discussed in the privy council, before it is brought into parliament; where it is generally introduced, and the bill prepared by some of the officers of the crown. The preference which de Lolme gives to the English constitution, therefore, is not altogether well founded. The negative of the president of the United States is not final, like that of the king of England, but suspensive. Neither is the expression of his assent absolutely necessary to the establishment of a law, for if he witholds his decision beyond the period of ten days (exclusive of Sundays) his assent shall be presumed. He may retard for a few days, but cannot prevent any beneficial measure, provided two-thirds of both houses concur in the opinion of its expediency. Thus, the part assigned to him by the constitution is strictly preventative, and not creative; yet this preventative is so modified as never to operate conclusively, but in those cases where it may be presumed the congress have acted unadvisedly through haste or oversight: and we may safely conclude, that where the deliberate sense of two-thirds of both houses of congress shall induce them to persist in any measure to which the president shall have given his negative, it will neither militate with the constitution, nor with the interest of their constituents. There is one instance (besides a question of adjournment) in which his assent appears not to be required; this is, when two-thirds of both houses have concurred in proposing to the states any amendment of the constitution: in this case, the concurrence of two-thirds of both houses being required in the first instance, his assent is dispensed with, as his dissent would be unavailing.

. . . . .

Nothing in the constitution prohibits the re-election of a president as often as the approbation of his country may confer that distinction upon him. If his re-election were to depend entirely upon a majority of votes in the first instance, I should think the argument would be in favour of the principle. But what if a president of the United States should so far have lost the confidence of the people of the respective states, as not to have a majority of the votes of the state electors, in his favour? What, if he should so far have forfeited their esteem, as to be the lowest of five candidates, on the list, neither of whom should have such a majority, as to decide the election? Should we not, in such a case, with indignation behold him continued in office, by the votes of one fourth part of the house of representatives, against the other three? This might be sufficiently guarded against, by an amendment, providing that no president, for the time being, should ever be re-elected, unless he had not only the greatest number of votes in his favour, but a majority of the votes of all the electors appointed. As corruption can only be dreaded on the part of bad men, and is always to be dreaded from them, a president who may have lost the confidence of the citizens of the United States at large, would be the first person with whom the practice of corruption may be expected to commence.

The period for which a president is elected, as has been already noticed, is four years. By many it is thought too long: it seems long enough to give him an opportunity of bringing to a mature conclusion any measures which he may have undertaken for the good of the nation; and it has been thought short enough, for the people to displace him in sufficient time, where his conduct may not have merited approbation, on the one hand, or impeachment, on the other. Much evil, however, may be generated, and even matured, in the compass of four years. . . . Of removal from office by impeachment, no president will ever be in danger. But of this hereafter. I can see no inconvenience that would result from more frequent elections; there may be danger, if the constitution be not so amended as to provide for them. . . . The convention of this state proposed as an amendment to the constitution, That no person should be capable of being president of the United States for more than eight years, in any term of sixteen years. It might have been better to have selected the half of these periods, respectively.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 2, Section 1, Clause 1, Document 18
The University of Chicago Press

Tucker, St. George. Blackstone's Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia. 5 vols. Philadelphia, 1803. Reprint. South Hackensack, N.J.: Rothman Reprints, 1969.

Easy to print version.