On this day in 1787, an author writing under the pseudonym “Cato” writes his fourth contribution to the anti-Federalist Papers. These papers argued against the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states.
Cato worries that the new office of President has been given too much power, particularly when combined with a long four-year-term in office. He reminds his readers that the philosopher Montesquieu warned about limiting the terms of magistrates in republics: “[T]he greatness of the power must be compensated by the brevity of the duration.”
In this case, a long-serving President will end up with many “adherents,” “expectants and courtiers.” He will also have power over nominations, the military, and pardons. “[I]f the president is possessed of ambition,” Cato concludes, “he has power and time sufficient to ruin his country.”
Cato does not think that the requirement for the Senate’s “advice and consent” is a sufficient check. The President “is without a constitutional council in their recess.” Thus, he will “be unsupported by proper information and advice, and will generally be directed by minions and favorites, or a council of state will grow out of the principal officers of the great departments, the most dangerous council in a free country.”
At this point, I am sorry to report that Cato is not entirely supportive of the presidential election process (although a portion of his discontent is aimed at the back-up House contingent procedure, not the Electoral College itself). “[B]y the manner in which the president is chosen he arrives to this office at the fourth or fifth hand,” Cato explains, “nor does the highest votes, in the way he is elected, determine the choice—for it is only necessary that he should be taken from the highest of five, who may have a plurality of votes [in the House contingent election].”
I am reporting this so as to present a fair summary of Cato’s views, of course. But you guys know that I disagree with him for all the reasons found in my book! www.ElectoralCollegeBook.com And it is important to note that the mode of presidential election received remarkably little criticism, overall, as the Constitution was being considered.
Cato returns to the general subject of the President and his powers. Why, Cato wonders, is this system being considered at all? Didn’t Americans just get away from a “monarchical government”? Where does the Constitution’s President, he wonders “essentially differ from the king of Great-Britain”? The President has many of the same powers, such as receiving ambassadors, making treaties (along with the Senate), approving legislation, commanding the army, and pardoning offenses.
“[E]xperience ought to teach you,” he concludes, “that when a man is at the head of an elective government invested with great powers, and interested in his re-election, in what circle appointments will be made; by which means an imperfect aristocracy bordering on monarchy may be established.”