Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Federalist 70 is the heart of Hamilton’s investigation of the nature of executive power. Publius returns to “energy,” a theme that he has addressed frequently in his essays as a necessary attribute of government generally, and the Union in particular. As executive power is the essence of government, energy is the essence of executive power. Energy in the executive produces vigor in the administration of law and expeditiousness in response to necessity. Too much energy, however, can threaten republican government and personal liberty. The secret is to find the constitutional version of Aristotle’s golden mean.

The Antifederalists had a lavish panorama of historical examples to illustrate the dangers of energetic executives. They proposed a multiple executive, instead, examples of which were spread throughout history, while others were close at hand in the states. Multiple executives are of several types. One, such as the consuls and tribunes of Rome or the kings of Sparta, are of equal dignity and can veto each other’s acts. Another, more favored by the states and based on the republican variant of the old British model, involves a governor-and-council structure.

There are others, not mentioned in Federalist 70. One is the modern British cabinet model, where ministers hold their portfolio independent of the “prime” minister through election by the party. Formally, they are the monarch’s ministers, but today this is a quaint fiction, as the monarch reigns as head of state, but does not rule. An American version of this can be found in the governments of many states, where various executive officials are elected independent of the governor. Those officials, like the California Attorney General, Secretary of State, and others, derive their powers directly from the state constitution and election by the people, not from appointment by the chief executive.

As anyone who has worked on a committee or sat in a meeting knows, the more people there are, the less of substance gets done, and the exponentially longer it takes to do so. Veterans of faculty meetings can bear particularly melancholy witness to those truths. Hamilton urges that multiplicity is welcome in the legislative department, where deliberation and the “wisdom of the multitude” are valuable to reach a “right” decision and to protect the rights of the minority. Indeed, haste in the passage of laws will result in badly-written legislation with unintended or—if the law is so long and complex that it has not even been read—unknown consequences, as well as in laws that may be against the people’s wishes.

In the executive, however, delays and indecision are damaging. As a member of General Washington’s staff, Hamilton personally must have been keenly aware of the incapacity of the Continental Congress and even the Board of War, its agency, to direct the war effort reliably and effectively. A multiple executive also courts the evils of faction, undermining stability. At the same time, a successful cabal among multiple executives can magnify their danger to liberty.

It is crucial, then, that the executive be unitary, to provide the requisite energy and vigor to accomplish the objectives of government expeditiously and without endangering the respect for law that haphazard and desultory administration brings. There are other benefits from a unitary executive, ones that, at the same time, provide the most effective protections of liberty. Those are transparency and accountability. It has been said that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Having a single decision-maker shines the light of responsibility on him: “The buck stops here.” The best protection against abuse by an overly-energetic executive is, predictably, the vigilance of the people expressed at the next election. But they cannot exercise that vigilance when multiple parties are pointing fingers at each other the way that members of Congress do when policies they have been championing become political liabilities. Nor can responsibility readily be gauged when politically tough issues are shunted onto appointed commissions, such as “deficit commissions,” whose “recommendations” are treated as binding.

Another limit on the executive comes through formal restraints. Some are institutional, such as fixed terms and removal through impeachment. Others are more in line with the “auxiliary precautions” Publius defends in Federalist 51 in connection with separation and balancing of powers. Examples are the qualified nature of the veto and the Senate’s role in approving treaties, in both of which the President is engaged in making law. With the exception of the appointment power, however, there are no formal limits on his explicit executive functions.

The objectives of executive government that Hamilton cites are instructive: Protecting against foreign attacks, securing liberty against domestic subversion, protecting property against riots and insurrection, and administering the law in an impartial and constant manner. In this classic political minimalism, one notes the absence of the trappings of the modern administrative Leviathan that has taken over functions best left to other institutions.

Despite the assertions in Federalist 70, the nature of the executive branch was ambiguous when the government convened. Hamilton, a fan of the British political system, contributed to that uncertainty. As Treasury Secretary, he envisioned the cabinet as an approximation of the British system, with the President as chief of state and as someone who presided over the administration of policies determined by rather willful cabinet officials exercising independent authority. Due to his close connection as Treasury Secretary to Congressional policy-making (and his long personal relationship with George Washington), Hamilton envisioned himself as the prime minister in this arrangement. There was some constitutional plausibility to this conception of a moderate multiple executive, as the Constitution provides that Congress can create a limited appointment power in “heads of departments” and sets up the Senate in some ways like the governor-and-council system. The Senate not only votes to approve appointments and treaties, it technically has an “advice and consent” role that could be read as requiring formal Senate participation before the president nominates an officer or makes a treaty.

Several developments arrested any significant movement in that direction. Textually, the Constitution vests the executive power entirely in the President, subject only to specified limitations, a point Hamilton himself urged further in his 1793 Pacificus essays during the debates over the Neutrality Proclamation. Politically, Hamilton left the Cabinet in 1795, reducing his influence, a trend that was accelerated when his patron, President Washington, left two years later. Even while Hamilton was in the Cabinet, Washington was not the type of person content to play a passive role. He favored a vigorous presidency, and it was clear that, while he listened carefully to his officials, he made the decisions. The Senate-as-council role was buried when Washington, after one soured attempt at consultation before treaty negotiations in 1789, refused to set foot in the building again. Washington’s presidency was intended to help define the ambiguous contours of the president’s powers, and he set the office firmly on the course of the unitary executive.

