Michael W. McConnellJun 24, 2021
The President Who Would Not Be King
Executive Power under the Constitution
Princeton University Press 2020
Michael McConnell, the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University Law School and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has written an examination of the power that the president has in the U.S. constitutional system. The President Who Would Not Be King: Executive Power under the Constitution (Princeton UP, 2020) presents a unique analysis of the powers that were allocated to the executive in Article II of the Constitution, as well as an exploration of the origin of many of the executive powers that are outlined in the Constitution but allocated to other branches of government within the new constitutional system. Thus, while McConnell’s focus is on the executive in the American constitutional system, the framing of this focus is in delineating the prerogative powers that Blackstone had noted belong to the monarch or the individual head of state, but that the Founders in 1787 split up. The argument in the book also clarifies the structure of Article II, explaining in important detail the sections of Article II and how they are connected to each other. McConnell’s deep dive into the discussions not only in Philadelphia in 1787, but also in the state ratifying conventions and among the different founders provide the historical context for the explicit and implied powers distributed throughout the Constitution. McConnell’s historical analysis pays particular attention to the committees that were established during the Constitutional Convention, like the Committee on Detail, that had to flesh out how the powers that were being invested in the document would manifest in operation. Thus, The President Who Would Not Be King is an historical examination of the competing ideas that were part of the conversation that ultimately became the U.S. Constitution.
But McConnell does not stop at the founding period. He provides much more contemporary examples and case studies of some of the tensions around these prerogative powers that were not all given to the president in Article II. This takes up Justice Robert Jackson’s important decision in Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer in terms of how that decision shaped expectations around executive use of power and authority, and has also positioned those expectations within, intentionally or not, our highly partisan political environment. McConnell’s work provides a path to understanding constitutional meaning from before the constitution itself was written, which is distinct from constitutional theories like originalism. The President Who Would Not Be King also wrestles with the Founders’ ideas around the complexity of separation of powers, given the executive powers that Congress holds and can use, as well as the executive powers vested in the presidency.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at email@example.com or tweet to @gorenlj.