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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the reason for the design of the executive branch and its plausible alternatives
  • Analyze the way presidents have expanded presidential power and why
  • Identify the limitations on a president's power

Since its invention at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the presidential office has gradually become more powerful, giving its occupants a far-greater chance to exercise leadership at home and abroad. The role of the chief executive has changed over time, as various presidents have confronted challenges in domestic and foreign policy in times of war as well as peace, and as the power of the federal government has grown.

Inventing the presidency

The Articles of Confederation    made no provision for an executive branch, although they did use the term “president” to designate the presiding officer of the Confederation Congress, who also handled other administrative duties.

Articles of Confederation, Article XI, 1781.
The presidency was proposed early in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia by Virginia’s Edmund Randolph, as part of James Madison’s proposal for a federal government, which became known as the Virginia Plan    . Madison offered a rather sketchy outline of the executive branch, leaving open whether what he termed the “national executive” would be an individual or a set of people. He proposed that Congress select the executive, whose powers and authority, and even length of term of service, were left largely undefined. He also proposed a “council of revision” consisting of the national executive and members of the national judiciary, which would review laws passed by the legislature and have the power of veto.
Jack Rakove and Susan Zlomke. 1987. “James Madison and the Independent Executive,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 17, No. 2: 293–300.

Early deliberations produced agreement that the executive would be a single person, elected for a single term of seven years by the legislature, empowered to veto legislation, and subject to impeachment and removal by the legislature. New Jersey’s William Paterson offered an alternate model as part of his proposal, typically referred to as the small-state or New Jersey Plan    . This plan called for merely amending the Articles of Confederation to allow for an executive branch made up of a committee elected by a unicameral Congress for a single term. Under this proposal, the executive committee would be particularly weak because it could be removed from power at any point if a majority of state governors so desired. Far more extreme was Alexander Hamilton’s suggestion that the executive power be entrusted to a single individual. This individual would be chosen by electors, would serve for life, and would exercise broad powers, including the ability to veto legislation, the power to negotiate treaties and grant pardons in all cases except treason, and the duty to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces ( [link] ).

Image A is a painting of Alexander Hamilton. Image B is a painting of George Washington.
Alexander Hamilton (a), who had served under General George Washington (b) during the Revolutionary War, argued for a strong executive in Federalist No. 70. Indeed, ten other Federalist Papers discuss the role of the presidency.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, American government. OpenStax CNX. Dec 05, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11995/1.15
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