As the Articles of Confederation’s lengthy list of problems and shortcomings grew unbearable, it was quite obvious that in order to succeed the United States of America needed a new governing doctrine. This is exactly what a group of the brightest, most influential Americans set out to do in the summer of 1787. The constitutional convention, as it is known today, is one of the most important occurrences in modern politics. It birthed the constitution of the United States which would go on to govern one of the most powerful states of all time for 200 plus years(with a few amendments along the way). Although the constitution was written, the battle for ratification created potentially the most studied and important debate in American history. On one side of the debate stood the Federalists. In the most simple definition, federalists were the American people who were in favor of a more unified group of states under a central authority. Their most famous members included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay who led a widespread effort to promote ratification of the new constitution by releasing periodic essays in several of New York’s most prominent newspapers. Led by Alexander Hamilton and under the pseudonym “Publius”, these men rigidly argued that this constitution would be the safest course of liberty for the American people. Jay argues in Federalist 2 that the sole intention and responsibility of the framers of this constitution was to create a doctrine that would defend the civil liberties and physical safety of the American people, and their sole inspiration being the love for their country. In the following short essay I intend on firstly describing the proposed structure and function of the executive branch with regard to the federalist papers, secondly presenting the challenges and problems that the anti-federalist found in this proposed executive branch, then discussing the relevance of the intentions and fears that were presented in this debate with regard to the modern day, and lastly conclude my thoughts. (Hamilton, Fed:1) (Jay, Fed:2)
Before jumping into the proposed function and structure of the branch itself I would like to discuss some of the biggest fears that are presented in the Federalist Papers. The biggest fear that Hamilton presents himself in the first ten essays is the fear of competition amongst the states. He feels that without clear and consistent unification that the states would end up much like the states in Europe. For hundreds of years, the European states were constantly jockeying for political leverage by way of military might. He argues that this hostility leads to oppression of citizens, because the constant need for defense and war power would lead to an overpowered executive branch. Hamilton even says ‘The military state becomes elevated above the civil,’ in circumstances like this. Also the union would deter foriegn invaders as well, because of the threat of going to war with the entire union as opposed to one state. It is interesting to look at the formation of the EU with regard to this fear but I will refrain from the contemporary until the latter portion of this essay. (Hamilton, Fed: 6 & 7)
I would also like to take a look at Federalist 51 with regard to the Executive Branch. This essay highlights the function of checks and balances in the new constitution. Madison felt it was completely essential for each branch to act independently of one another. He believes that this is the only way to secure liberty. Madison famously states that “if men were angels” there wouldn’t be a need for checks and balances, but that is just not the case. These ideas surrounding checks and balances stem from the enlightenment politics of Europe specifically Locke. This essay really establishes how fundamental checks and balances are to the function of each branch and how each branch fits into their specific political rule. These checks and balances are essentially safeguards against one branch gaining superiority, branch dependency on one another, factions, and tyranny by way of Monarch.(Madison, Fed: 51)
Now moving onto the function I will be focusing on essay 67 through 70, because this is where the federalists detail the role and application of the executive. The most important role of the Executive Branch is maintaining the army. First and foremost the president is the commander and chief of the national military. But he can not use it at his discretion. Congress must first declare war on a nation before the military can be utilized. This being said the right to form a state militia still remains in the hands of the people and the states. Next, the president has the power to pardon, but again this is not absolute. If the president may still be impeached and thrown out of office if found guilty himself. This is another important check. The executive also has a lot of power with regard to foriegn policy and treaty making. This is one of the it’s main roles. The president not only appoints foriegn ambassadors but he also acts as one himself. Next, the president holds the power to veto, but again this is not absolute. The president may veto bills that he finds problematic but if the legislature then proceeds to vote two thirds in favor the bill will be passed. The last function of the executive that is explained is the power to appoint officials. The executive branch is really just responsible for the application of the legislation as well as development of the governmental organization. The most important duty of the branch is maintaining and using the army. The federalists really saw the importance of having a strong executive and knew in order for the union to succeed the branch would need strength. The safeguards that Hamilton detailed so intensely is what sold people on the idea of the executive even with the overarching fear of a tyrannical monarchy that plagued the states. (Hamilton, Fed:67-70)
In essay 68 the election process is detailed and describes how the electoral college would ensure the proper decision of both president and vice president. He also goes through the term limit decision and term length, which they concluded was the perfect length and number to promote stability as well as ensure that the president was acting in the interest of the constituents. Essay 70 is also very important for the function of the branch because it details the need for it to be unitary. Hamilton felt it best for a decisive fast action executive to counterbalance the slow moving legislature as well as defend the powers vested in the branch. This would also ensure that the government itself could act fast in times of emergency as well as civil need. (Hamilton, Fed:70)
This brings me to my next section of the essay. The fear of a monarch was not something created by the anti-federalist. Right when the states gained their independence from Great Britain their number one objective when creating a new government was to avoid tyranny at all costs. This is why Hamilton focuses much on the checks that would prevent the executive from developing supremacy over the other branches. This was by far the biggest challenge presented to the framers. The main question was why would the framers purpose a government with such a strong executive branch after the revolution. Like I said before the federalists knew it would be necessary in order to guarantee success, liberty, and safety. Hamilton makes a point in essay 67 to break the misconception that the executive could potentially control congress. He first establishes that the executive would have no say in appointments that are specifically listed in the constitution. He also shows that the majority of the appointments would require congressional approval in general. He also answers the question of recess appointments, and goes into detail how the president’s appointments would only be temporary and again require approval. (Hamilton, Fed:67)
Much of the arguments made by Hamilton and Madison in response to the anti-federalists are centered around avoiding a tyrant as the executive. Again I think the response really comes back to essay 51. The checks and balances are the insurance against tyranny by any branch. This was specifically important to get right and this is why we see the explanation of appointments and veto powers in several of the essays. (Madison, Fed:51)
In the past several decades we have seen a preposterous rise in executive power. I think that this really began with the presidency of FDR, where he was able to really overstep the powers of the branch and gain supremacy. From stacking the courts to the creation of several government agencies that have overstepped constitutional provisions and limited the civil liberties of Americans. The man even served more than the allotted two terms. Although it could have ended up a lot worse, FDR was basically a king.
Like I discussed briefly before the assimilation of the European Union reminds me a lot of the United State formation, and I think it has done great things to encourage economic activity and disencourage war. Nuclear weapons also certainly discourages traditional warfare, but still we see the US military being used everyday. Despite no formal declaration of war the CIA and military has been involved in several wars from profit under the blanket excuse of “executive action”. The neverending crisis in the middle east is a direct result of the bloated power of the executive branch.
Lastly, the election process of the president was not done correctly. Several presidents were elected without winning the popular vote such as Donald Trump and George W. Bush, 270 to win criteria has created the two party system which I believe is one of the biggest things holding American politics back and just isn’t effective in promoting the ideas and ideals of the American people. In conclusion, the framers did a very good job of creating a system of government that worked for a very long time and created one of the most powerful states ever, but the lack of adaptation and general refusal to reform has poisoned our government system. Our current president is a reflection of that.