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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

25. The Executive Branch

It is not practicable for the executive branch of government to be headed by anything other than a single person. The President (or State Governor) has advisors in the form of heads of departments, but the responsibility for all executive actions rests ultimately and finally on his own shoulders.

"The idea of separating the executive business of the confederacy from Congress, as the judiciary is already in some degree, is just and necessary." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:131

"To obtain a wise and an able [State] government,... render the Executive a more desirable post to men of abilities by making it more independent of the legislature." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:277

"Leave the President free to choose his own coadjutors, to pursue his own measures, and support him and them, even if we think we are wiser than they, honester than they are, or possessing more enlarged information of the state of things." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:29

25.1 A Single Head

"Responsibility weighs with its heaviest force on a single head." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:37

"Let the [State] Executive be chosen in the same way [as the Legislature] and for the same term, by those whose agent he is to be; and leave no screen of a Council behind which to skulk from responsibility." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:36

"The preference of a plural over a singular executive will probably not be assented to here." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:15

"Responsibility is a tremendous engine in a free government. Let [the Executive] feel the whole weight of it then by taking away the shelter of his Executive Council. Experience both ways has established the superiority of this measure." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:277

"I had formerly looked with great interest to the experiment which was going on in France of an Executive Directory, while that of a single elective executive was under trial here. I thought the issue of them might fairly decide the question between the two modes. But the untimely fate of that establishment cut short the experiment. I have not, however, been satisfied whether the dissensions of that Directory (and which I fear are incident to a plurality) were not the most effective cause of the successful usurpations which overthrew them. It is certainly one of the most interesting questions to a republican and worthy of great consideration." --Thomas Jefferson to Augustus B. Woodward, 1809. ME 12:283

"The experiment in France failed after a short course, and not from any circumstance peculiar to the times or nation, but from those internal jealousies and dissensions in the Directory, which will ever arise among men equal in power, without a principal to decide and control their differences." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:15

"If experience has ever taught a truth, it is that a plurality in the Supreme Executive will forever split in discordant factions, distract the nation, annihilate its energies and force the nation to rally under a single head, generally an usurper. We have, I think, fallen on the happiest of all modes of constituting the Executive, that of easing and aiding our President by permitting him to choose Secretaries of State, of Finance, of War and of the Navy, with whom he may advise, either separately or all together, and remedy their divisions by adopting or controlling their opinions at his discretion; this saves the nation from the evils of a divided will and secures to it a steady march in the systematic course which the President may have adopted for that of his administration." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:485

"The public knew well the dissensions of the [first President's] Cabinet, but never had an uneasy thought on their account, because they knew also they had provided a regulating power which would keep the machine in steady movement." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:17

"The power of decision in the President left no object for internal dissension, and external intrigue was stifled in embryo by the knowledge which incendiaries possessed, that no division they could foment would change the course of the executive power." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:18

"The form of a plurality, however promising in theory, is impracticable with men constituted with the ordinary passions." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:16

"[That] plan [is] best, I believe, [which] combines wisdom and practicability by providing a plurality of counselors but a single Arbiter for ultimate decision." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:81

"I think history furnishes as many examples of a single usurper arising out of a government by a plurality as of temporary trust of power in a single hand rendered permanent by usurpation. I do not believe, therefore, that this danger is lessened in the hands of a plural Executive. Perhaps it is greatly increased by the state of inefficiency to which they are liable from feuds and divisions among themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:18

25.2 Executive Departments

"Our government, although in theory subject to be directed by the unadvised will of the President, is, and from its origin has been, a very different thing in practice. The minor business in each department is done by the Head of the department, on consultation with the President alone. But all matters of importance or difficulty are submitted to all the Heads of departments composing the cabinet; sometimes by the President's consulting them separately and successively, as they happen to call on him; but in the greatest cases, by calling them together, discussing the subject maturely, and finally taking the vote, in which the President counts himself but as one. So that in all important cases the executive is, in fact, a directory, which certainly the President might control; but of this there was never an example, either in the first or the present administration. I have heard, indeed, that my predecessor sometimes decided things against his council." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1807. ME 11:226

"Aided by the counsels of a cabinet of heads of departments... with whom the President consults, either singly or altogether, he has the benefit of their wisdom and information, brings their views to one center, and produces an unity of action and direction in all the branches of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:16

"Consultation between the President and the head of the department to which the matter belonged... is the way everything is transacted which is not difficult as well as important." --Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 1811. ME 13:53

"The ordinary business of every day is done by consultation between the President and the Head of the department alone to which it belongs. For measures of importance or difficulty, a consultation is held with the Head of departments, either assembled, or by taking their opinions separately in conversation or in writing. The latter is most strictly in the spirit of the Constitution, because the President, on weighing the advice of all, is left free to make up an opinion for himself. In this way, they are not brought together, and it is not necessarily known to any what opinion the others have given. This was General Washington's practice for the first two or three years of his administration, till the affairs of France and England threatened to embroil us, and rendered consideration and discussion desirable." --Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1810. ME 12:371

