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1787: US Government Crafted to Ensure Presidential Powers Limited by Congress, Courts

After the failure of the US federal government under the Articles of Confederation, the men working to shape the new American government—later termed the “Founders”—determine that the new government must have a president with power equal to that of Congress and the Supreme Court. The federal government itself has far more power under the new Constitution than it had under the Articles, but many Founders worry that the government will have, or take upon itself, the power to constrain or even destroy individual rights and freedoms. The government, therefore, will have strict limitations on its functions, and will be divided into three co-equal branches. Debate over whether the new government should have a single president or an executive council rages, but eventually the Founders decide that a single president could best act decisively in times of crisis. However, Congress has the strength to curtail presidential power via legislation and oversight. One of the Founders’ most crucial decisions is to give Congress, not the president, the power to declare war and commit military troops to battle. Congress must also authorize any military actions that fall short of actual war, the creation and maintenance of armies, and exercise control over how the president can call on the armed forces in emergencies. Finally, the Founders, all too aware that until the English Revolution of 1688, the King of England could use his “prerogative powers” to dispense with a law that he felt unnecessary, move to ensure that the US president cannot use a similar usurpation of power to override Congressional legislation, writing in the Constitution that the president must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” In 2007, reporter Charlie Savage, drawing on James Madison’s Federalist Papers, will write: “Knowing that it was inevitable that from time to time foolish, corrupt, or shortsighted individuals would win positions of responsibility in the government, the Founders came up with a system that would limit anyone’s ability to become a tyrant or to otherwise wreck the country. And over the next century and a half, the system worked as the Founders had designed it to work.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 14-16]

Entity Tags: James Madison, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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