Executive Power, the Royal Prerogative, and the Founders’ Presidency

by Andrew Kent

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The original meaning of the opening clause of Article II of the Constitution—which vests “[t]he executive power … in a President of the United States”—has been debated inconclusively for over 200 years. As originalism gains ground as an interpretive theory in U.S. courts, and the U.S. executive branch continues to read the clause very expansively, often by making claims about original meaning, an intense scholarly debate has raged in recent decades about the Clause. A cohort of influential originalist scholars read the Executive Power Clause as a broad grant of war, foreign affairs, and national security power supposedly considered “executive” in nature in the eighteenth century, defined by reference to the royal prerogative powers of the British monarchy. Other scholarship views the Clause as granting only the power to execute the law. A third approach interprets the Clause even more minimally, as a mere designation provision, not granting power at all but making clear that there would be a singular chief magistrate called the president, with power flowing from enumerations such as the Commander in Chief, Appointments, Pardons, and Treaty Clauses. This Article comprehensively reviews the British and American legal, political, and ideological backgrounds relevant to understanding the Executive Power Clause; carefully reads the text in light of interpretive conventions used in the founding era and extrinsic evidence from the Philadelphia Convention and state ratification debates; and critically evaluates the current scholarship. The wide divergence among modern scholars about the meaning of the Executive Power Clause is found to reflect real ambiguity in the text of the Constitution and the historical records. Unlike many previous scholars, who have settled on their preferred reading as the clearly correct choice, I find that there are several plausible original public meanings of the Executive Power Clause. When the new government under the Constitution became operational in 1789, the ambiguous Clause was sitting there ready to become a site of contestation. That said, the text and history I review here support at least one firm conclusion: by far the least plausible original meaning of the Executive Power Clause is the one which sees it as granting an undefined amount of British royal prerogative power to the president.