"I practised this last method [i.e., assembled discussion], because the harmony was so cordial among us all, that we never failed, by a contribution of mutual views on the subject, to form an opinion acceptable to the whole. I think there never was one instance to the contrary, in any case of consequence. Yet this does, in fact, transform the executive into a directory, and I hold the other method to be more constitutional. It is better calculated, too, to prevent collision and irritation, and to cure it, or at least suppress its effects when it has already taken place." --Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1810. ME 12:371

"The fact is, that in ordinary affairs every head of a department consults me on those of his department, and where anything arises too difficult or important to be decided between us, the consultation becomes general." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1806. ME 11:96

"Something now occurs almost every day on which it is desirable to have the opinions of the Heads of departments, yet to have a formal meeting every day would consume so much of their time as to seriously obstruct their regular business. I have proposed to them, as most convenient for them and wasting less of their time, to call on me at any moment of the day which suits their separate convenience, when, besides any other business they may have to do, I can learn their opinions separately on any matter which has occurred, also communicate the information received daily." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1807. ME 11:267

25.3 Departmental Responsibilities

"Acts involving war, or proceedings which respect foreign nations, seem to belong either to the department of war, or to that which is charged with the affairs of foreign nations; but I cannot possibly conceive how the superintendence of the laws of neutrality, or the preservation of our peace with foreign nations, can be ascribed to the department of the treasury, which I suppose to comprehend merely matters of revenue. It would be to add a new and a large field to a department already amply provided with business, patronage, and influence." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1793. ME 9:82

"Conduct it ever so wisely, [the management of the War Department] will be a sacrifice of [the person accepting it]. Were an angel from heaven to undertake that office, all our miscarriages would be ascribed to him." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1815. ME 14:229

"The late mischievous law vacating every four years nearly all the executive offices of the government... saps the constitutional and salutary functions of the President, and introduces a principle of intrigue and corruption which will soon leaven the mass, not only of Senators, but of citizens. It is more baneful than the attempt which failed in the beginning of the government to make all officers irremovable but with the consent of the Senate. This places, every four years, all appointments under their power, and even obliges them to act on every one nomination. It will keep in constant excitement all the hungry cormorants for office, render them, as well as those in place, sycophants to their Senators, engage these in eternal intrigue to turn out one and put in another, in cabals to swap work; and make of them what all executive directories become, mere sinks of corruption and faction." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1820. ME 15:294

25.4 Executive Privilege

"[Do] not suppose that... official communications will ever be seen or known out of the offices. Reserve as to all their proceedings is the fundamental maxim of the Executive department." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Hawkins, 1800. ME 10:160

"The time is coming when our friends must enable us to hear everything, and expect us to say nothing; when we shall need all their confidence that everything is doing which can be done, and when our greatest praise shall be, that we appear to be doing nothing." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1807. ME 11:290

"It is essential for the public interest that I should receive all the information possible respecting either matters or persons connected with the public. To induce people to give this information, they must feel assured that when deposited with me it is secret and sacred. Honest men might justifiably withhold information, if they expected the communication would be made public, and commit them to war with their neighbors and friends. This imposes the duty on me of considering such information as mere suggestions for inquiry, and to put me on my guard; and to injure no man by forming any opinion until the suggestion be verified. Long experience in this school has by no means strengthened the disposition to believe too easily. On the contrary, it has begotten an incredulity which leaves no one's character in danger from any hasty conclusion." --Thomas Jefferson to John Smith, 1807. ME 11:203

"Reserving the necessary right of the President of the United States to decide, independently of all other authority, what papers, coming to him as President, the public interests permit to be communicated and to whom, I assure you of my readiness under that restriction, voluntarily to furnish on all occasions, whatever the purposes of justice may require." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:228

"I am persuaded the Court is sensible, that paramount duties to the nation at large control the obligation of compliance with their summons... at any place, other than the seat of government. To comply with such calls would leave the nation without an executive branch, whose agency, nevertheless, is understood to be so constantly necessary, that it is the sole branch which the Constitution requires to be always in function. It could not then mean that it should be withdrawn from its station by any co-ordinate authority." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:232

"If the Constitution enjoins on a particular officer to be always engaged in a particular set of duties imposed on him, does not this supersede the general law subjecting him to minor duties inconsistent with these? The Constitution enjoins his constant agency in the concerns of six millions of people. Is the law paramount to this, which calls on him on behalf of a single one?" --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:240

"The leading principle of our Constitution is the independence of the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary of each other, and none are more jealous of this than the Judiciary. But would the Executive be independent of the Judiciary if he were subject to the commands of the latter and to imprisonment for disobedience; if the several courts could bandy him from pillar to post, keep him constantly trudging from north to south and east to west, and withdraw him entirely from his constitutional duties? The intention of the Constitution that each branch should be independent of the others is further manifested by the means it has furnished to each to protect itself from enterprises of force attempted on them by the others, and to none has it given more effectual or diversified means than to the Executive." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:241

