The energy of the executive, says Alexander Hamilton, does not depend only on the unity of the office. Other features of the presidency serve the purpose as well, he tells us in Federalist No. 70, including “duration” in office, “an adequate provision” for the president’s personal financial independence, and “competent powers” lodged in the Constitution itself and not subject to the control of Congress. These last two features are reserved for Nos. 73-77. Meanwhile, in Nos. 71 and 72, Hamilton discusses “duration”–the four-year term of office and eligibility for re-election.
By the standards of the time, four years in office was a fairly lengthy term. The governor of New York, for instance, one of the stronger executives in America, served only three; in Massachusetts, which generally had one of the better constitutions, the governor served only a year. But pushing the envelope on term length was essential to those framers who recognized the vital importance of a strong executive; at Philadelphia they even discussed a possible seven-year term, assuming only one term could be served. Yet what exactly is the contribution of a lengthy term to executive energy?
Two things are achieved, says Hamilton in No. 71: “the personal firmness” of the president, and “the stability of the system of administration” for which he is responsible. Throughout this essay, Hamilton reiterates a theme his partner Madison developed in his essays on the separation of powers: that the most natural phenomenon in a republic is for the legislature to aggrandize its powers at the expense of all other institutions. “The representatives of the people . . . seem sometimes to fancy that they are the people themselves.” The presidency must be made strong enough to hold fast against the arrogance and folly that can readily seize a legislature, even one made as well as our Congress. “It is one thing [for the president] to be subordinate to the laws, and another to be dependent on the legislative body.” To avoid the latter outcome, the term of office must be long enough to give a president time, before the next election, both to act on his own judgment and to vindicate his doing so. He must be enabled to “dare to act his own opinion with vigor and decision,” and such daring will be far riskier with frequent elections, cutting short the time for a president’s plans and decisions to bear fruit and justify him.
The reader will see that Federalist No. 71 ought to be read and reread constantly by presidents who are under fire for exercising their own judgment, as President Bush is now. And there is one passage here (reminiscent of an argument Madison made about the Senate in No. 63) that deserves to be quoted at length, revealing the essential contribution presidents can make to republican government precisely by standing against popular opinion when their own judgment dictates it:
The republican principle demands, that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breese of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator, who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience, that they sometime err; and the wonder is, that they so seldom err as they do; beset as they continually are by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate; by the artifices of men, who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess, rather than to deserve it. When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.
A friend of mine who teaches at one of the military service academies, after reading yesterday’s entry on No. 70, sent along a passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which that great Frenchman observes that in the 1790s President Washington did the right but unpopular thing in keeping the nation’s distance from revolutionary France. From the vantage point of four decades later, Tocqueville remarks on the historical consensus: “The majority [then] pronounced against his policy; now the entire people approves it.”
If the Constitution and public favor had not given the direction of the external affairs of the state to Washington, it is certain that the nation would have done then precisely what it condemns today.
George W. Bush can ask himself, what do transient public opinion polls say about the war in Iraq? Or he can ask himself, what considered judgments will be made about the war in years to come? Publius and Tocqueville recommend the latter, and it seems that the president has been heeding their counsel. We will not know for years to come whether all his judgments are sound, but it is heartening that he is judging for the sake of posterity and not of his posterior.
(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)