When the Founding Fathers were crafting the framework for the constitutional Republic that would eventually emerge, they had already experienced the heavy hand of a powerful government under King George III of England. And they were familiar with the despotic policies of other governments as well.
The Framers leaned heavily on some of the greatest intellects and thinkers that preceded them, going all the way back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. They weighed and debated the smallest details of varying philosophies. They knew the serious consequences of vesting too much power in one hand.
So the Framers deliberately strove to move away from a monarchial style of government in their newly formed country by instituting a system that featured three separate and distinct but unequal bodies of power — the legislative, the judicial, and the executive branches of government.
Initially, under the Articles of Confederation, the government was organized without a chief executive officer — a recommendation strongly supported by Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Instead, this early government contained four departments or cabinet posts. However, it proved unsatisfactory.
Though having practical experience with the shortfalls inherent in a government lacking a chief executive, the Framers still feared that an executive office would tend to become increasingly tyrannical over time. James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, regarded a powerful executive branch as “the seed of tyranny” just as he feared the lack of an executive “as the well-spring of anarchy.”
To find a middle ground that would serve the new nation’s purposes without becoming dangerously powerful, they decided upon limiting the executive’s power.
As a result, the powers and duties granted to the president are rather few. Among the few powers granted to the executive is the authority to make sure that “the Laws be faithfully executed.” The Constitution does not specify how that is to be accomplished. So, most rely on history and the study of original intent to discern how this is to be done. In addition, the president has the authority to be commander in chief of the armed forces, with some interpretations limiting this authority to actual and formal declarations of war by the Congress.
The President of the United States is to conduct foreign affairs, negotiate treaties with other nations — although they must be approved by the Senate with a two-thirds majority — and he can nominate members of the cabinet and the judicial branch, meaning those who sit on the Supreme Court, appellate, and district court benches. These also must be approved by the Senate. He is also called upon to commission officers.
The President can initiate legislation, review, and sign or veto bills. He may also grant pardons as he sees fit except in cases of impeachment, and he must assess the state of the nation and address Congress as to his conclusions. If necessary, the president can convene both Houses or either of them. And he is to receive ambassadors and other public ministers.
Early presidents managed the Office of the Presidency with little or no help, because the Constitution did not provide for any staff. George Washington's cabinet had only three departments: State, War, and Treasury.
In 1857 Congress agreed to allocate money to hire a private secretary for the president. Since then the presidency has continuously grown in size and in power, in many ways vindicating the Framer’s concerns about the dangers of the executive branch.
Starting with only the Office of the President, today, the executive branch has ballooned into a collection of departments and agencies: the cabinet and various executive departments, and an extensive conglomeration of federal agencies.