Founding Fathers Quotes on the Limited Executive Powers of the United States Presidency
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One of the unfortunate rules of power is that those who are least equipped to exercise it judiciously are the most inclined to seek it. The Founding Fathers understood this, which is precisely why the presidency was so limited in its powers. George Washington was seen as an exemplar of what a president should be precisely because he accepted power only reluctantly and was happy to give it up when he felt his time was over. It wasn’t until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times that anyone thought to term limit the presidency with the Constitution. Only two other men sought a third term: Ulysses S. Grant, who did so half-heartedly and mostly let his followers do the work, and Theodore Roosevelt, who ran for a non-consecutive third term the same way he did everything else – with great vigor and gusto.
The powers of the presidency have expanded greatly since the time of George Washington, making the term “imperial presidency” more than just a throwaway phrase. Executive Orders carry great weight, perhaps even more so than statutes drafted and passed by the Congress. The Founders did not foresee such a situation, which is far more akin to the British Crown’s powers than to that of George Washington or any other president bar Abraham Lincoln, who presided over the nation at a time of great crisis.
“Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order...The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
“You are afraid of the one – I, of the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have a full, fair and perfect Representation.—You are Apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy. I would therefore have given more Power to the President and less to the Senate.”
“The danger is that the indulgence and attachments of the people will keep a man in the chair after he becomes a dotard...General Washington set the example of voluntary retirement after eight years. I shall follow it. And a few more precedents will oppose the obstacle of habit to any one after awhile who shall endeavor to extend his term.”
“No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. He will make one man ungrateful, and a hundred men his enemies, for every office he can bestow.”
“Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow citizens which is here assembled, to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire.”
“I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it. The honeymoon would be as short in that case as in any other, and its moments of ecstasy would be ransomed by years of torment and hatred.”
“The situation in which I now stand, for the last time, in the midst of the Representatives of the People of the United States, naturally recalls the period when the Administration of the present form of Government commenced; and I cannot omit the occasion, to congratulate you and my Country, on the success of the experiment; nor to repeat my fervent supplications to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and Sovereign Arbiter of Nations, that his Providential care may still be extended to the United States; that the virtue and happiness of the People, may be preserved; and that the Government, which they have instituted, for the protection of their liberties, may be perpetual.”
“All see, and most admire, the glare which hovers round the external trappings of elevated office. To me there is nothing in it, beyond the lustre which may be reflected from its connection with a power of promoting human felicity.”
“Whether I should say, 'Mr. Washington,' 'Mr. President,' 'Sir,' 'may it please your excellency,' or what else? I observed that it had been common while he commanded the army to call him “His Excellency,” but I was free to own it would appear to me better to give him no title but 'Sir' or 'Mr. President,' than to put him on a level with a governor of Bermuda.”
“For myself the delay [in assuming the office of the President] may be compared with a reprieve; for in confidence I assure you, with the world it would obtain little credit that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.”
“I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any action, whose motives may not be subject to a double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”