In Federalist 69, Hamilton responds to the charge by the Constitution’s opponents that the president is an American king. He compares the powers of the “president of confederated America” (interesting phrasing) under the Constitution with those of the king of Great Britain and the governor of New York. He chooses the latter for several reasons. First, the essays of Publius are written during the pendency of the New York and Virginia ratifying conventions and were obviously intended in the first instance to influence those closely-fought skirmishes.
Second, Hamilton was deeply involved in state politics as a member of the downstate faction that favored both the Constitution and, later, the Federalist Party. Though it is hard to believe today, New York City politically was, in many ways, a Tory town. It was a hotbed of Loyalist sentiment during the Revolutionary War, so much so that the British made it their headquarters. Hamilton was intimately familiar with the operation of his state’s government and, given the emerging significance of the city and state, would find New York’s system more important than others’.
Third, the governor of New York was a rather strong chief executive compared to the state governors at the time. Comparing the president’s powers favorably to those of a republican American state executive would resonate particularly well with the persuadable delegates by avoiding charges that comparing the prerogatives of the president to those of the British monarch was irrelevant to the cause, as no American king was to be crowned.
But there is one more reason. The governor of New York, George Clinton, was the presiding officer at the convention and a staunch Antifederalist. He was also a member of the upstate Albany faction politically opposed to Hamilton. Clinton is the likely author of potent attacks on the Constitution in “Letters of Cato.” Many historians believe that it was the publication of some of those letters that induced the Constitution’s supporters to organize the effort that became The Federalist. The executive was one of Cato’s particular concerns. In an essay published four months before Federalist 69, Cato labeled the president the “generalissimo of the nation,” assailed the scope of the president’s powers, compared those powers alarmingly with those of the king of Great Britain (especially the war power), and warned, “You must, however, my countrymen, beware that the advocates of this new system do not deceive you by a fallacious resemblance between it and your own state government [New York]….If you examine, you…will be convinced that this government is no more like a true picture of your own than an Angel of Darkness resembles an Angel of Light.” Hamilton had no choice but to respond.
The result is a brief comparative overview, the particulars of which do not matter much today, as the king’s prerogatives, already circumscribed then, are virtually non-existent now. The essay does provide an introduction to various powers of the president, most of which are in Article II of the Constitution. Hamilton will delve into greater detail of various of them over the course of Federalist 73 to 77.
The Framers saw Congress as the most dangerous branch, and the one most likely to encroach on the domain of the others. While there were dangers in an independent and powerful executive, the lessons from the Revolutionary War and life under the Articles showed the need for just such an officer. The turbulence of state governments with weak and dependent executives only proved the point. Most agreed that a strong, independent executive was needed. But, how strong?
What is significant for us is the dog that does not bark, the constitutional clauses that are not mentioned by Publius. Not long after the Constitution was approved, Hamilton used the occasion of Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793 to advance a broad theory of implied executive powers. His position, vigorously challenged by Madison during the Pacificus-Helvidius debates, was that the president has all powers that are not denied to him under the Constitution either expressly or by unambiguous grant to another branch. That approach has been used by subsequent presidents to fuel the expansion of executive power.
Article II is rather short, and the president’s powers few and specific. Beyond that, the boundaries are vague. It was broadly understood that George Washington would be the first president. The general recognition of his propriety and incorruptibility meant that he would have discretion to define the boundaries of the office. Indeed, Washington was expected to do so, and he was well aware of that responsibility. In addition to the oath of office, there are three clauses whose text suggests room for discretion. Those three, the executive power clause, the commander-in-chief clause, and the clause that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” have proved to be generous reservoirs of necessary implied executive powers.
Publius spends little time on the commander-in-chief clause, and essentially none on the others. He portrays the role of the president as if he would be confined to leading the troops in military engagements. While Washington, with Hamilton as his aide, actually dressed in military regalia and mounted up to lead troops during the Whiskey Rebellion, they soon delegated that project to General “Light Horse Harry” Lee. That is the least likely role of the president today. Indeed, even during the ratification debates, that was a questionable view not usually advocated, as it frightened republicans by blurring the line between civilian control and military command and was thought likely to lead to the election of “military chieftains.”
The executive power clause is the principal source for the president’s implied or inherent powers, those that the president’s detractors would disparagingly call royal or prerogative powers. The textual significance is that, while Article I says that, “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress …,” Article II declares that, “The executive power shall be vested in a President …”[italics added]. That affirmative grant to the president has to mean something, and –unlike Article I regarding Congress–it has to mean more than the powers mentioned later in the text. The question ever since has been, “Just what does it mean?” Presidents have massaged that ambiguity and the flexibility of the other elastic clauses mentioned to act unilaterally, as necessity demands, usually in military affairs, foreign relations, and national security matters. Executive unilateralism came under particular scrutiny by Congress, the courts, the academy, and the media during the Bush(43) administration, though interest in that topic has slackened since the election of 2008–perhaps not coincidentally.
Not surprisingly, as advocate for the Constitution’s adoption, Hamilton does not spend time defending, or even recognizing, the theory of implied executive powers that he embraced soon thereafter. The enumeration of specific limited presidential powers and Hamilton’s soothing interpretations in Federalist 69 do not give due credit to the possible sweep of the executive office. His next essay presents a more forthright defense of the need for an energetic executive.
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. His website is http://www.tokenconservative.com