History of the Imperial Presidency

A Short Timeline

The executive branch is the most dangerous of the three branches of government because the legislative and judicial branches do not have direct power to put their decisions into effect. The U.S. military, law enforcement apparatus, and social safety net all fall under the jurisdiction of the President of the United States.
In part because the presidency is so powerful, to begin with, and in part because the president and Congress often belong to opposing parties, the history of the United States has involved considerable struggle between the legislative branch, which passes policy and apportions funds, and the executive branch, which executes policy and spends funds. The tendency over the course of U.S. history for the office of president to increase its power was referred to by historian Arthur Schlesinger as "the imperial presidency."


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In an article published in The Washington Monthly, Captain Christopher Pyle of the U.S. Army Intelligence Command reveals that the executive branch under President Richard Nixon had deployed more than 1,500 Army intelligence personnel to illegally spy on left-wing movements that advocated messages contrary to administration policy. His claim, later proven correct, attracts the attention of Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC) and Senator Frank Church (D-ID), each of whom launched investigations.


Historian Arthur Schlesinger coins the term "imperial presidency" in his book of the same title, writing that the Nixon administration represents the culmination of a gradual but stunning shift towards greater executive power. In a later epilogue, he summed up his point:

"The vital difference between the early republic and the imperial Presidency resides not in what Presidents did but in what Presidents believed they had the inherent right to do. Early Presidents, even while they circumvented the Constitution, had a cautious and vigilant concern for consent in a practical if not a formal sense. They had legislative majorities; they obtained broad delegations of authority; Congress approved their objectives and chose to let them take the lead; they acted in secret only when they had some assurance of support and sympathy if they were found out; and, even when they occasionally withheld essential information, they willingly shared much more than their twentieth-century successors ... In the late twentieth century Presidents made sweeping claims of inherent power, neglected the collection of consent, withheld information ad libitum and went to war against sovereign states. In so doing, they departed from the principles, if less the practice, of the early republic.

The same year, Congress passed the War Powers Act restricting the power of the president to unilaterally wage war without congressional approval - but the Act would be summarily ignored every president onward, beginning in 1979 with President Jimmy Carter's decision to withdraw from a treaty with Taiwan and escalating with President Ronald Reagan's decision to order the invasion of Nicaragua in 1986. Since that time, no president of either party has taken the War Powers Act seriously, despite its clear prohibition on the president's power to unilaterally declare war.


In United States v. Nixon, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Nixon may not use the doctrine of executive privilege as a means of obstructing a criminal investigation into the Watergate scandal. The ruling would lead indirectly to Nixon's resignation.


The U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee (named after its chair, Senator Frank Church), begins publishing a series of reports confirming Christopher Pyle's accusations and documenting the Nixon administration's history of abusing executive military power in order to investigate political enemies. CIA Director Christopher Colby fully cooperates with the committee's investigation; in retaliation, an embarrassed Ford administration fires Colby and appoints a new CIA director, George Herbert Walker Bush.


British journalist David Frost interviews disgraced former president Richard Nixon; Nixon's televised account of his presidency reveals that he comfortably operated as a dictator, believing that there were no legitimate limits to his power as president other than term expiration or the failure to be reelected. Particularly shocking to many viewers was this exchange:

Frost: "Would you say that there are certain situations ... where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation, and do something illegal?"
Nixon: "Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
Frost: "By definition."
Nixon: "Exactly, exactly. If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or ... because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president's decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law. Otherwise they're in an impossible position."
Frost: "The point is: the dividing line is the president's judgment?"
Nixon: "Yes, and so that one does not get the impression that a president can run amok in this country and get away with it, we have to have in mind that a president has to come up before the electorate. We also have to have in mind that a president has to get appropriations [i.e., funds] from the Congress."

Nixon admitted at the end of the interview that he had "let the American people down." "My political life," he said, "is over."


In response to the Church Committee reports, the Watergate scandal, and other evidence of executive branch abuses of power under Nixon, Carter signs the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, limiting the ability of the executive branch to conduct warrantless searches and surveillance. FISA, like the War Powers Act, would serve a largely symbolic purpose and was openly violated by both President Bill Clinton in 1994 and President George W. Bush in 2005.

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Head, Tom. "History of the Imperial Presidency." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-imperial-presidency-721446. Head, Tom. (2023, April 5). History of the Imperial Presidency. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-imperial-presidency-721446 Head, Tom. "History of the Imperial Presidency." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-imperial-presidency-721446 (accessed June 4, 2023).