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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Hamilton and Executive Authority

It is useful, at times, to review what we believe is the actual purpose of government. In the beginning, when the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the charter for a national government included three obligations: (1) to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens; (2) to defend their liberty; (3) to preserve the peace and tranquility of the nation. Safety, liberty and peace. Beyond these limited objectives, the government under our constitution was neither empowered nor encouraged by the people to act. This is a common view of the original contract established between the people of the United States and the institution created to preserve their freedom. Today, it seems to me, the greatest fear by many Americans is not from any external threat or invasion by a foreign power,  but from a dereliction of duty or an abuse of power by our own elected representatives (especially the one occupying the White House). There seems to be a growing concern among many people about the size and cost of federal government, along with a general mistrust and suspicion of its motives. It is right to ask from what source this current fear and loathing of government derives.

First, we ought to recall that republican government rests upon a presumption of justice whose meaning is derived from an underlying theory of morality. Socrates taught the youth of Athens that a good life is not merely defined by pleasure. Rather, it is the attainment of eudaimonia, which is a Greek word meaning happiness in accordance with virtue. Of course, like many philosophical concepts, eudaimonia is burdened with the weight of abstract ideas. In other words, how does a general idea of the good apply in everyday life? The problem for Hamilton and the other Federalists is how to persuade a majority of the people that adopting a new constitution will actually make life better, rather than continue along as a loose confederation of states.

There is no denying that over time, the size and scope of our government has expanded to comply with the needs of a growing population. One fact, often overlooked, is that the federal power of government exists mainly to arbitrate disputes between individual states. These kinds of disputes, whether involving trade or boundaries, are usually resolved through rulings from the Supreme Court. The other principal duties of the federal government include the protection of its people from hostile actions by enemies, both foreign and domestic, and to facilitate commerce between states and other nations.

According to Hamilton, in a constitutional republic, one person will always attract more attention, and be the source of more praise and criticism than any other individual in public service. That person is the President. Hamilton spends a lot of time reassuring his readers that the executive branch of the proposed government will have none of the arbitrary powers of a king.  Nor will his powers exceed those of a state governor who is eligible, in some states, for re-election on an indefinite basis. As to the President’s command of the armed forces, his power is contingent upon “such part of the militia of the nation as by legislative provision may be called into the actual service of the union.” In contrast, Hamilton mentions that the governor of New York already has such power at his disposal, without any obvious signs of distress or infringement upon the liberty of its people. Additionally, the President has no power of the purse, and no means by which to pay a standing army without the consent of the legislature.

Nor can a President pardon himself if accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, which, Hamilton suggests, is a power enjoyed by all monarchs, as well as the governor of New York. Additionally, the President cannot adjourn the national legislature as befits his will, but is limited to the single case of establishing the time of adjournment. Nor does the President have the legal authority to make treaties with other nations, on his own recognizance, without the approval of Congress.  Nor can the President nominate and appoint ambassadors, public ministers and judges of the Supreme Court without the advice and consent of the Senate.

In contrast to the limitations of a democratic republic, all of these powers and actions are available to a monarch such as King George III, and to a state governor of New York. Thus, Hamilton is offering the public reassurance that the powers given to a President will not infringe upon the liberty of the people, nor is the President above the law or immune from prosecution if he assumes more authority to himself than is granted to him by the people and the Constitution  he serves.

It is, perhaps, asking too much to imagine ourselves as prospective voters in 1788. For one thing, there was a lot less democracy two hundred years ago than there is today. Only 1.3 % of the people even cast a ballot. (total population: less than 3 million) There were no political parties. (The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were not parties but temporary coalitions organized for the purpose of supporting or defeating the Constitution.) Due to gender & property requirements, a lot of people were not eligible to vote at all. Since then, a lot of history has gone under the bridge, not the least of which have been, a bloody civil war, two world wars, and a series of debilitating economic depressions. The size and scope of government have grown as the population has increased and the expectations and demands of the people have likewise risen. In all this time, have we managed to lose sight of the original intentions of our Founding Fathers? Could Hamilton ever imagine that our national government would evolve into a great welfare state, funded by ever higher taxes, and divided by political parties whose only agenda is to elect members of their own party, and to block any legislation, appointments or proposals by the opposing party? Democracy today has mutated into an ideological struggle between factions and special interests, fueled by corporate money and a zealot’s desire to have things his own way. There seems to be no room any longer for political dialogue because negotiation and compromise are considered to be acts of betrayal and the rudiments of surrender. The question before us now is whether democracy can even survive, much less flourish, without a common understanding, or love, or even a memory of that wonderful Greek word eudaimonia.


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