The spirited debate on the proposed Constitution marked an exercise in American Democracy perhaps unmatched since the Founding Era. A tremendous literary outburst–unrivaled as political commentary before or since–from both sides, more than adequately informed the citizenry about the nature of the Constitution, its allocation of powers and responsibilities, its strengths and weaknesses. While many entered the lists to weigh in on the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution, often with powerfully reasoned essays and tracts, those that concern us here are the two most notable entries—The Federalist Papers arguing in favor of ratification, and the Anti-Federalists’ commentaries, arguing against ratification. We limit ourselves to the issue of how the Presidency was perceived, discussed and evaluated.
As it happened, Alexander Hamilton was the principal indeed, almost the exclusive, author of the Federalist Papers that dealt with the Presidency. He wrote all of the essays on this subject, with the exception John Jay, who explained in Federalist No. 64 the treaty power and its role as the principle vehicle for the conduct of American foreign policy.
In Federalist No. 67, Hamilton stated: “Calculating upon the aversion of the people to monarchy,” opponents of the Constitution “have endeavored to enlist their jealousies and apprehensions in opposition to the intended President . . . as the full-grown progeny of that detested parent.” As a means of allaying those concerns, he engaged in a detailed analysis in Federalist No. 69 of each of the President’s enumerated powers, sharply contrasting them with those powers wielded by the King of England. The Commander in Chief, for example, was merely to be “first General.” Generals are not authorized to commence wars, he explained. Indeed, unlike the British King, who had the authority to take his nation to war, that power, under the Constitution, was vested solely and exclusively in Congress. In his capacity as Commander in Chief, the President possessed the authority to “repel an invasion,” just as James Madison had observed in the Constitutional Convention. We engage in a detailed explanation of the constitutional governance of the war power later in the course.
Hamilton’s minute analysis of presidential powers, discussed at length in subsequent sections of the course, more than answered the charges of the Anti-Federalists. The “Antis,” as they were known, sought to exploit the pervasive fear of “executive power” that resonated since the colonial period. As it happened, however, with only a few exceptions, their arguments lacked substance and reasoning. More than anything, they were shafts of derision, delivered against the executive as a means of trying to gin up enough opposition to defeat the proposed Constitution.
It has been observed that those who have studied the Anti-Federalist writings have paid too little attention to foreign policy or war powers, largely because the Anti-Federalists had little of substance or disagreement to offer on those subjects. In fact, they and the Federalists shared a consensus on the meaning of the text in those areas. If the Anti-Federalists had thought that the Constitution was designed to make the President the dominant organ of American foreign policy, that design would have become a major focal point of Anti-Federalist opposition. But the blueprint for the conduct of foreign affairs afforded little reason for criticism. After all, Congress, not the President, was vested with the war power. And the understanding that the authority to “declare” war was a synonym for “determining” on matters of war and peace, precluded the sort of assertions advanced by advocates of unilateral presidential war-making power that while Congress might announce war, it was nonetheless the President who would make that fundamental decision. Such a position would have mirrored the authority of the British King, a proposition unacceptable to the Framers, whether Federalist or Anti-Federalist.
In fact, none of the major Anti-Federalist tracts, including the Letters of a Federal Farmer or the “Brutus” essays, had anything of significance to say about the constitutional governance of diplomacy, war, treaties or, more generally, the conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs. Some of the Anti-Federalist essays that exhibited considerable distrust of the executive, including the charge made by Patrick Henry that the President would become a King, lacked substantive explanations to support their contentions.
The Anti-Federalists’ criticisms of the Presidency ranged broadly, befitting an effort to derail the proposed Constitution. Of course, the predictions in The Federalist Papers of how the Constitution would work in practice were always open to criticism since they were not in theory demonstrable. The presidential veto was vulnerable to argument that the judgment of a single person should be exalted above that of Congress, which reflected thoughtful discussion and debate. But even that criticism supported the Federalist design of the Constitution, which as we shall see, favored collective decision making as opposed to unilateral decision making. And when the veto was understood as a check on the legislature, as well as being subject to an override by a Congress confident in its judgment, the criticism lost much of its merit, especially since all in the founding generation had been aware of the tendency of the legislature, as Madison described it, to draw into its “impetuous vortex,” powers assigned to other branches.
The Anti-Federalists launched additional criticisms. The appointment power, in the hands of the President, it was urged, would facilitate the effort to fill offices with men willing to do the executive’s corrupt bidding. The President, it was said, might through the treaty power sell out the nation. But those criticisms failed to grasp the fact that the appointment and treaty powers were shared with the Senate.
The shared power over appointments and treaty making gave rise to George Mason’s contention that the President would become a “tool of the Senate.” Indeed, several Anti-Federalists actually complained that the President was too “weak,” undercutting arguments by other Anti-Federalists that the President was too strong. Of course, as an opposition party, the Anti-Federalists were not obliged to be consistent in their attacks on the design of the executive. They might have felt such pressure if the ratification vote in the various states had been a test of every single provision of the proposed Constitution, rather than an up or down vote on the entire document.
Mason’s opposition to the Presidency, grounded in the fear that the Senate would dominate the President, was shared by Edmund Randolph and Elbridge Gerry. All three had been delegates to the Convention, but refused to sign the Constitution and campaigned against its ratification. Mason proposed the creation of a six-person council that would serve to reinforce the authority and independence of the President. But this emphasis, once again, laid bare the shared consensus of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists on the principle of executive independence from Congress.
The Anti-Federalists’ criticism of the Framers’ decision to create a single, rather than a plural Presidency, represented perhaps their most consistent attack on the proposed Constitution. It was this argument, as we have seen, that occasioned Hamilton’s strong defense in Federalist No. 70 of the constitutional arrangement for the executive. The concerns expressed by the Anti-Federalists about executive aggrandizement of power have been shared by many Americans more than once in recent history.