ON a full view of the powers and duties of the president, the reader will probably perceive that they are of more importance in respect to foreign relations than to the internal administration of government.
At home his path, though dignified, is narrow. In the tranquillity which we have hitherto in time of peace enjoyed, little more has been requisite, in either his legislative or executive functions, than regularly to pursue the plain mandates of laws, and the certain text of the Constitution.
In his legislative capacity, the power of objecting to acts of congress, has been fairly exercised and respectfully submitted to. In the executive department he has had indeed two insurrections to cope with, one of which was inconsiderable, and the other, though more extensive, disappeared before the mere display of the force collected to subdue it. The transaction itself afforded a valuable proof of the patriotism of the people, and their attachment to the Constitution. The regular militia of the three adjoining states, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, cheerfully co-operated with that of Pennsylvania, in which the opposition existed, and the governor of Pennsylvania, as a military officer, obeyed the orders of the governor of Virginia, on whom the president conferred the chief command. A great proportion of this force consisted of volunteers; numbers of whom were men of considerable property and civil eminence, and the governors of the states we have mentioned, except that of Maryland, who was prevented by particular circumstances, voluntarily took the field in person.
If the pages of our history are soiled in any degree by transient resistance to the laws of the Union, the disgrace is redeemed by the proof of that wisdom, by which the general Constitution now appeared to have been framed, and of that determination to support it, by which the majority were actuated. And should instances of insurrection again occur, either against the laws of the Union, or the government of any particular state, it cannot be doubted that the same general and noble animation would be again displayed in support of the great political ark of our safety and happiness.
But it is in respect to external relations; to transactions with foreign nations, and the events arising from them, that the president has an arduous task. Here he must chiefly act on his own independent judgment. The Constitution authorizes him indeed to require the opinions of the principal officers in the executive departments; but however useful those opinions may be, they would afford no sanction for any errors he might commit. And although if required, they are to be given in writing, they would involve the officers in no responsibility.
In respect to treaties, it is only after they have received the approbation of the senate, that his responsibility is diminished by being divided. But he is not obliged to submit the inchoate treaty to them. His instructions to the minister who negotiated it may have been misunderstood, or wilfully disregarded; the national interests may have been plainly neglected, and it may be altogether such a compact as he would not ratify if he stood alone. Under such circumstances, it would be a timorous policy to endeavour to fortify his own disapprobation by obtaining the concurrence of the senate. And if he should continue to disapprove it, although it met their approbation, he would not be justified in giving it his further action. For by the express words of the Constitution, he in concurrence with the senate, and not the senate alone, is to make treaties. In case of an impeachment, it would be no valid defence, for him to allege that he submitted his own opinion to that of the senate. If indeed the case was at first of a doubtful nature, if he conscientiously desired the deliberate assistance of the senate, and if an honest conviction was produced in his own mind by the advice he received from them; his compliance with it would be personally honourable to him, and clearly consistent with the Constitution.
The power of receiving foreign ambassadors, carries with it among other things, the right of judging in the case of a revolution in a foreign country, whether the new rulers ought to be recognised. The legislature indeed possesses a superior power, and may declare its dissent from the executive recognition or refusal, but until that sense is declared, the act of the executive is binding. The judicial power can take no notice of a new government, till one or the other of those two departments has acted on it. 1 Circumstances may render the decision of great importance to the interests and peace of the country. A precipitate acknowledgement of the independence of part of a foreign nation, separating itself from its former, head, may provoke the resentment of the latter: a refusal to do so, may disgust the former, and prevent the attainment of amity and commerce with them, if they succeed. The principles on which the separation takes place must also be taken into consideration, and if they are conformable to those which led to our own independence, and appear likely to be preserved, a strong impulse will arise in favour of a recognition; because it may be for our national interest, which the president is bound pre-eminently to consult, to promote the dissemination and establishment, at least in our own neighbourhood, of those principles which form the strongest foundations of good government.
But the most accurate and authentic information should be procured of the actual state and prospect of success of such newly erected states, for it would not be justifiable in the president to involve the country in difficulties, merely in support of an abstract principle, if there was not a reasonable prospect of perseverance and success on the part of those who have embarked in the enterprise. The caution of President Monroe in sending commissioners to South America, for the purpose of making inquiries on the spot, in preference to a reliance on vague rumors and partial representations, was highly commendable.
The power of congress on this subject cannot be controlled; they may, if they think proper, acknowledge a small and helpless community, though with a certainty of drawing a war upon our country; but greater circumspection is required from the president, who, not having the constitutional power to declare war, ought ever to abstain from a measure likely to produce it.
Among other incidents arising from foreign relations, it may be noticed that congress, which cannot conveniently be always in session, may devolve on the president, duties that at first view seem to belong only to themselves. It has been decided, that a power given to the president to revive an act relating to foreign intercourse, when certain measures, having a described effect should take place on the part of two foreign nations, was perfectly constitutional. The law thus rendered him the responsible judge of that effect. 2
In case of war breaking out between two or more foreign nations, in which the United States are not bound by treaty to bear a part, it is the duty of the executive to take every precaution for the preservation of their neutrality; and it is a matter of justice, both to those nations and to our own citizens, to manifest such intention in the most public and solemn manner. The disquietude of the belligerent parties is thus obviated, our own citizens are warned of the course it becomes their duty to pursue, and the United States avoid all responsibility for acts committed by the citizens in contravention of the principles of neutrality. It is the office of the legislature to declare war; the duty of the executive, so long as it is practicable to preserve peace.
The proclamation issued in 1792, when the war broke out between England and France, was an example which, in similar cases, deserves to be followed.
The present state of this country in regard to the piratical depredations committed on its commerce, presents another striking feature of difficulty in, regard to executive duty.
The wretches who sally out from the ports of a Spanish island, seize the defenceless merchant vessel, and after removing or destroying the cargo, frequently glut their cruelty by the most barbarous destruction of human life, can be effectually suppressed by no exertion, however vigorous, of the marine force under the command of the president. It can only be effected by pursuing them on shore, by assuming, in some degree, the temporary command of a country, in which the local government is either too feeble or too corrupt to. punish them. However strongly the voice of humanity and the interests of the country might urge the president to take such energetic but justifiable measures, it would involve him in great responsibility to do so and yet it would be difficult for him wholly to restrain the zeal and indignation of the officers employed on the distant service, or on the other hand, by his own mere authority, to punish for an act committed from the best motives. If provided by congress with sufficient authority, these difficulties would be removed.
But notwithstanding all efforts to the contrary, we may be involved in war, by misconstructions of his acts, however justly intended and carefully regulated.
In such a case, whether immediate invasion ensues, or strong defensive measures become necessary, it is still the president who is to act on his own judgment, till congress can be convened. In every aspect directly or indirectly connected with foreign nations his duties are serious, and his responsibility great.
It was happy for this nation that at the time of adopting the Constitution, an individual was selected to preside, whose judgment never failed, and whose firmness never forsook him: whose conduct proved that the excellencies of the Constitution consisted not, merely in theory and contemplation, but could be realized in practice; that within its proper sphere no right was unprotected, and no evil unredressed. It ought to satisfy the people if the principles of George Washington's administration are faithfully followed by all his successors.
1. 3 Wheaton, 643. The same rule prevails in England.
2. 7 Cranch, 382.
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