1789. A momentous year. The year of the French Revolution and the Americans first year of operating under their new Constitution. The Storming of the Bastille and the first Presidential Inauguration. The changes from then and now can and do fill libraries, but this article will address a single change throughout the years. The change of the President’s abilities and responsibilities -how the President’s role has expanded. Now, as one caveat, of course I am unable to address every change, and will have to pass President’s very much worth mentioning. If there is a president or action that you think skipping over was simply inexcusable, please post the event or person with your reasons in the comments.

To start with, we obviously have none other than the indispensable man, George Washington. As President of the United States, he wrote “the Constitution is the guide which I never can abandon.”[1] As President he only issued 2 vetoes. In the first veto ever given by a president, he listed his two reasons as

“First. The Constitution has prescribed that Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers; and there is no one proportion or divisor, which, applied to the respective numbers of the States, will yield the number and allotment of Representatives proposed by the bill.

“Second. The Constitution has also provided, that the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand; which restriction is, by the context, and by fair and obvious construction, to be applied to the separate and respective numbers of the States: And the bill has allotted to eight of the States more than one for every thirty thousand.”[2]

Both reasons were simply because he saw the bill in violation of the Constitution. He issued the second veto because he, as President, was the Commander-in-Chief and he saw the bill, which was “An act to ascertain and fix the military establishment of the United States,” as simply illogical.[3] In both, he adhered strictly to his guide, the Constitution.

Things really start to change when we get to Andrew Jackson, widely heralded as the people’s president. “I never saw such a crowd before,” Daniel Webster said of the inauguration. “Persons have come five hundred miles to see General Jackson, and they really think that the country is being rescued from some dreadful danger!”[4] (That feeling has persisted to this day for those who voted for the winning presidential candidate, don’t you think?)  His most famous veto is the one that vetoed the recharter for the Bank of The United States. His veto message was printed by his political opponent Henry Clay as a campaign against him, but it backfired.

“Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society-the farmers, mechanics, and laborers-who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.”[5]

-From Andrew Jackson’s veto on the Bank’s Recharter

Jackson “cast his vetoes not only on constitutional grounds, but whenever he thought good public policy required it. This was nearly a revolutionary doctrine. It meant that the president was vitally involved in all legislation. He could prevent any measure from becoming law if he had one-third plus one member of either House of Congress to support him.”[6] This earned him the title of King Veto. He vetoed more than his 6 predecessors put together. This was a major shift in the involvement of the President.

The next president we will talk about is Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. He made about 7 times more executive orders than he vetoed, marking a shift in Presidential abilities. Being in the middle of a war, he needed to get things done immediately and fast. So, he used executive orders. His most famous Executive Order is rightly the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, […] I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”[7]

-From Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamaation

People today complain that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single slave at first, but that was because he understood that he did not have the power to issue an executive order except as Commander-in-Chief against the “actual armed rebellion” in the enemy states. This was the step however, that shifted the wars purpose, freeing the slaves as the Union forces gained ground, and led to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments afterward. Lincoln tried to limit his scope to his rightful powers under the Constitution to accomplish the objectives before him, and was indeed able to accomplish them.

After Lincoln, Congress regained primacy. The president was simply the manager, simply executing what the Congress decided. This was so prevalent, that when President Garfield (Who could translate something by writing it in Latin with his right hand while writing it into Greek with his left hand) was shot by Charles J. Guiteau and was sick from July 2nd till his death on September 19th, after failed efforts by Dr. Doctor Bliss. During the months of his illness and eventual death, it was business as normal for the country. Can you see that happening today? This is a clear example of the change in the President’s responsibility and ability. This lasted until Grover Cleveland.

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution came in full force, bringing with it all the horrors and benefits of the factories. Strikes and Unions came into full force. Grover Cleveland met these new challenges through expanding, or at least going back to the powers used by some of the previous presidents we have mentioned, earning and still holding the record for the most vetoes in a single congressional session (212), for 1 complete term (414), and for 2 complete terms (584). Additionally, he extended the President’s role by “read[ing] every bill that passed his desk and spen[ding] much of his days engaged in the nitty-gritty of legislation, researching and devising provisions himself.”[8] During the famous Pullman Strike, Cleveland ignored the Constitution and sent troops in despite Illinois’ Governor Altgeld’s refusal. This was unconstitutional, as article 4, section 4, clause 1 says “The United States shall […] on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.” But there was not only no approval, there was refusal. He went ahead with it anyways.

