The Power of the President

Springfield Daily Illinois State Journal, April 9, 1861

A very erroneous opinion prevails among many persons with reference to the powers and duties of the President of the United States. In their estimation he occupies an inferior position, and a station wholly subordinate to the other departments of the Government; that he is altogether subject to the control and dictation of Congress, and that he has no power to interpret the Constitution as he understands it. Nothing can be more erroneous than this position, or more fatal to the stability of our Government. The Executive is not the creature of the Legislative or judicial department. On the contrary, he is entirely independent of them, except so far as the Constitution itself has made him dependent upon them for the exercise of his powers.

But there is one point of view in which the Executive occupies peculiarly an independent attitude—an attitude which cannot rightfully be controlled by any other power or department of the Government. It is that position which he is compelled to occupy as a Defender o f the Constitution. When he assumes the duties of his office, he swears “that he will faithfully execte the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This is the whole extent of his obligation. Nothing more—nothing less. This is the language he is compelled to employ when he is invested with the responsibilities of his distinguished position.

It is a very common opinion that he simply swears to execute the laws, and from this assumption are deduced some of the most dangerous and fatal conclusions. On the contrary, his obligation is of a still higher nature. HE SWEARS TO PRESERVE, PROTECT AND DEFEND THE CONSTITUTION. In the discharge of this high responsibility, he may, if necessary, discard and reject the law. As the Constitution is superior to the law and of paramount importance, whenever it becomes a question which shall be preserved, then it follows, as a matter of course, that every protection shall be thrown around the Constitution regardless of the law. If the law is contrary to the Constitution, it must be rejected. If it is incapable of preserving the Constitution, it must be disregarded. If a traitorous Congress should attempt to sustain treason by the passage of weak, insufficient or unconstitutional laws, the Executive is bound to ignore them. He is thrown back upon the responsibility of his official oath; and it becomes his duty to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” independent of the law. Simply, by virtue of his oath, he is authorized to employ all the means that are available for the purpose of effecting this object. The Constitution is a sacred deposit, intrusted to his care. Upon him is devolved the responsibility of its preservation. From the discharge of that sacred obligation he cannot escape without incurring the charge of perjury. If the means of preserving the Constitution are placed within his control, from whatever source, he is bound to accept those means. If he rejects them, he is faithless to his trust, and violates his oath.

If the different States should tender him volunteers and money for the purpose of preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution, it would be his duty to accept of them, whenever the emergency should arise, demanding their employment, even without any act of Congress. To maintain the contrary would make the Executive wholly dependent upon Congress; would degrade him from his lofty position as the peculiar defender of the Constitution; would strip him of all his prerogatives and power; would convert his official oath into an unmeaning and blasphemous ceremony; and change the proud and independent chieftain of a mighty Republic into the mere puppet and tool of popular passion and caprice. The framers of the Constitution contemplated’ no such event. They made the President commander-in-chief of the army and the navy of the United States. They placed in his hand the sword of the nation, and they compelled him to swear that he would preserve, protect and defend its existence. They did not make him swear to do it in any particular mode. They did not make him swear to call upon Congress to assist him, for Congress might prove to be traitors. They did not compel him to ask Congress for men or money, for treacherous counsels might prevail, even in Congress, to overthrow the Constitution. Their simple proposition may be stated in the following language, as if addressed to the President:

“You are the Executive. To you we intrust this Constitution. Preserve it; protect it; defend it. Upon your discretion we rely. Upon the sanction of your official oath we depend. Upon you we throw this fearful responsibility. We do not limit you as to means, or restrict you as to the mode. All that we can say, is this: ‘Defend the Constitution.”’

In this view of the question it will readily appear that the Executive is not required to call upon Congress to authorize him to accept of volunteers or money from the different States. He possesses this power independent of Congress. It may be wise, and prudent and politic to secure the co-operation of Congress, but their assent is not necessary. Whenever the Constitution is assailed; whenever treason prevails; whenever the contemplated emergency arises, the Executive may exercise his discretion as to the manner in which he will discharge his duty.

It follows necessarily from this position, that if the authority of the Government is attacked by widely extended rebellion, and the maintenance of the Constitution is endangered by exhausting the means of the treasury; and diverting the revenues of the country from their ordinary channels, or appropriating them for the support of treason, the Executive has the power to collect those revenues, and defeat the machinations of traitors and sustain the Government by any means within his reach. Under ordinary circumstances, we admit, it is his duty to collect the revenue in the mode prescribed by law. But when treason abounds, the preservation of the Constitution becomes paramount to law, and imperatively demands that efficient measures shall be taken to prevent the revenues from falling into the hands of traitors. If the stationing of vessels before the harbors be an appropriate means of effecting this object, the Executive has the power, by virtue of his Constitutional duty, to collect the revenues in this way, independent of any action of Congress upon the subject. Should he not do so, he would willfully and deliberately permit traitors to seize upon the revenues and pervert them to their own treasonable purposes. He would allow the vital energies of the Nation to become exhausted. He would inflict a vital blow upon the commerce and industry of the country. He would demoralize the whole Government, trample upon his official obligations, and violate his solemn oath. Financial disasters would rapidly accumulate, and anarchy and confusion abound. Our institutions would speedily crumble into dust, and the Constitution he has sworn to support would be a worthless piece of parchment in his grasp.

As before remarked, it would be wise to secure the co-operation of Congress, but suppose that Congress is blinded by prejudice or infected with treason, shall the Executive admit that he is the servile tool of Congress or dependent upon it for the exercise of his authority, when he has the army and navy at his command? Shall he ignore his Constitutional duty and power, and exhibit to the world the contemptible imbecility of a ruler who dares not assert his prerogatives and discharge his official obligations?

We fearlessly then assume the position that the Executive has the Constitutional power, and it [is] his duty whenever the emergency demands the exercise of the power, to accept of volunteers and money from the different States, and to accept of means from individuals in any of the States; and that he has the Constitutional power to collect the revenue in any way that may be deemed expedient for the purpose of suppressing treason and maintaining the Constitution.