"As I do not believe that the district courts have a power of commanding the executive government to abandon superior duties and attend on them, at whatever distance, I am unwilling, by any notice of the subpoena, to set a precedent which might sanction a proceeding so preposterous." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:365

"With respect to papers, there is certainly a public and a private side to our offices. To the former belong grants of land, patents for inventions, certain commissions, proclamations, and other papers patent in their nature. To the other belong mere executive proceedings. All nations have found it necessary, that for the advantageous conduct of their affairs, some of these proceedings, at least, should remain known to their executive functionary only. He, of course, from the nature of the case, must be the sole judge of which of them the public interest will permit publication. Hence, under our Constitution, in requests of papers, from the legislative to the executive branch, an exception is carefully expressed, as to those which he may deem the public welfare may require not to be disclosed." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:232

"The Executive ought to communicate [to the House] such papers as the public good would permit, and ought to refuse those, the disclosure of which would injure the public." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792. ME 1:304

"The respect mutually due between the constituted authorities, in their official intercourse, as well as sincere dispositions to do for every one what is just, will always insure from the executive, in exercising the duty of discrimination confided to him, the same candor and integrity to which the nation has in like manner trusted in the disposal of its judiciary authorities." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:233

25.5 The Office of Vice-President

"The second office of the government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1797. ME 9:381

"I have ever thought the post [of Vice-President] the most agreeable one the nation can give, and very far preferable to that which its highest favor confers." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1813. ME 19:189

"As to the second [office], it is the only office in the world about which I am unable to decide in my own mind whether I had rather have it or not have it. Pride does not enter into the estimate; for I think with the Romans that the general of today should be a soldier tomorrow if necessary." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1997. ME 9:358

"As to duty, the Constitution will know [the Vice-President] only as a member of a legislative body; and its principle is, that of a separation of legislative, executive and judiciary functions, except in cases specified. If this principle be not expressed in direct terms, yet it is clearly the spirit of the Constitution, and it ought to be so commented and acted on by every friend to free government." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1797. ME 9:368

"I consider my office [of Vice-President] as constitutionally confined to legislative functions, and... I could not take any part whatever in executive consultations, even were it proposed." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1797. ME 9:383

25.6 Foreign Ministers

"After entering on the office of Secretary of State, I recommended to General Washington to establish as a rule of practice, that no person should be continued on foreign mission beyond an absence of six, seven, or eight years... We return like foreigners, and, like them, require a considerable residence here to become Americanized." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1801. ME 10:285

25.7 The Powers of the Presidency

"As to the portions of power within each State assigned to the General Government, the President is as much the Executive of the State as their particular governor is in relation to State powers." --Thomas Jefferson to John M. Goodenow, 1822. ME 15:383

"The power of pardon, committed to executive discretion,... could never be more properly exercised than where citizens were suffering without the authority of law, or, which was equivalent, under a law unauthorized by the Constitution, and therefore null." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:214

"I shall be ready to receive and consider any testimony in [a criminal's] favor which his friends may bring forward, and will do it on whatever I may believe to have been the intention of the Legislature in confiding the power of pardon to the Executive." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1808. ME 12:222

"[We] are sensible that the Legislature having made stripes a regular part of [a] punishment, that the pardoning them cannot be a thing of course, as that would be to repeal the law, but that extraordinary and singular considerations are necessary to entitle the criminal to that remission." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1808. ME 12:222

"The Executive of the Union is, indeed, by the Constitution, made the channel of communication between foreign powers and the United States." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1807. ME 11:381

"The transaction of business with foreign nations is Executive altogether. It belongs, then, to the head of that department except as to such portions of it as are specially submitted to the Senate. Exceptions are to be construed strictly." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Power of Senate, 1790. ME 3:16

"The Constitution [has] made [the Senate's] advice necessary to confirm a treaty, but not to reject it." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:215

"[If a] question... under [a] treaty [is] of Executive cognizance entirely and without appeal,... it is as much an invasion of its independence for a coordinate branch to call for the reasons of the decision as it would be to call on the Supreme Court for its reasons on any judiciary decision... I cannot see to what legitimate objects any resolution of the House on the subject can lead; and if one is passed on ground not legitimate, our duty will be to resist it." --Thomas Jefferson William Branch Giles, 1802. FE 8:142

"The President is bound to stop at the limits prescribed by our Constitution and law to the authorities in his hands, [and this] would apply in an occasion of peace as well as war. One of the limits is that 'no money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law,' and [if] no law [has] made any appropriation of money for any purpose similar to [one contemplated, it would lie,] of course, beyond his constitutional powers." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1806. FE 8:474

"The Executive... has the power, though not the right, to apply money contrary to its legal appropriations. Cases may be imagined, however, where it should be their duty to do this. But they must be cases of extreme necessity." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1793. FE 6:176

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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