Fear of executive tyranny is as old as America itself, as it was born in the dramatic overthrow of monarchy and with the declaration that “all men are created equal.” There have been numerous times when this fear has been unfounded, expressed in extreme hyperbole, and mostly unheeded. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, said that George Washington’s tenure as president was “that of a monarch” and an “apish mimickry [sic] of Kingship.”
Washington clearly did not become or want to be a tyrant. However, not all men, and in fact very few men, are as moral or committed to republican principles as Washington was. Americans have every reason to be suspicious of their chief executive who today wields a vast amount of power, far beyond what the great and virtuous Washington wielded.
The early American historian Forrest McDonald said of the power of the presidency in his book, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, “It is vital for the safety and well being of the nation, that there be a chief executive officer who can, when circumstances warrant it, operate outside or above the law. Yet it is dangerous as well, hence the needs for restraints and limits on presidential authority.”
Calls of executive tyranny have been a frequent charge from out of power political parties. The liberal historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once praised the vast expansion of executive power Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but then wrote a book called “The Imperial Presidency” during the presidency of Richard Nixon, a Republican. Clearly Schlesinger’s standards for executive tyranny had changed when liberal Democrats were not in office.
In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) said of President George W. Bush’s administration, “There‘s been a tendency on the part of this administration to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky that’s taken place.” Obama decried the use of the executive privilege for reasons other than national security, and then turned around during his presidency to use executive privilege to bury a criminal investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, a government operation in which Americans lost their lives.
The Obama administration has done more than just abuse the power of executive privilege. He has issued executive orders at a breakneck pace surpassed by few other modern presidents besides Franklin Roosevelt. He used Executive orders to create new immigration policies and to gut welfare reform. Obama also created a huge number of positions in the executive branch called “czars,” again, through the use of executive orders.
The fear that a Caesar, Cromwell or Napoleon may come to power and dissolve American liberties was always present in the minds of the 18th and 19th centuries and it has occasionally come to the minds of 20th and 21st century Americans who have seen the executive branch extend dramatically in size and scope.
Patrick Henry, the great Founding Father and orator from the Commonwealth of Virginia said just after the adoption of the Constitution, “The Constitution is said to have beautiful features, but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horribly frightful: among other deformities it has an awful squinting; it squints toward monarchy: and does not this raise indignation in the breast of every true American. Your President may easily become a king.”
Henry, like many other anti-federalists, feared that the Constitution did not go far enough to ensure the liberties of Americans, who had just won their independence with much bloodshed; from a king they considered a tyrant. They didn’t want to throw off one king and get another tyrant in his place.
Henry was eventually mollified, partially through the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and he became a champion of the Constitution, yet the fear of a powerful and charismatic sweeping away the Constitution and American liberties lingered.
An entire early American party was in fact founded on the idea that a president, Andrew Jackson, was becoming a dictator and a tyrant. The Whig Party, drawing its name from their British and American predecessors that opposed monarchy, coalesced from many disparate elements—from the New England nationalist Daniel Webster, to Virginia state rights advocate John Tyler, to, briefly, the nullifier from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun. All were in opposition to what they considered executive tyranny by President Jackson. The charge came mostly from Jackson’s use of the veto power for political reasons instead of for just upholding the Constitution, and for what they saw as an encroachment of the executive branch into the role of the legislative branch.
When Jackson used an executive order to remove federal deposits from the Second Bank of the United States, thereby stripping the power of America’s central bank, Henry Clay, the greatest of the Whigs, made a rousing speech to blast what he saw as a tyrannical presidential overreach.
Clay didn’t hold back his vicious criticism, calling Jackson a “military chieftain.” He said, “We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending toward a total change in the pure republican character of the government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man.”
This was a call to all who opposed “executive tyranny” and signified the birth of the American Whig party.
Jackson’s presidency certainly expanded the power of the presidency, but he did not destroy republican institutions, violate the Constitution or fatally undermine the legislature. The Second Bank of the United States had become politicized, unpopular and at times, corrupt, which gave Jackson a well-founded reason to end its existence.
Although Jackson could have let the bank die a natural death in 1836 when the charter expired, he pushed the envelope of his power by dissolving it in 1834. This came after he fired several treasury secretaries who refused to comply with the order. Jackson was censured by Congress for the removal and intensified Whig opposition to his policies and presidency. Despite the overreach in removing the deposits, Jackson put pressure on the legislature and used his Constitutional right to veto legislation, but never directly violated the sanctity of either. That job was left to his presidential ancestors.
Presidential power was in large part created by the Founding Fathers for the self-preservation of the United States in times of war and conflict with foreign nations. This was more apparent to Americans after the struggles during the American Revolution, in which the legislature struggled to act decisively or craft effective war strategies. President Obama’s use of executive orders bypasses the legislature and its legitimate role in creating domestic policy and is focused far less on protecting American liberties for foreign invaders and enemies.
Matt Spalding of the Heritage Foundation wrote after Obama signed his immigration executive order, “We can now see before us a persistent pattern of disregard for the powers of the legislative branch in favor of administrative decision-making without—and often in spite of—congressional action. This violates the spirit—and potentially the letter—of the Constitution’s separation of the legislative and executive powers of Congress and the President.”
The amount of power that the president now wields requires a virtue and restraint that George Washington exhibited. Alas, Barack Obama is no George Washington or even an Andrew Jackson for that matter.