Letter to the Editor
Dec. 24, 2012
To the editor:
The Cato Institute’s Gene Healy wrote “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power,” which I recently had the privilege of reading.
An excellently written book from which I learned a great deal, it traces the history of the presidency and how it has been transformed radically into the cult-like fervor Americans follow it with today.
In this country’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, we remember a few nice-sounding lines on liberty, yet the vast majority of the declaration is a rant against executive power in the form of the King of England.
We were founded by people heavily skeptical of individuals abusing executive power, which is why the president was granted so little authority in the Constitution. Only a small fraction of the modern presidency concerns itself with the powers it has been granted in the Constitution.
In 1793, the “father of the Constitution,” James Madison, warned that war unleashes “the strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.” Because of this, he felt the wisest part of the Constitution is the one that entrusted the temptation of war with the legislature, as it is too great for any one man. War powers now effectively lie in the hands of one man and are all too often abused.
Executive orders used to be largely meaningless, administrative adjustments as constitutionally intended. Now they encompass large swaths of public policy that bypass the legislature. During the 19th century, presidents issued a combined total of about 300 executive orders, whereas 20th-century presidents and those up to today regularly issue hundreds, sometimes thousands, individually. President Franklin Roosevelt illegally imprisoned 110,000 innocent Japanese Americans during WWII through Executive Order 9066.
President Calvin Coolidge said “it is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.” Coolidge left office more than 80 years ago, and there hasn’t been a president remotely as humble with his power since.
Edward S. Paxson