After this, in time the President permanently became more involved and less strictly managerial than the role was before. Theodore Roosevelt would try three things to get something passed: First, ram them through Congress. If that failed, then he would use an Executive Order to get it done instead. Finally, if Executive Order was not an option, then he would preach about it, using his “Bully Pulpit” to whip up the people’s support for it. This is what he did for Conservation, for the Pure Food and Drug Act, for family values, for trust-busting, for the Panama Canal, and more. He wrote later, “If I had followed the traditional, conservative methods, I would have submitted a dignified State Paper of probably 200 pages to Congress and the debates on it would have been going on yet”[9] This was his method with every issue. He issued over a thousand executive orders. Following Cleveland’s example of troops, he threatened to take over coal mines with the army because of the cruelty of the Mine Owners, forcing them to bend to his will.

No list of president’s who expanded the executive’s power is complete without Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). He has the record for the most vetoes a president has ever done throughout the length of all their terms together. He started the tradition of President’s having the first 100 Days a mark of how much they’ve accomplished, of having named program that they attempted to pass (The New Deal for FDR), using the same three tools as Teddy Roosevelt, if less effectively in some cases. It was by executive order that FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps, multiple agencies, forced people to give up most of their gold, and much more. As part of the New Deal, he created and passed things such as, for starters, the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which made it so the president, FDR, chose which banks stayed open and which were not stable enough, and should be closed; the National Industry Recovery Act which made codes, fixed prices for non-agricultural things, and fixed wages for workers too. The codes were made by the big businesses, and thus were used to eliminate their small business competition that could sell things cheaper than them.

FDR changed the rhetoric, talking about Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”[10]

-From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address

The first two are rights that you have as long as the government leaves you alone and keeps others from leaving you alone, but, but the last two are things someone, -whether it is you, your neighbor, your government- whoever it may be, has to give you. The first are passive, the second are active. The purpose of government is now explicitly much larger than it was when Washington said “the Constitution is the guide which I never can abandon.”

Now we will go to the 21st century. The examples of using Executive Orders, Congressional vetoes, and rhetoric from the past are very enforced, with Executive Orders being first and foremost. President Obama was widely criticized for using Executive Orders to pass laws when he couldn’t get Congress to agree-just like Teddy Roosevelt. On January 25 2017, President Trump had signed 14 Executive Orders. On January 25 2021, Biden had signed 27.[11] While most of these orders are reversing previous orders from the last administration, meaning that to have more executive orders is natural, the preeminence of executive orders is a change from the President’s common role in the past, and judging from experience and the past, the numbers will just keep going up. What will happen next? What will be the effect of that? These questions are, in my opinion, definitely worth pondering.

Happy President’s Day!

[1] George Washington to Boston Selectmen, 28 July 1795, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-18-02-0305#GEWN-05-18-02-0305-fn-0001

[2] House Journal, April 5, 1792, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:5:./temp/~ammem_Q8aB::#0010558 emphasis added.

[3] House Journal, February 28, 1797, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:4:./temp/~ammem_Qfdg::#0020722

[4] The Jacksonian Era by Robert V Remini, pg.20 https://archive.org/details/jacksonianera00robe/page/20/mode/2up

[5] President Jackson’s Veto Message Regarding the Bank of the United States; July 10, 1832, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ajveto01.asp

[6] America: The Last Best Hope, Volume 1 by William J Bennett, pg. 249

[7] Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation/transcript.html

[8] Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage by Chris Wallace, pg.67

[9] Bennett, pg. 506

[10] Franklin D. Roosevelt, State of the Union address “The Four Freedoms”, 6 January, 1941 https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/fdr-the-four-freedoms-speech-text/