One of the distinct features of the U.S. governmental system is the existence of three separate (though interdependent) powers, including the legislative, the judiciary, and the executive branches. Although the functions of the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court may be easily identifiable, there is no actual mention of the term “separation” of powers in the Constitution. Despite that, it is apparent that no question is resolved in American politics without considering the respective roles of Congress and the President. To fully grasp the mechanics of the U.S. political arena, it is crucial to dissect the complexity of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. The purpose of this paper is to examine the development of Presidential powers up until the Spanish-American War took place in 1898. Before the 20th century, the Presidency remained relatively weak and was regarded as “an insignificant institution” (Patterson, 1976, p. 39). This essay is going to highlight the limitations put on Presidents as a result of the Congressional restrictions of the pre-Spanish-American War era.
The Development of the Executive Branch
The United States government has experienced various levels of institutionalized competition between the legislative and executive branches (Patterson, 1976). Historically, the President had less power in comparison to the Congress partly due to the first U.S. leaders’ fear of legislative supremacy. By limiting the power of the President, they wanted to ensure there would be no possibility of a monarchy. Patterson (1976) suggests that the founding fathers approved of the Constitution’s vagueness to weaken the potential influence of the head of state.
Presidential Actions and Restrictions of the Congress
Entin (1991) argues that the combination and blending of powers in the Constitution increased the possibility of conflict between the legislative and executive branches. Firstly, although the President was the Commander-in-Chief of the military, only Congress could declare war (Entin, 1991). Secondly, the POTUS could not make decisions regarding treaties (which they had the right to make) without the consent of the Senate’s supermajority (Entin, 1991). In addition, the power to appoint federal officials given to the President was limited due to the obligation to take the Senate’s advice and count on the legislative branch’s consent (Entin, 1991).
The one President that seemed to establish himself as the exception from the general rule was the seventh President of the United States Andrew Jackson. According to Patterson (1976), Jackson’s time in office led to some key developments in the institution of the Presidency as a whole. These changes included “elaboration of the theory that the president was the direct representative of the people; extension of the veto power to include policy disagreements; unrestrained use of the removal power, leading to the creation of a spoils system” (Patterson, 1976, p. 43). However, despite the transformations initiated by President Jackson, his successors failed to secure Presidential assertiveness and struggled to take command.
The Relationship between the Branches: A Historical Example
Foreign policy is one of the primary points of conflict between the legislative and executive branches (Wallner, 2019). Although the President has the informal powers to set the foreign policy objectives, Congress restricts most of them. Moreover, the POTUS cannot initiate any foreign policy legislation directly, which affects the success (or failure) of any Presidential strategy. Wallner (2019) claims that “the pendulum of power in the foreign policymaking process has swung back and forth between Congress and the president throughout American history” (p. 7). Historically, Presidents tended to interpret their constitutional powers rather broadly, which led to several political controversies, including the Pacificus-Helvidius debate.
The Constitution’s vagueness regarding the powers allocated to different branches is most apparent in the Pacificus-Helvidius debate dating back to nearly 230 years ago (Lindsay, 2020). Alexander Hamilton (under the pen name “Pacificus”) and James Madison (writing under the name “Helvidius”) argued about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Lindsay (2020) notes that “even though the two men had had more influence than anyone else on the writing and ratification of the Constitution, they painted decidedly different views of the relative powers of Congress and the president in foreign policy” (para. 1). The framers of the Constitution themselves disagreed on the original intent of the document in regards to the authority of Congress and the President.
For the first time in the nation’s history, President George Washington challenged the scope of Presidential power by issuing a Proclamation of Neutrality (Schley, 2020). On April 22, 1793, the Washington administration declared that the United States would not take sides in the military conflict that erupted between France and various European powers, including Great Britain (Lindsay, 2020). Such a proclamation sparked a debate between the Federalists and the Republicans over the constitutional powers of the President and Congress. Moreover, the Proclamation of Neutrality led to rising tensions in the country. Then-Vice President John Adams remembered that “ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in the government” (as cited in Lindsay, 2020, para. 2). Since Americans full-heartedly supported the French Revolution (inspired mainly by the example of the U.S.), President Washington had few supporters.
The most integral implication of the Proclamation of Neutrality, however, was arguably the debate it originated. It raised an important question as to what authority Washington had to make foreign policy decisions. The Constitution does not mention neutrality and gives the power to declare war to Congress (Library of Congress, 2019). Thus, political theorists of the time wondered whether the President infringed on the Congressional authority by declaring neutrality.
The exchange between Madison and Hamilton that followed established two differing constitutional visions (Lindsay, 2020). The Gazette of the United States published seven essays by Alexander Hamilton, which aimed to defend Washington’s stance (Lindsay, 2020). After several requests from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison decided to respond in opposition to Hamilton in a series of essays of his own published by The Gazette (Lindsay, 2020). Hamilton claimed that the “legislature has the right to declare war, it is on the other, the duty of the executive to preserve peace, till the declaration is made” (as cited in Lindsay, 2020, para. 6). While Hamilton believed in an assertive President with implied constitutional powers, Madison argued that the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches should be tilted towards the latter.
It is crucial to acknowledge that both Hamilton and Madison changed their constitutional views over time (Lindsay, 2020). Originally, Hamilton emphasized the importance of the President being limited to circumscribed powers, which he expressed in the Federalist Papers. Hamilton most notably argued that the President’s position as the Commander-in-Chief was “more a matter of dignity than of authority” (as cited in Lindsay, 2020, para. 7). At the time of writing the Federalist Papers Hamilton did not support the idea of Presidential assertiveness, which he became a proponent of in 1793. Similarly, Madison showed just as much flexibility in his constitutional views as Hamilton did (Lindsay, 2020). The shifting views of Hamilton and Madison demonstrate that the framers’ interpretation of the Constitution depended greatly on time and circumstance.
The centuries that followed the Proclamation of Neutrality led to a gradual shift in power towards the executive branch (Wallner, 2019). It did so in good part because of the political impact of the Pacificus-Helvidius debate. Hamilton managed to recognize in the Federalist Papers that “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man, in a much more eminent degree, than the proceedings of any greater number; and in proportion, as the number is increased, these qualities will be diminished” (as cited in Lindsay, 2020, para. ). In addition, the willingness of Congress to compromise on the issues related to the President’s authority (when the ultimate outcomes of his Presidency benefitted the legislative branch) facilitated the development of the executive authority – both practical and constitutional.
Despite the relative success of Washington and his successors, including Thomas Jefferson and Polk, the second half of the nineteenth century could be described as a period of Congressional activism (Wallner, 2019). Amidst the changing political environment, the U.S. Presidents utilized their formal and informal powers to lead Congress at best or simply avoid Congressional approval by questionable means. Nevertheless, by identifying the constitutional provisions in support of their positions in the debate, Hamilton and Madison “highlighted how the framers, perhaps unwittingly, had created a constitutional structure of separated institutions with overlapping powers” (Lindsay, 2020, para. 10). The Constitution is, in fact, full of vague regulations directed towards overlapping authorities. This lack of coherence has created an array of possibilities when it comes to the interpretation of the balance of powers, which remains a subject of heated debates in modern politics. However, according to Lindsay (2020), this struggle is also a part of the productive tension between the branches, which check each other’s worst qualities and generate some of each other’s best ones.
New Insights Regarding the Balance of Power
My old paradigm of thought led me to believe that the U.S. Constitution is stagnant, which is why it would be enough to have an expert look into the content of the Constitution to solve a particular government issue. As a result of the research conducted for this paper, my views of the Constitution have shifted. The framers like Hamilton and Madison themselves exemplify the fluidity of the constitutional regulations. In terms of the balance of power between the branches of government, there can be several different interpretations regarding the smallest details related to the roles of Congress and the President. Up until the twentieth century, constitutional vagueness was the root cause of the relative weakness of any U.S. President. As soon as the executive branch started to examine the Constitution in more detail and draw various conclusions from its content, the President’s authority has expanded.
As a Christian, I can draw a parallel between the Constitution and the Bible. Some non-believers critique the Bible because of the many possibilities of the Scripture’s interpretation (Jenkins, 2020). However, in my opinion, every Christian needs to recognize the beauty in the Bible’s relative ambiguity. Merida et al. (2015) point out that personal godliness matters above all, which is why Christians should have open and honest discussions regarding the Bible as long as they stay true to their relationship with the Lord and have the purest intentions in mind.
To sum it all up, it is integral to examine the development of the balance of power to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the U.S. government. The Constitution limits the authority of the executive branch by setting in place Congressional restrictions. Despite these legal challenges, the Presidency managed to avoid the limitations associated with the legislative branch by manipulating the various interpretations of the Constitution. Although throughout history, the Constitution’s vagueness was the root cause of conflicts between the branches, it also led to the development of the complex system of checks and balances.
Entin, J. L. (1991). Congress, the President, and the separation of powers: Rethinking the value of litigation (Publication No. 355) [Faculty publications, Case Western University School of Law]. Constitutional Law Commons.
Jenkins, D. (2020). Why are there so many Christian interpretations? Christianity. Web.
Library of Congress (2019). War powers. Web.
Lindsay, J. M. (2020). TWE remembers: The Pacificus-Helvidius debate. Council on Foreign Affairs. Web.
Merida, T., Platt, D., & Akin, D. L. (2015). Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings (Christ-centered exposition commentary). B&H Publishing Group.
Patterson, J. T. (1976). The rise of Presidential power before World War II. Law and Contemporary Problems, 40(2), 39. Web.
Schley, E. (2020). Washington’s neutrality proclamation. Bill of Rights Institute. Web.
Wallner, J. (2019). A dynamic relationship: How Congress and the President shape the foreign policy. R Street Policy Study, 186, 1-9. Web.