Civics: Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers the 19th Annual Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture at the Federalist Society’s 2019 National Lawyers Convention

Willam Barr:

First, let me say a little about what the Framers had in mind in establishing an independent Executive in Article II of the Constitution.

The grammar school civics class version of our Revolution is that it was a rebellion against monarchial tyranny, and that, in framing our Constitution, one of the main preoccupations of the Founders was to keep the Executive weak.  This is misguided.  By the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, monarchical power was effectively neutered and had begun its steady decline.  Parliamentary power was well on its way to supremacy and was effectively in the driver’s seat.  By the time of the American Revolution, the patriots well understood that their prime antagonist was an overweening Parliament.  Indeed, British thinkers came to conceive of Parliament, rather than the people, as the seat of Sovereignty. 

During the Revolutionary era, American thinkers who considered inaugurating a republican form of government tended to think of the Executive component as essentially an errand boy of a Supreme legislative branch.  Often the Executive (sometimes constituted as a multi-member council) was conceived as a creature of the Legislature, dependent on and subservient to that body, whose sole function was carrying out the Legislative will.  Under the Articles of Confederation, for example, there was no Executive separate from Congress. 

Things changed by the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  To my mind, the real “miracle” in Philadelphia that summer was the creation of a strong Executive, independent of, and coequal with, the other two branches of government.

The consensus for a strong, independent Executive arose from the Framers’ experience in the Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation.  They had seen that the War had almost been lost and was a bumbling enterprise because of the lack of strong Executive leadership.  Under the Articles of Confederation, they had been mortified at the inability of the United States to protect itself against foreign impositions or to be taken seriously on the international stage.  They had also seen that, after the Revolution, too many States had adopted constitutions with weak Executives overly subordinate to the Legislatures.  Where this had been the case, state governments had proven incompetent and indeed tyrannical.

From these practical experiences, the Framers had come to appreciate that, to be successful, Republican government required the capacity to act with energy, consistency and decisiveness.  They had come to agree that those attributes could best be provided by making the Executive power independent of the divided counsels of the Legislative branch and vesting the Executive power in the hands of a solitary individual, regularly elected for a limited term by the Nation as a whole. As Jefferson put it, ‘[F]or the prompt, clear, and consistent action so necessary in an Executive, unity of person is necessary….”

While there may have been some differences among the Framers as to the precise scope of Executive power in particular areas, there was general agreement about its nature.  Just as the great separation-of-powers theorists– Polybius, Montesquieu, Locke – had, the Framers thought of Executive power as a distinct specie of power.  To be sure, Executive power includes the responsibility for carrying into effect the laws passed by the Legislature – that is, applying the general rules to a particular situation.  But the Framers understood that Executive power meant more than this.

It also entailed the power to handle essential sovereign functions – such as the conduct of foreign relations and the prosecution of war – which by their very nature cannot be directed by a pre-existing legal regime but rather demand speed, secrecy, unity of purpose, and prudent judgment to meet contingent circumstances.  They agreed that – due to the very nature of the activities involved, and the kind of decision-making they require – the Constitution generally vested authority over these spheres in the Executive.  For example, Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, described the conduct of foreign relations as “Executive altogether,” subject only to the explicit exceptions defined in the Constitution, such as the Senate’s power to ratify Treaties.

A related, and third aspect of Executive power is the power to address exigent circumstances that demand quick action to protect the well-being of the Nation but on which the law is either silent or inadequate – such as dealing with a plague or natural disaster.  This residual power to meet contingency is essentially the federative power discussed by Locke in his Second Treatise.

“Limits” on Presidential power are an evergreen topic.