Federalist No.70

The Executive Department Further Considered

Saturday, March 15, 1788

Alexander Hamilton


Hamilton’s underlying argument in this paper is that executive branch of government as it is formulated in the Constitution must be trusted by those who believe in republicanism if they are not to betray their own principals. Hamilton sees the proposed role of President as the model most to be trusted and to deliver a vigorous government.


In order to understand Hamilton’s argument, one must first understand that he is contemplating more than one kind of executive in this paper, in order to answer detractors of the Constitution. He cites the example of the Roman Consuls, for instance, yet points out that the Roman Republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of Dictator against threats internally and externally; a point that underpins his point that America is safer under the direction of a single President rather than dividing executive power. In another example Hamilton cites the instance of an unnamed American State that gives executive powers for the nomination to appointments both with the governor and with a council, which has fallen into conflict over who is responsible for bad appointments.


Hamilton says that America needs an energetic Executive, which he defines as unity … duration … adequate provision[s] for its support … [and] competent powers. These are the ingredients which constitute this energy which must be balanced with the ingredients that constitute safety in the republic, namely a due dependence on the people and a due responsibility. It is mainly these issues of safety which Hamilton focusses upon here.


Hamilton cites two ways executive power might be undermined.


First, is to divide the executive power equally among two or more people. This is the Roman model, in which two Consuls shared equal executive power. Hamilton outlines how this sometimes led to conflict. To ameliorate the effects of this division (or lessen the chances it might occur), Consuls often divided their duties or spheres of responsibility: one of them remaining in Rome to govern the city and its environs, the other taking the command in more distant provinces.


The second way to undermine executive power, according to Hamilton, is to place executive power in the hands of one person who has absolute authority, who is only advised but not bound to follow the advice of counsel. Hamilton suggests that the States of New York and New Jersey have adopted this model

I clearly concur in opinion, in this particular, with a writer whom the celebrated Junius pronounces to be deep, solid and ingenious, that the executive power is more easily confined when it is one; that it is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people and, in a word, that all multiplication of the Executive is rather dangerous than friendly to liberty.
- Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton’s concerns over the first arrangement starts with the possibility that equal powers in the executive are likely to disagree, and their disagreement risks reducing the authority of the executive, of causing animosity and reducing the respectability of their positions. They also risk splitting the community into factions.


Hamilton argues that the legislative branch might gain from opposition, which may promote deliberation and circumspection. And since the end result of this process in the legislative is that a law is formed which is then a criminal act to oppose, the matter is therefore ended. In the executive, however, not only are the disadvantages already mentioned at risk, but the ability of the executive to respond in an agile manner to threats and problems is reduced. The end result is animosities between the executive at no point … cease to operate. Hamilton says that these problems could occur equally in the second model (that of the counsel operating with a supreme head), since dissention could just as easily materialise within the counsel, or its indecisions undermine the executive through differences of opinion.


Hamilton’s next point is that there needs to be responsibility. Placing the responsibility for executive decisions with one person makes it clear to the people who is responsible, and makes it difficult to shift blame or to make detection difficult. Without this clear idea of responsibility, it is more difficult to punish an offender or remove them from office if the issue of who is responsible is unclear. Finally, by placing the power of the executive with one person, they will be more narrowly watched and more readily suspected. That is, it is less likely the public trust will be broken when the executive remains in the hands of one person, since it is clear who is responsible for decisions. For this reason, Hamilton believes America has more to fear by dividing the executive power, rather than by focussing it in the hands of one person.


As a final thought, Hamilton also raises the issue of public funds, since splitting executive powers would cost more for an object of equivocal utility.

4 December 2019