Unitary Executive: Too Much Power for One Person?

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What is unitary executive theory? How does Federalist Paper 70 address concerns about a unitary executive?

Unitary executive theory is a concept in the Constitution where the President controls the Executive Branch of government. Federalist Paper 70 defends this structure.

Read more about Federalist 70 and what it says about unitary executive theory.

What Is Unitary Executive Theory?

Some opponents of the new Constitution feared that a unitary executive was dangerous because it placed executive authority in the hands of one individual. But this was the only way such authority could properly be wielded according to Federalist 70. Experiments in government by committee had proven unsuccessful, whether with the consuls of ancient Rome or with the executive councils that had existed in some of the states and colonies.

Federalist Paper 70 points out where the lack of a unitary executive could go wrong. In times of great national emergency, such as war, executive councils failed to move with the necessary speed and decisiveness required for effective action. They tended to be torn by rival factions and forced to settle on compromise solutions to pressing issues.

Furthermore, Federalist 70 notes that they made it difficult for the public to properly assign blame or credit for acts of government—a crucial right in a free republic. People would never be sure which factions or individuals on the executive council were responsible for which decisions.

With the checks on the unitary executive authority we described earlier in the chapter, it was clear that the President would not become too powerful. It was unnecessary, therefore (and dangerous) to dilute the power of the chief executive by placing it in multiple hands.

Term Duration and Term Limits

It was also important that the president be elected to a term that was long enough for him to gain sufficient experience with national administration. Having a fixed, four-year term would provide the young nation with the stability and predictability in government that it had so sorely lacked under the Articles of Confederation.

There was little to fear in this, as many state constitutions elected their governors to even longer terms. If the people disapproved of the president’s performance, they were free to vote him out at the next election. 

The ability of the president to run for reelection was also essential to effective government. If the President was barred from maintaining his office past the next election, he would have little motivation to do it effectively. After all, there would be no reward for good performance by the unitary executive.

Term limits deprived the people of the option to reelect presidents of whom they approved. Imposing term limits would hamper the effectiveness of the executive branch (making the president a lame-duck the second he assumed office), introduce destabilizing inconsistency in government, and deprive the nation of the talents of capable officials who had proven themselves to be effective leaders.

(Shortform note: These warnings against presidential term limits went unheeded almost immediately. George Washington began an informal precedent of only serving two terms, one that was followed by every president for nearly 150 years, until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940 and a fourth in 1944. The Twenty-Second Amendment, passed in 1951, gave Washington’s precedent the force of law, limiting presidents to two terms in office.)

Unitary Executive: Too Much Power for One Person?

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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