Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Evolution of the Executive and Executive Power in the American Republic
The Evolution of the Executive and Executive Power in the American Republic

The Evolution of the Executive and Executive Power in the American Republic


As Americans, we take for granted the idea of a government that is both free and yet strong enough to preserve the security of its citizens. But the fact is that such a government is a recent invention, first emerging as a result of political thought and practice in eighteenth century England and only coming to full flower in Philadelphia with the drafting of the American Constitution of 1787. As Harvey Mansfield wrote in his book Taming the Prince, “the combination of freedom and strength does not arise easily or naturally,” a fact confirmed “both by the grand outline of modern history and the experience of the ancients.”[1]

Throughout history, strong governments have generally been monarchies, but at the expense of freedom. It was in republics that freedom was supposed to reside but, before the creation of the American Republic, the republican form of government had a mixed record at best. Ancient republics were characterized by constant struggle between the few (oligarchs) and the many (the demos) that led to instability and weakness. Modern republics also either came to grief (the German cities) or faded into irrelevance and obscurity (Venice and the Dutch Republic).

But in Philadelphia, the Founders created a government that combined the freedom of republics with the strength of monarchies. The Founders’ innovation that permitted this pairing of freedom and security to work was the “executive.” In Mansfield’s words, “the executive provided the strength of monarchy without tolerating its status above the law, so that monarchy would not only be compatible with the rule of law and the supremacy of the Constitution, but would also be expected to serve both. Furthermore, the recasting of monarchy as executive power made it dependably democratic as well as legal and constitutional.”[2]

Ironically, it was Nicolo Machiavelli who created the concept of the modern executive (esecuzioni). In so doing, Machiavelli rejected both the classical Greek idea of the “best regime” and the contemporary concept of the “Christian Prince,” who was concerned with the salvation of the peoples’ immortal souls. Machiavelli traced the weakness and vulnerability of the Italian republics to their leaders’ preference for otherworldly concerns. But a republic is mortal and its preservation must be the central concern of Machiavelli’s Prince, who also achieves glory by that preservation. The Prince goes behind speech to “effectual truth,” resorting to such remedies as quickness of decision, suddenness of execution, manipulation of necessity, self-reliance (uno solo), secrecy, denial of responsibility, and reliance on “one’s own arms.”

So how did Machiavelli’s anti-constitutional—indeed tyrannical—prince, intended by the Florentine to achieve results at any expense, end up as the executive power in a liberal constitution?  The answer is that over the next two centuries, Machiavelli’s prince was “tamed”—constitutionalized and liberalized—by means of the political thought of Machiavelli’s successors.


[1] Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power (New York: The Free Press, 1989), p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. xvi.

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