The views of the presidency by the first sixteen presidents varied widely but all of their actions set precedents for their successors to use, expand, or even curtail the power of the office. Some believed in the Whig theory of strict adherence to the constitution, while others believed the president was the steward of the people with a loose interpretation of it. The power of the office expanded through the years, however it only expanded as far as the public and congress allowed.
George Washington was the first President of the United States of America and realizing this he acted carefully and deliberately, aware of the need to build an executive structure that could accommodate future presidents. Washington’s position as the first president of the United States allowed him to set many precedents that are still followed by executives today. Washington believed his power came from article II of the U.S. Constitution. He was very protective of executive powers and did not involve the executive branch in legislative matters. He established the initial implied powers of the president by creating the national bank, excise tax, and assumption of state debts from the Revolutionary War. The creation of those bureaucracies set the precedent that allowed presidents after him to establish and empower new bureaucratic agencies to execute the duties of the executive office.
Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States and viewed the office of the president to be strictly constructed by the constitution. He, like Washington, believed his power as president derived directly from the constitution and the affection of the people. Although he had a Whig theory he made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which the president had no authority according to the constitution to do; the congress has control of the purse strings according to the constitution. President Jefferson was the first to pass out the rewards of the “spoils system. In his second term he became the first President to use economic sanctions against a foreign power, with the embargo act of 1807, in order to achieve a goal. With the exception of the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson’s administration was a negative presidency in that it rolled back federal policies. His economic policies enabled future presidents to use the foreign treaty powers as a weapon in diplomatic negotiations with other countries without interference from congress.
In the election that ended the “Era of good feelings”(1824) John Q. Adams won the presidency. While he was not a very powerful president himself, he is responsible for the beginning of the legislative role of the presidency. He believed the role of the president was to be a steward of the people and favored a loose interpretation of the constitution. He advocated internal improvements such as better roads, canals, schools, and a better army and navy. The action of Adams in an attempt to get the federal government to finance those projects is the basis that is used to legitimize federal funding even today.
Andrew Jackson is arguably one of the most influential presidents in history. He believed that government had a social obligation to the people and that it was the most democratic branch. He was the first president to create a grassroots political party and used its strong public support to tie the Electoral College to the popular vote among other things. He used the power of the presidency in a manner that no previous president had by influencing legislation with threat of a veto.
James K. Polk is the first dark horse candidate to win the presidency and in spite of this fact he was still able to significantly expand the power of the office. He believed in being a steward of the people and maintaining strong executive power. By paying close attention to the budget and setting a budgetary agenda he was able to increase the power of the presidency and started an era of administrative presidents that still exists today.
Abraham Lincoln was the last president in the 19th century to further expand the power of the presidency. Because he was a member of the minority party with a divided cabinet and only received 40% of the popular vote had to rely on the constitution for his power. He believed that the preservation of the union was more important than strict adherence to the constitution. Lincoln in the first 80 days of his presidency called up 112,000 troops, blockaded southern ports, ordered 19 new ships built for the navy, suspended the rid of habeas corpus, and had the secretary of the treasury furnish two million dollars for military use without the required congressional approval. This precedent allows future presidents to take actions strictly forbidden by the executive branch in times of national emergency without congressional approval.
The most important expansion of the power of the presidency happened during the Jackson administration. When Jackson used the veto power of the president to influence legislation as a matter of policy and not constitutionality he arguably altered the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. This shift in power resulted in presidents being able to dictate with the threat of a veto the way congress writes laws. This set a precedent for future presidents to push legislation such as “The New Deal”, “The Fair Deal”, and “a Great Society” all of which are presidential proposals.