The office of The Presidency

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The office of The Presidency

Arguing for a strong, central figure of authority in the American President, Alexander Hamilton made his feelings quite explicit in Federalist No. 70 that duplicity in regards to the Presidency is an undesirable position. For Hamilton, history was replete with examples of shared responsibility or rule-by-partnership which provoked tragic results. The lesson of history, according to Hamilton, was to avoid creating any discrepancy in Presidential authority while simultaneously preventing the President in an American Constitutional democracy from becoming an autocrat.

Although Hamilton leaves little room for second-guessing on the topic of a duplicitous leader, his reasoning admits that his ideas are based on an understanding of human nature: “Wherever two or more persons are engaged in any common enterprise or pursuit, there is always danger of difference of opinion [… ] Whenever these happen, they lessen the respectability, weaken the authority, and distract the plans and operation of those whom they divide” (Hamilton).

This assertion, of course, begs the question as to whether or not leaders, even in a Constitutional democracy must be expected to rise, at least to some degree, above the mean average of human impulse. A counter-argument of sorts is presented in Madison’s Federalist No. 51, which should be examined in tandem with Hamilton’s assertions. Hamilton’s ideas about human nature may be evident in the extant history of the United States. Presidential authority within the constitutional democracy of the United States has posed a continuous and evolving potential threat to the integrity of a government formed “by the people for the people.

Whether by the machinations and ambitions of the personally ambitious and influential, or by an endemic tendency for all social systems to unify and in doing so, centralize authority, a pattern of political and judicial evolution toward Presidential supremacy is evident in the political history of America. The mounting supremacy of Presidential authority in the United States presents a profound and complex challenge for the present generation and the determination of exactly where and how the President’s authority can be checked will prove to be of great consequence for the future of not only domestic, but international, affairs.

Hamilton’s suggestion that a robust and energetic leader is a desirable consequence in a democracy: “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” (Hamilton), the potential for the dangerous expansion (and possible supremacy) of Presidential authority exists within the original Constitution. The executive authority given the President led many of the original framers to express reticence regarding the development of a new monarch.

Some modern political scientists believe that this is exactly what is taking place now and has been taking place over the course of US political history: “we have changed our constitutional democracy into a political democracy[… ] substituted an unwritten for a written constitution and a government of laws for a government of men. This means that the principles of the American Revolution, as the foundation of our constitutional system, have been destroyed and that we have returned to the principles of the British system. ” (Patterson, 1947, p. ) Such a dire pronouncement may seem like hyperbole, however, several key points contribute to this rather scathing indictment.

First, there is the issue of national unity, a fact which modern communications, transportations, educational and economic systems have made unavoidable. “Since 1789 the movement toward national unity has developed far more rapidly. In this respect, we have only followed the law of the life of nations, beginning in isolation, passing through confederation, and ending in unity. ” (Patterson, 1947, p. 6) Unity heralds a sole leader, rather than a “confedaration” of leaders. Secondly, the two-party political system has allowed for the centralization of political power within the congress.

“The powers necessary for presidential supremacy had first to be centralized in the Congress before the control of the Congress by the President would give him national supremacy. The President has facilitated this movement by urging the Congress to seize power to enact his policies into law and by making appointments to the Supreme Court. ” (Patterson, 1947, p. 7) The movement toward unity entails the expansion of the federal bureaucracy, which in turn, enhances Presidential authority. “The tremendous growth in the functions of the national government have necessarily multiplied executive agents by the hundreds of thousands. The President cannot perform this multiplicity of services without authority and without an army of subordinates. ” (Patterson, 1947, p. 77)

These factors, plus the politicization of the ensuing civil and legislative offices, greatly enhance the scope of Presidential authority. The fact that the President has become our political executive is not exclusively a result of the development of political parties though without a party system, or a party in the totalitarian sense, there could be no political executive. ” (Patterson, 1947, p. 84) Perhaps one of the most critical and complex issues which faced the framers of the United States constitution was that of how to limit the government and associated governmental beuracacy while ensuring that the Federal government retained enough power and authority to interpret and enforce the constitution itself.

As Madison remarks in the opening lines of his now-famous “Federalist #51”, there can be no more urgent an issue, nor one which so directly confronts both the self-interested nature of the individual, but the self-interested nature of government itself: “to what expedient, then, shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the Constitution? ” (Madison, 1788).

The “partition of power” is a key phrase and contains within it the seeds of Madison answer to his own opening, rhetorical question. Madison offers a direct and seemingly mandatory vision of how the partition of power should be best accomplished: “The only answer that[… ] by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places” (Madison, 1788).

This conclusion is commonly referred to as the “system of checks and balances” upon which the democracy of the United States is founded. Madison’s observations in “Federalist #51” are frank and founded upon concerns that the basic self-interests of human-beings, coupled with the “leviathan” power of the State pose the continual potential for dictatorship and the subversion of the constitution itself.

In this light, there is an almost exclamatory tone to Madison’s writing and there is, without a doubt, a tone of warning in the following, famous passage: But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others[… Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. (Madison, 1788) In Colonial times, no mistake would have been about just what kind of “encroachments of others” Madison meant to illustrate: the potential of personal ambition to trump the idealism of a democratic government founded upon principles of liberty and equality.

Similarly, the idea of connecting the interests of the individual with constitutional principles is an exceedingly complex idea, but one which would have been explicit, in consequence, to the Colonial framers of the constitution. Madison means no less than: all citizens of a democracy must put the principles of that democracy, its traditions, its institutions, laws, and integrity above their personal ambitions and self-interests.

The subtext of this, of course, is that all men’s self-interests are ultimately best-served by a government which enables them to live free and which enables them to pursue their self-interests to a point of true liberty; however, the maintenence of the constitution and the democratic state, which are, in actuality, protections against the propensity of governments to turn oppressive and hostile, must be regarded as more essential, more important than the mere personal self-interests of those who serve in government.

Against this summation, Hamilton’s assertion that responsibility has two aspects becomes hat much more provocative: Responsibility is of two kinds — to censure and to punishment. The first is the more important of the two, especially in an elective office. Man, in public trust, will much oftener act in such a manner as to render him unworthy of being any longer trusted, than in such a manner as to make him obnoxious to legal punishment (Hamilton). What Hamilton is saying is that the concentration of power and responsibility in the figure of the President leads to a greater amount of accountability in government.

By contrast, Madison viewed the American people, as a whole, as being the “firewall” of the democratic traditions the President was theoretically bound to serve. However, the idea that individuals in high positions of power must function both as facilitators of the democracy but also as a ‘check” against the possible tyranny of the majority is also an idea which Madison sets forth in this paper which is quite a radical idea: “Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens.

If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure” (Madison, 1788). In conclusion, Hamilton’s “Federalist #70” is one of the most important political documents associated with the framing of the US constitution and forms a remarkable counterpoint to Madison’s thought. Both writings represent an attempt by the framers to pinpoint the points of danger and structural weakness in both the democratic form of government and the innate nature of the citizens who comprise that democracy.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 8 November 2016

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