Article II: The Executive Branch (1790)

When the founders set out to revise the Articles, there was much to debate. From the beginning, the need for an executive branch was clear. However, this left many questions. How many executives? For how long will they serve? What powers shall be granted to this new branch? While some questions still remain, Article II outlines the basic framework for this new Executive branch.

When James Wilson of Pennsylvania motioned for executive powers to rest in the hands of one man, a considerable silence possessed the second floor of Independence Hall.1  The founders, having only recently secured their independence from a mad king, were naturally terrified of a government that might too easily devolve into a monarchy. Many members of the convention contended unity in the executive is no different than having a king.1 Wilson attempted to assuage these concerns arguing it would give “most energy dispatch and responsibility to the office”.1 It would be difficult to hold the executive accountable amidst many voices, and furthermore, it would lessen the decisive capability of the executive. But perhaps what comforted the delegates most was the presence of the nation’s favorite farmer from Virginia, George Washington. It was understood that in the event this motion passed, Washington would be the first to occupy the office. The delegates knew they could trust Washington for he had already given up the opportunity to become King of America. And so, it was agreed. One man shall lead the executive branch.

Section I of Article II also dictates how long the President shall hold his office—four years. This term length reignited fears amongst some, for it is commonly said that when annual elections end, tyranny begins.3 This fear is compounded by the omission of term limits in Article II. There is nothing to stop a President from seeking reelection until the day he dies. Anti-Federalists in Cato Letter No. 4 argue great power must be tempered by restraining the length it is held, and contend four-year terms with no limit on reelection is nothing short of dangerous.1 Hamilton eloquently argues against these claims. On the topic of length, Hamilton argues this prevents the President from falling prey to the fleeting desires of the public.1 Serving a term of one years would only create instability within the Presidency, and it would naturally shift focus to the politics of the moment. Hamilton also fervently defends the idea of reelections with no shortage of ammunition. Chiefly, he notes the possibility of reelection encourages the President to perform better.1 There are few things more motivating than the possibility of retaining the highest office in the land. Hamilton also notes the value of executive experience.1 Paradoxically, the only true preparation for the presidency is actually being President. Without the possibility of reelection, the President would be unable to carry the wisdom they’ve earned from one term to the next. 

Article II, Section I continues on to outline how this “President” is to be chosen. After initial debate and disagreement, the matter was sent to the Committee of Postponed Matters. It was there they crafted the Electoral College, an institution existing solely to choose the President. Each state receives a number of delegates equal to the number of members they have in the Legislature, and each delegate receives two votes. The candidate who receives the most votes and has a majority will be elected President, and the runner up his Vice President. In the event no candidate reaches a majority, the House of Representatives shall choose the President. Critics of the Electoral College argue all too often this will be the case and rarely will the electors actually choose the President.

These are the logistics of the Presidency. Equally as critical are the powers granted to the President. One of the most important powers, granted to the President in Article I, Section VII, is the President’s ability to veto legislation passed by Congress. The Anti-Federalists argue this puts too much power in the hands of one person. They contend it is kingly for one man to have the capacity to reject legislation passed by the people’s chosen representatives. Hamilton argues against this in Federalist No. 69, rejecting the idea this power is at all monarchical. Distinct from the king, a president’s veto is not absolute.1 Any legislation vetoed can be overridden with a super majority. 

In addition to this veto power, Article II, Section II designates the President as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. Section II further details powers given to the President, such as the power to make treaties, and to, “appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme court, and all other Officers of the United States”.1 However, these powers of appointing can only be used by and with the advice and consent of the senate. The President is also further restrained, for while the he commands the military at war, it is the power of Congress to declare war. And it is in between these two states of total peace and all out war that the diplomatic powers of the President are left in a state of murkiness. Whether or not the President can declare neutrality or repel sudden attacks is not clearly stated. The question remains as to whether the President’s power is confined solely to those powers explicitly granted to him, or whether he can exist in the space in between. More obscurity can be seen when looking at how the President is to be succeeded. Yes, Section I states the role of President falls to the Vice President. However, it begs the question as to whether the Vice President is simply acting as the interim Commander in Chief without the perks, or if the full powers of the Presidency fall to him. Again, Article II remains vague and unclear.

When the framers set out to revise the Articles, they sought to create a strong and effective executive, but one still held in check by the other governing branches. The President has the power to act in times of war, but not the power to declare it. The President has the power to appoint, but he must do so with the advice and consent of the Senate. And the President has the power to veto laws purposed, but can be superseded by the Legislature itself.  However, while Article II answers many questions about the Executive, it leaves others unanswered. And it is the people who hold this office that will determine the true power of the Presidency.


  1. Michael Nelson, The Evolving Presidency Landmark Documents, 1787-2015 (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2016), 1-39.
  2. Charles O. Jones, The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016),  2.
  3. Class Notes, February 2nd, 2017.
  4. Electoral College Interview, March 1st, 2017.

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