Front Page Titles (by Subject) How the Position of the President of the United States Differs from That of a Constitutional King in France - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1
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How the Position of the President of the United States Differs from That of a Constitutional King in France - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 1.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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How the Position of the President of the United States Differs from That of a Constitutional King in France
The executive power, in the United States, limited and exceptional, like the sovereignty in the name of which it acts.—The executive power in France extends to everything, like the sovereignty there.—The King is one of the authors of the law.—The President is only the executor of the law.—Other differences that arise from the duration of the two powers.—The President hampered in the sphere of executive power.—The King is free there.—France, despite these differences, resembles a republic more than the Union does a monarchy.—Comparison of the number of officials who depend on the executive power in the two countries.
The executive power plays such a great role in the destiny of nations that I want to stop for an instant here in order to explain better what place it occupies among the Americans.
In order to conceive a clear and precise idea of the position of the President of the United States, it is useful to compare it to that of the King in one of the constitutional monarchies of Europe.z
In this comparison, I will attach little importance to the external signs of power; they fool the observer more than they help.
When a monarchy is gradually transformed into a republic, the executive power there keeps titles, honors, respect, and even money, long after it has lost the reality of power. The English, after having cut off the head of one of their kings and having chased another from the throne, still knelt to speak to the successors of these princes.
On the other hand, when republics fall under the yoke of one man, power continues to appear simple, plain and modest in its manners, as if it had not already risen above everyone. When the emperors despotically disposed of the fortune and the life of their citizens, they were still called Caesar when spoken to, and they went informally to have supper at the homes of their friends.
So we must abandon the surface and penetrate deeper.
Sovereignty, in the United States, is divided between the Union and the states; while among us, it is one and compact. From that arises the first and greatest difference that I notice between the President of the United States and the King in France.
In the United States, executive power is limited and exceptional,a like the very sovereignty in whose name it acts; in France, it extends to everything, like the sovereignty there.
The Americans have a federal government; we have a national government.
This is a primary cause of inferiority that results from the very nature of things; but it is not the only one. The second in importance is this: strictly speaking, sovereignty can be defined as the right to make laws.
The King, in France, really constitutes one part of the sovereign power, since laws do not exist if he refuses to sanction them. In addition, he executes the law.
The President also executes the law, but he does not really take part in making the law, since, by refusing his consent, he cannot prevent it from existing. So he is not part of the sovereign power; he is only its agent.
Not only does the King, in France, constitute one portion of the sovereign power, but he also participates in the formation of the legislature, which is the other portion. He participates by naming the members of one chamber and by ending at his will the term of the mandate of the other. The President of the United States takes no part in the composition of the legislative body and cannot dissolve it.
The King shares with the Chambers the right to propose laws.
The President has no similar initiative.
The King is represented, within the Chambers, by a certain number of agents who set forth his views, uphold his opinions and make his maxims of government prevail.
The President has no entry into Congress; his ministers are excluded as he is, and it is only by indirect pathways that he makes his influence and his opinion penetrate this great body.
So the King of France operates as an equal with the legislature, which cannot act without him, as he cannot act without it.
The President is placed beside the legislature, as an inferior and dependent power.
In the exercise of executive power strictly speaking, the point on which his position seems closest to that of the King in France, the President still remains inferior due to several very great causes.
First, the power of the King in France has the advantage of duration over that of the President. Now, duration is one of the first elements of strength. Only what must exist for a long time is loved and feared.
The President of the United States is a magistrate elected for four years. The King in France is a hereditary leader.
In the exercise of executive power, the President of the United States is constantly subject to jealous oversight. He prepares treaties, but he does not make them; he designates people for offices, but he does not appoint them.17
The King of France is the absolute master in the sphere of executive power.
The President of the United States is accountable for his actions. French law says that the person of the King of France is inviolable.
But above the one as above the other stands a ruling power, that of public opinion. This power is less defined in France than in the United States; less recognized, less formulated in the laws; but, in fact, it exists there. In America, it proceeds by elections and by decisions; in France, by revolutions. Hence France and the United States, despite the diversity of their constitutions, have this point in common: public opinion is, in effect, the dominant power.b So the generative principle of the laws is, in actual fact, the same among the two peoples, although its developments are more or less free, and the consequences that are drawn from it are often different. This principle, by its nature, is essentially republican. Consequently, I think that France, with its King, resembles a republic more than the Union, with its President, resembles a monarchy.
In all that precedes, I have been careful to point out only the main points of difference. If I had wanted to get into details, the picture would have been still more striking. But I have too much to say not to want to be brief.
I remarked that the power of the President of the United States, in his sphere, exercises only a limited sovereignty, while that of the King, in France, acts within the circle of a complete sovereignty.
I could have shown the governmental power of the King in France surpassing even its natural limits, however extensive they were, and penetrating into the administration of individual interests in a thousand ways.
To this cause of influence, I could join that which results from the great number of public officials, nearly all of whom owe their mandate to the executive power. This number has surpassed all known limits among us; it reaches 138,000.18 Each of these 138,000 nominations must be considered as an element of strength. The President does not have an absolute right to appoint to public positions, and those positions hardly exceed 12,000.19
[z. ] Dissimilarity and similarity between the President and the King of England. Federalist, pp. 295 and 300 [No. 69 (ed.)].
2.Subject to the courts, accountable.
4.Commands the militia, but only in time of war.
5.Cannot pardon in case of impeachment.
6.He cannot adjourn the legislature except in a case allowed.
7.He can make treaties only with two-thirds of the Senate.
8.He can only appoint to office with the advice and consent of the Senate.
9.He can prescribe no rule concerning commerce and monetary system of the country.
10.He has no ecclesiastical jurisdiction whatsoever.
4.At all times and throughout the kingdom.
5.In all cases.
6.He can always prorogue and dissolve Parliament.
7.He alone makes treaties. He is the only representative of England abroad.
8.He appoints to all offices, even creates offices, and beyond that can confer a multitude of graces, either honorary or lucrative.
9.On certain points he is the arbiter of commerce; he can establish markets, regulate weights and measures, strike money, set an embargo.
10.He is the head of the national church (YTC, CVh, 1, pp. 58-59).
[a. ] Édouard de Tocqueville:
How is the sovereignty represented by the executive power (that is the national sovereignty) limited and exceptional? That can only be applied to the executive power, which is in fact very limited.
Upon reflection, I understand the thought. As we saw in the preceding chapter, the Union was granted, by the Constitution, only a limited power, very defined and perhaps exceptional. But, it seems to me, the President does not represent only this portion of sovereignty that has been attributed to the federal government; he also represents the entire sovereignty of the country, its internal as well as external will; in a word, he is the instrument of national sovereignty (YTC, CIIIb, 3, pp. 1-2).
[17. ]The Constitution had left it doubtful whether the President was required to ask the advice of the Senate in the case of removal, as in the case of nomination of a federal official. The Federalist, in No. 77, seemed to establish the affirmative; but in 1789, Congress decided with all good reason that, since the President was accountable, he could not be forced to use agents that did not have his confidence. See Kent’s Commentaries, vol. I, p. 289.
[b. ] In the margin: “≠This fact, the sovereignty of the people, the capital point common to the two countries, gives a similarity to their constitutions despite the diversity of the laws.≠”
[18. ]The sums paid by the State to these various officials amount annually to 200,000,000 francs.
[19. ]Each year in the United States an almanac, called the National Calendar, is published; the names of all the federal officials are found there. The National Calendar of 1833 furnished me with the figure I give here.
It would follow from what precedes that the King of France has at his disposal eleven times more places than the President of the United States, although the population of France is only one and a half times greater than that of the Union.