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The Federalist Papers: No. 70

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 70 was published. Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) begins a more detailed examination of the presidency. Some of you will really dislike the next few papers! Publius lays out the arguments for a strong executive.

Maybe it will help to remember two things: (1) Generally speaking, when the Founders spoke of a strong executive or a strong government, they meant something different than what we would mean today. The founding generation was emerging from life under the Articles of Confederation: That document created a government that was much too weak. We have the opposite problem today. (2) Hamilton wants the Chief Executive to be strong in the areas where he has been delegated power. That does NOT mean that he wants him to be strong in other areas, in which he has NOT been delegated power.

Hamilton acknowledges the arguments of anti-Federalists that a “vigorous executive is inconsistent with the genius of republican government.” But he counters that a “feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government.” Hamilton thinks the question isn’t whether to have an “energetic executive.” Such energy is “essential” during “foreign attacks” and for the “steady administration of the laws.” The real issue is how to keep the President accountable to the people. In Publius’s words: How can energy in the executive be “combined with those other ingredients which constitute safety in the republican sense?”

Hamilton outlines the ingredients needed for an energetic executive: “first unity, secondly duration, thirdly an adequate provision for its support, fourthly competent powers.” Safety is provided by: “Ist. a due dependence on the people, secondly a due responsibility.”

This paper defends the first ingredient: unity. We have one President, not multiple Presidents. Nor is our President subject to the control of an executive council.

Unity in the executive avoids the problems of differences of opinion, “personal emulation and even animosity, and “bitter dissentions,” all of which “lessen the respectability, weaken the authority, and distract the plans and operations” of the executive branch. Moreover, “they might impede or frustrate the most important measures of the government, in the most critical emergencies of the state.” Perhaps worse, the community could be split into the “most violent and irreconcilable factions,” each supporting a different President.

Hamilton acknowledges that some of these “inconveniencies” must inevitably exist in a legislature; however, “it is unnecessary and therefore unwise to introduce them into the constitution of the executive.” In the legislature, differences of opinion “promote deliberations and circumspection; and serve to check excesses in the majority.” But no such benefits are to be found in the executive function.

To the contrary, “plurality in the executive . . . tends to conceal faults, and destroy responsibility.” A President would be too apt to make excuses, such as “I was overruled by my council.” The council, of course, would blame the President.

Thus, a plural executive would “deprive the people of the two greatest securities they can have for the faithful exercise of any delegated power; first, the restraints of public opinion . . . ; and secondly, the opportunity of discovering with facility and clearness the misconduct of the persons they trust.”

In short, if you don’t know who to blame, how can you know who to punish or remove from office?

Logistical note for those who care:

There are slightly different versions of this text. I have relied upon the version in the Hamilton Papers.