I reviewed more than a thousand publications from the founding era, and discovered that “executive power” doesn’t imply what most scholars thought.
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Is the president a king? The question may sound absurd, but you’d be surprised: A great many lawyers, politicians, judges, and policy experts think the U.S. Constitution builds from exactly that starting point. Their argument relies on the first sentence of Article II, which gives the president “the executive power.” That phrase, they claim, was originally understood as a generic reference to monarchical authority. This means, they say, that the American president must have been given all the prerogatives of a British king, except where the Constitution specifies otherwise. The foreign-relations scholar Philip Trimble states their conclusion plainly: “Unless the
The repercussions of this claim ripple across the face of constitutional law. During Senate hearings on legislating an end to the Iraq War, Brad Berenson, who had served as one of President George W. Bush’s top lawyers, told the Senate that the executive-power clause conveys “a vast reserve of implied authority to do whatever may be necessary in executing the laws and governing the nation.” When the Bush administration wanted to defy statutory restrictions on dragnet surveillance, the Justice Department relied on the clause in advising that Congress “cannot restrict the President’s ability to engage in warrantless searches that protect the national security.” And Justice Clarence Thomas put the clause front and center in concluding that “those who ratified the Constitution understood the ‘executive Power’ vested by Article II to include those foreign affairs powers not otherwise allocated in the Constitution.”
These aren’t selective examples. Pick a random recent controversy about presidential power, and you’re almost certain to find the president-as-king claim woven into the debates. During the George W. Bush administration, the argument was used to defend the torture of prisoners, the evasion of habeas corpus, and the claim of authority to invade Afghanistan and Iraq without congressional authorization. During the Obama administration, the argument surfaced in debates about the administration’s defiance of a statute recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and about the use of force against Libya. And supporters of the Trump administration have supercharged the claim, advocating a breathtaking theory of indefeasible imperial prerogative in areas ranging from the Russia investigation and workaday congressional oversight to immigration law and the bombing of Syria.
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After years of research into an enormous array of colonial, revolutionary, and founding-era sources, I’m here to tell you that—as a historical matter—this president-as-king claim is utterly and totally wrong. I’ve reviewed more than a thousand publications from the 17th and 18th centuries for each instance of the word root exec-, and have read most of those texts from cover to cover with the topic of presidential power squarely in mind. I’ve read every discussion of executive power and presidential authority that appears in the gigantic compilation of archival materials known as the Documentary History of the Ratification of the United States Constitution. And with the help of a team of research assistants, I’m most of the way through flyspecking the full records of the Continental Congress—including committee reports, floor debates, and delegate correspondence—with the same question in mind.
All this work has left me with both the confidence to share this conclusion and the sense of obligation to do so as bluntly as possible. It’s just not a close call: The historical record categorically refutes the idea that the American revolutionaries gave their new president an unspecified array of royal prerogatives. To the contrary, the presidency that leaps off the pages of the Founders’ debates, diaries, speeches, letters, poems, and essays was an instrument of the law of the land, subject to the law of the land, and both morally and legally obliged to obey the law of the land.
If you had the same third-grade history class I did, you might think this all goes without saying. But in the realm of constitutional law, these findings represent a tectonic shift.
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For more than two centuries, jurists and statesmen have intoned that “ours is a government of limited powers.” That proposition is the foundational principle of federal power. The Constitution did not grant Congress open-ended authority to regulate in the public interest. Instead, the Founders wrote a laundry list of highly specific legislative authorities. This enumeration strategy, the Supreme Court has explained, is why courts must carefully consider the national government’s legislative limits: “If no enumerated power authorizes Congress to pass a certain law, that law may not be enacted.” From this starting point comes the endless constitutional sparring over the scope of the powers to regulate commerce, to tax, to spend, and to enter into treaties—just to name a few. Almost everyone agrees that unless legislators can point to an affirmative grant of constitutional authority, Congress simply can’t act.
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A funny thing happens, though, when it comes to the presidency. Suddenly you see hand-waving that would be laughed out of the room just about anywhere else. Here’s Justice Robert Jackson on executive power, in 1952: