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A Brief History Of The American Presidency, Part 3: The Expansion Of Executive Power

Although each president has his own way of approaching the office and tested the limits of his authority in different ways over the years, the tenure that was established by the founding generation was relatively stable. Although each president had his strengths and weaknesses, there was general agreement on what the President could or could not do, from Washington to Adams, Jefferson to Madison, Monroe, and back to Adams.

A consummate outsider, however, could challenge that consensus.

Andrew Jackson was a local high water mark for presidential power. Jackson, a man of rough and tumble who hated the majority of established politicians, carved his own path. Jackson ignored Washington’s lead and vetoed even more legislation. All of his predecessors.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Worcester v. Georgia that Cherokee Nation had a federal treaty right to their land, Jackson ignored them.https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/supremecourt/antebellum/history2.html”>supposedly It is possible to say Chief justice “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” A move which neatly embodies the watchmen problem — if the man tasked with enforcing the law simply refuses to enforce it, then who enforces the law upon that enforcer?

Jackson’s influence was unparalleled by his successors, until Abraham Lincoln was elected. Many times listed first in the American pantheon of legends, few men have been so revered and reviled as the man who saw the country through its Civil War. 

Lincoln led the country through a crisis unlike any other and deserves credit for his extraordinary feat of abolishing slavery. His predecessors could not match it, despite their best efforts. He became the most powerful American president, however, because he was able to do this.

Lincoln Habeas Corpus Suspended — he had dissident newspaper editors jailedHe established the nation’s First income tax The draft was not legal at the time, and it was extremely unpopular. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tremendous achievement, but it was also an exercise in executive power that was not legally possible without the war exigencies. 

These were the reasons Lincoln was portrayed by his enemies to be a tyrant. History also remembers him as a liberator. “sic semper tyrannis” was cited in defense of his murder.

Lincoln’s historic impact and gravitas are rare among his immediate successors. Andrew Johnson, his vice president, would endanger many Republican hopes for Reconstruction. In retaliation, Congress would take the comparatively rare step of infringing on the president’s powers by passing a law demanding that he could not fire any members of his cabinet without their approval — and then impeaching him when he went ahead and did it anyway. 

Johnson was able to avoid being removed from office because the law didn’t hold up in court. single vote The Senate.

For the sake of simplicity, I will not discuss the presidents of late 19th century who, when compared to Jackson and Lincoln, were very weak executives in a time when Congress was largely dominant.

However, by the 20th century, the presidential trend came back with a vengeance — this was the era of the Imperial Presidency. While there were comparatively subdued executives such as Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding, there were many more activist executives such as William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson — each of whom vastly expanded the power of the federal government with military interventions abroad (The Spanish American War, The Roosevelt Corollary, WW1, WW2, Vietnam) and greater economic intervention at home, from trust busting to the New Deal to The Great Society. 

The federal government was given far more resources by the introduction of the permanent income tax at the beginning of the century and the Federal Reserve.  Because the day to day operation of the federal governments is primarily performed by the executive branch, over which the president has unilateral power, this naturally increased the power and reach of the presidency.

To illustrate this point visually — when the White House complex was first constructed, every cabinet department could fit within it — the Treasury building was directly to the mansion’s east, while the State Department, War Department and the Department of the Navy were headquartered directly to its west. The west side of the complex, which was originally constructed to house three separate departments, was renovated and made into the world’s largest office building.

The original building remains standing as it was in Eisenhower Executive Office BuildingIt currently houses some of the President’s staff.

Getty Images

The president’s bully pulpit was also strengthened by the advent of mass media.


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