Summary and Analysis
Section XI: Need for a Strong Executive: Federalists No. 69-74 (Hamilton)
In Chapter 69, the president would be elected for a term of four years; he would be eligible for re-election. He would not have the life tenure of an hereditary monarch. The president would be liable to impeachment, trial, and removal from office upon being found guilty of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. He would be accountable at all times to the country at large.
The president was also to be the commander-in-chief of all regular United States military forces and of the state militias when called into national service. The president would have only occasional command of the state militias, and only when authorized by the Congress.
In addition, the president would have the power to pardon all offenders except those found guilty in an impeachment trial. He would regulate foreign relations with the advice and consent of the Senate, and have other extensive powers. But since a president was to be elected every four years, he could not possibly become a "perpetual and hereditary prince" like the despised and "tyrannical" King George III of Britain.
In Chapter 70, there were some who argued that a vigorous executive was inconsistent with republican principles. All men of sense agreed, said Hamilton, about the "necessity of an energetic executive." That necessary energy would come from unity, duration, adequate provision for its support, and competent powers. The first need was "due dependence on the people"; the second, due responsibility.
As to unity, Hamilton argued (largely to himself), that executive powers should be concentrated in a single chief magistrate, and not in a council or anything of that sort. The history of Rome and the ancient Greek republics proved this, as well as the operations under various state governments. As chief magistrate, the president should bear sole responsibility for his acts. There was no need of a "council to the executive."
In Chapter 71, this is a prolix essay on why the president's term in office should be limited and why a new election to the presidency should be held periodically: every four years, as proposed. Four years would be long enough, but not too long. That period would keep the president responsive to the changing views and interests of the people if he hoped for re-election.
In Chapter 72, the president should be eligible for re-election. Otherwise, the chief magistrate might become irresponsible. Knowing that he would not be called to account by the people for whatever he did, he might do whatever he pleased, making himself a fortune while he could.
A man having served four years as president would have more knowledge of statecraft and the inner workings of the government than one who had not. To exclude a president from seeking to succeed himself might well result in the "fatal inconveniences of fluctuating councils and a variable policy."
In Chapter 73, the vigor of the executive branch depended on adequate provision for its support, to be determined by Congress. It was possible that Congress might decide to "starve" an unpopular president by reducing or abolishing his salary, or "tempt him by largesses" to surrender his judgment and discretion.
No provision in the proposed constitution was more "judicious" than this, said Hamilton: The president would receive for his services a compensation "which shall neither be increased nor diminished, during the period for which he shall have been elected, . . . and shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States or any of them." This would make the president financially independent and free to move as his judgment dictated.
The president should have the power to exercise a qualified negative over the acts of the two legislative bodies. He could return all bills he objected to so that they could not become laws unless subsequently passed again, this time by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. This would protect the president from having his powers whittled away by the legislature, and be a safeguard against hasty and ill-considered legislation. This would tend toward greater stability in government. To avoid a clash with the legislature, the president would be inclined to use his qualified veto cautiously.
In Chapter 74, among other requisite powers, the president was to be commander-in-chief of all regular United States military forces and of the state militias "when called into the actual service of the United States." The propriety and reasons for this were so obvious, said Hamilton, that there was no need to discuss them.
The president was to have the power to grant pardons and reprieves for offences against the United States, "except in cases of impeachment." There had been little criticism of this, Hamilton noted, except in relation to treason. Some argued that one or both legislative houses should be brought into proceedings involving the possible pardon of anyone convicted of treason. Hamilton saw some merit in that view, but concluded by saying that the power of granting pardons in treason cases should be left solely in the hands of the president, for "in seasons of insurrection or rebellion" the president could act more decisively and judiciously in granting amnesties. This might prevent the contending groups from coming to a violent and possibly disastrous collision.
No comment is needed here on Hamilton's outline of what a president's powers should be, or the duration of his term in office. But this should be noted: a president was to be elected every four years, and was eligible for re-election. There was no constitutional restriction on how many times he might succeed himself; he might go on indefinitely.
After two terms, President Washington stepped down, establishing a two-term precedent that was followed until it was broken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, and again in 1944. That will not happen again. A constitutional amendment (XXII) now limits a president's tenure to two terms, with one exception: If he should succeed to the office following the death or removal of the president, and serve less than two years of that term, he may then be elected for an additional two terms.