The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 67–69 | Summary

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Summary

Essay 67: The Executive Department

Hamilton meets adversaries head-on in this essay, in which he categorically rejects the claim of the Constitution's critics that the office of president will create a monarchy in the United States. He accuses these critics of gross misrepresentation. In New York, the Anti-Federalists were led by Governor George Clinton (1739–1812), a powerful and popular politician who authored papers opposing the Constitution under the title Cato Letters. Like The Federalist Papers these essays appeared as newspaper articles in New York between late 1787 and early 1788. Although Hamilton does not name Clinton in Essay 67, he plainly refers to Cato's Essay 5 when he charges that critics of the Constitution have distorted the powers of the president. In Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2, for example, the president is empowered to appoint various officials; in a follow-up clause the Constitution authorizes him to make "recess appointments" when the Senate is not in session.

Willful opponents of the Constitution, however, have distorted these provisos to give the impression that the president will be able to fill vacancies in the Senate. Hamilton argues the point at some length, applying a detailed analysis of the syntax used in the Constitution. The distortion, he says, is "an unequivocal proof of the unwarrantable arts" that is employed to prevent a fair judgment of the Constitution.

Essay 68: The Mode of Electing the President

In this essay, Hamilton begins by praising the procedures established by the new Constitution for the election of the president. In presidential elections it is highly desirable for the sense of the people to be conveyed by the judicious deliberation of a small number of discerning citizens, selected by their compatriots.

Hence, the establishment of a system of electors, equal to the combined number of representatives and senators elected by each state, and later called the "electoral college." Such a system, Hamilton asserts, erects every "practicable obstacle" to the dangers of "cabal, intrigue, and corruption."

Hamilton also affirms his support for the role of the House of Representatives in the case of inconclusive elections.

Essay 69: The Real Character of the Executive

In this essay, Hamilton presents a lengthy comparison and contrast between the president's powers under the new Constitution and the power of the British king. The president is elected by the people while the British monarchy is hereditary. The president is subject to impeachment for treason, bribery, or other "high crimes or misdemeanors," whereas the person of the king is sacred. The veto power of the president is limited, in that both houses of Congress may override a presidential veto by a two-thirds vote; by contrast the king possesses an absolute veto over acts of Parliament. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States; the king, however, possesses significantly more military power in that he is authorized to declare war and to raise and maintain armies.

Likewise, in the areas of treaties, appointments, and pardons, the president is in every respect a less powerful governmental officer than the British king. Hamilton adds that the president may, indeed, be more restricted in his constitutional powers than the governor of New York!

Analysis

Hamilton's extensive comparison and contrast in Essay 69 between the American presidency and the British monarchy needs to be understood in contemporary context. No Anti-Federalist rhetoric was as strong or corrosive than the charge that the presidency would recreate the British monarchy—an institution which, more than any other, was despised by Americans. Much of the text of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, consists of a catalog of wrongs inflicted by the British king on the colonies.

Anti-Federalists like George Clinton of New York and Patrick Henry of Virginia sounded the alarm repeatedly on the issue of kingship. Hamilton's reference to Clinton and the Cato Letters in Essay 67 has already been mentioned. When he wrote and published this essay in early 1788, however, he could not foresee the passionate appeal of Patrick Henry (1736–99) at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, held in early June 1788: "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 towards monarchy; and does this not raise indignation in the breast of every true American? Your President may easily become a king. Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed by what may be a small minority."

Hamilton's discussion of the electoral college in Essay 68 retains a timely relevance. There have been five occasions in American history when a candidate has been elected despite the loss of the popular vote: 1824 (John Quincy Adams's victory over Andrew Jackson), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes's victory over Samuel Tilden), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison's victory over Grover Cleveland), 2000 (George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore), and 2016 (Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton). In the most recent case Trump won the presidency by defeating Clinton in the electoral college with a vote of 304–227; in the popular vote, however, Clinton prevailed by more than 2.8 million votes.

Contemporary critics of the electoral college have argued it is an anachronism, it gives too much power to "swing states," and it may ignore the will of the people by electing a president who has garnered only a minority of the popular vote. Supporters of the electoral college argue it has the sanction of the Founding Fathers, it ensures widespread participation in the election, and it guarantees the certainty of the outcome. An abolition of the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment, involving two-thirds approval by both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states.

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