Founding Fathers Quotes on the Limited Executive Powers of the United States Presidency

 

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 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.”

– George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

“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.”

– John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, December 6, 1787

“The second office of the government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery.”

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Elbridge Gerry, May 13, 1797

“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 anyone after awhile who shall endeavor to extend his term.”

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Taylor, January 6, 1805

“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.”

– John Adams, Upon the election of his son, John Quincy Adams, to the presidency, 1824

“In times of peace the people look most to their representatives; but in war, to the executive solely.”

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Caesar A. Rodney, February 10, 1810

“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.”

– Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

“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.”

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Edward Rutledge, December 27, 1796

“Had I been chosen President again, I am certain I could not have lived another year.”

– John Adams, From his autobiography

“Had I been chosen president again, I am certain I could not have lived another year.” 

– John Adams

“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.”

– George Washington, Eighth Annual Address to Congress, December 7, 1796

“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.”

– George Washington, Letter to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, January 9, 1790

“I have no ambition to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office.”

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, December 28, 1796

“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.”

– John Adams, Seeking advice of the Senate for a title for President George Washington, 1789

“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.”

– George Washington, Comment to Henry Knox, March 1789

“His character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.”

– Thomas Jefferson on George Washington, Letter to Dr. Walter Jones, January 2, 1814

“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.”

– George Washington, Letter to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, January 9, 1790

Founding Fathers Quotes on the Limited Executive Powers of the United States Presidency originally appeared in The Resistance Library at Ammo.com.

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  1. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Ammo.com:

    “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.”

    – George Washington, Comment to Henry Knox, March 1789

    This sounds like Trump.

    Neither of these men wanted it, as both had successful careers and could have retired with relief to an autumn life of relaxation and reflection. Washington a brilliant general and patriot. Trump a brilliant businessman and patriot.

    But they were both patriots. They both agreed to take on what they both knew would be a hellish, thankless job.

    And they were both extrordinary.

    Aaaaand, then we went back to someone like F-ing Joe Biden. The molecular opposite of brilliant, patriot, or extraordinary.

    God.

    Sigh.

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Ammo.com:

    “I have no ambition to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office.”

    – Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, December 28, 1796

    At least nobody can accuse Jefferson of being consistent about anything.

    • #2
  3. Ammo.com Member
    Ammo.com
    @ammodotcom

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    Aaaaand, then we went back to someone like F-ing Joe Biden. The molecular opposite of brilliant, patriot, or extraordinary.

    Joe Biden is the molecular opposite of any sentient creature. A sea cucumber has greater control over its actions.

    • #3