As a functional constitutional matter, the issue was settled over the course of the debate over the president’s power to fire executive officials at will. A presidential removal power is not specified in the Constitution, so it has to be implied from other powers. Though Hamilton wanted a strong executive, he appears to have favored the view that the president’s power to remove officials can only come from his power to appoint. As the latter requires Senatorial consent, so must the former, a position Hamilton endorses in Federalist 77. The reason for his support of what at first blush appears to be a dilution of executive unity is that he liked the British style of government. Presidents could come and go, but, if a new president could not unilaterally remove members of the Cabinet, those members gained political independence. Effectively, that made them the policy-makers and administrators as long as they maintained the confidence of the Senate. With that qualification, Hamilton favored a strong, independent executive branch.

The removal power occupied the first Congress’s attention. The matter was resolved by artful language in a statute that implied that the President had the inherent executive power to remove the secretary of state. While this was a victory for the unitary executive argument, there remained ambiguities. President Andrew Jackson won a clear political victory in favor of the unitary executive doctrine by removing the secretary of the treasury when the latter disobeyed a presidential order, even though Congress had given the secretary the discretion to act as he did. Analogous to Hamilton’s implied executive powers theory of the Pacificus letters, Jackson argued that the appointment and removal powers were both executive powers that, unless expressly limited by the Constitution, belonged to the President as head of the unitary executive branch.

As the removal controversy demonstrates, the unitary executive broadly implicates separation of powers that finds concrete expression in provisions of the Constitution. If those provisions are elastic, such as the executive power clause, the “take care” clause, or the commander-in-chief clause, the line between execution of policy and legislation of policy can become blurred. The need to find limits is matched by the difficulty of doing so. Much depends in specific cases on formal precedent (legislative, executive, and judicial) and customary constitutional practice shaped by broad popular acceptance. For example, the unitary executive theory underlies doctrines of executive immunity and executive privilege. Those concepts are not expressly addressed in the Constitution but are obviously connected to an energetic executive branch and the unitary executive that animates it. Though the Supreme Court did not address executive privilege until 1974, it arose early in the Washington administration, when the President set a precedent followed by almost all his successors. In implied powers cases, the need for action often determines the outcome, and foreign relations, military affairs, national security, and emergencies define their own scope of action.

Despite Jackson’s victory and a long history in support of the unitary executive, controversy still flares occasionally. A recent challenge to the unitary executive theory has involved presidential “signing statements.” These have long been used as expressions of reservation about the constitutionality of a proposed law. Critics argue that the president can veto the bill, if he believes it to be unconstitutional. If the Congress overrides the veto, is the president then bound to enforce the bill? He is obligated to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, but there is also the long tradition of executive discretion in the enforcement of laws. Moreover, if the law invades a presidential power or is otherwise unconstitutional, the president can refuse to enforce this statute.

Laws, however, are often many-layered creations. Why should the president have to veto the whole effort just to avoid enforcing one objectionable part? A signing statement can help. In fact, the signing statement puts everyone on notice about the president’s intentions. They are constitutional because the president as head of the executive branch is independently responsible under the Constitution for the actions of the whole branch in the enforcement of laws.

The unitary nature of the executive also has been challenged by some who cite to the existence of a vast array of “independent” administrative agencies as contrary evidence. Since the 1930s, the Supreme Court has upheld Congress’s power to limit the President’s removal power in regards to officers of independent agencies. Using the unitary executive theory, presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have formally rejected the assertion these agencies are beyond the President’s removal power. Such agencies are performing executive functions and are not otherwise recognized under the Constitution as a fourth branch of government. One may wonder, though, whether any dilution of the unitary executive paradigm is really the problem. The sheer growth of government (of which administrative agencies are the most significant part) is probably more responsible for the dearth of transparency and accountability citizens endure.

Critics of the administrative state see this exception from the application of the general rules for  separation and balance of powers as more evidence that these agencies are unconstitutional. The still-growing reach of the regulatory state assures that the issue will not go away. As the matter involves fundamental and shifting boundaries between the legislative and executive domains, it is thoroughly political and admits of no definitive settlement. But the broad theory of the Constitution has been settled in favor of the unitary executive that Hamilton defends in Federalist 70 and his later writings.

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

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


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  1. […] Unitary acolytes frequently invoke Alexander Hamilton’s arguments in favor of a strong chief executive, set forth in Federalist Paper No. 70, as proof that the founding fathers intended to endow the president with sweeping controls. […]

  2. […] Hardline proponents of the unitary theory also frequently invoke Alexander Hamilton’s arguments in favor a strong chief executive, set forth in Federalist Paper No. 70, as proof that the Founding Fathers intended to endow the president with sweeping authority. […]

  3. […] proponents of the unitary theory also frequently invoke Alexander Hamilton’s arguments in favor a strong chief executive, set […]

  4. […] proponents of the unitary theory also frequently invoke Alexander Hamilton’s arguments in favor a strong chief executive, set […]

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