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Viscount Bryce on how the President in wartime becomes “a sort of dictator” (1888)

The British jurist, historian, and statesman Viscount James Bryce (1838-1922) observed as early as 1888 that “in troublous times” the powers the American President had at his disposal made him “a sort of dictator” which had not been seen in the English-speaking world since the time of Oliver Cromwell:

The direct domestic authority of the president is in time of peace very small, because by far the larger part of law and administration belongs to the state governments, and because federal administration is regulated by statutes which leave little discretion to the executive. In war time, however, and especially in a civil war, it expands with portentous speed. Both as commander in chief of the army and navy, and as charged with the “faithful execution of the laws,” the president is likely to be led to assume all the powers which the emergency requires. How much he can legally do without the aid of statutes is disputed, for the acts of President Lincoln during the earlier part of the War of Secession, including his proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus, were subsequently legalized by Congress; but it is at least clear that Congress can make him, as it did make Lincoln, almost a dictator….

In quiet times the direct legal power of the president is not great… In troublous times it is otherwise, for immense responsibility is then thrown on one who is both the commander in chief and the head of the civil executive. Abraham Lincoln wielded more authority than any single Englishman has done since Oliver Cromwell. It is true that the ordinary law was for some purposes practically suspended during the War of Secession. But it might again have to be similarly suspended, and the suspension makes the president a sort of dictator.

Although few presidents have shown any disposition to strain their authority, it has often been the fashion in America to be jealous of the president’s action, and to warn citizens against what is called “the one man power.”

The direct domestic authority of the president is in time of peace very small, because by far the larger part of law and administration belongs to the state governments, and because federal administration is regulated by statutes which leave little discretion to the executive. In war time, however, and especially in a civil war, it expands with portentous speed. Both as commander in chief of the army and navy, and as charged with the “faithful execution of the laws,” the president is likely to be led to assume all the powers which the emergency requires. How much he can legally do without the aid of statutes is disputed, for the acts of President Lincoln during the earlier part of the War of Secession, including his proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus, were subsequently legalized by Congress; but it is at least clear that Congress can make him, as it did make Lincoln, almost a dictator. And how much the war power may include appears in this, that by virtue of it and without any previous legislative sanction President Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamations of 1862 and 1863, declaring all slaves in the insurgent states to be thenceforth free, although these states were deemed to be in point of law still members of the Union….

In quiet times the direct legal power of the president is not great, but his influence may be great if he combines tact with courage. He is hampered at every turn by the necessity of humouring his party. The trivial and mechanical parts of his work leave him too little leisure for framing large schemes of policy, while in carrying them out he needs the cooperation of Congress, which may be jealous, or indifferent, or hostile. His power to affect legislation largely depends on his personal capacity for leadership, and of course also on the strength of his party in Congress. In troublous times it is otherwise, for immense responsibility is then thrown on one who is both the commander in chief and the head of the civil executive. Abraham Lincoln wielded more authority than any single Englishman has done since Oliver Cromwell. It is true that the ordinary law was for some purposes practically suspended during the War of Secession. But it might again have to be similarly suspended, and the suspension makes the president a sort of dictator.

Although few presidents have shown any disposition to strain their authority, it has often been the fashion in America to be jealous of the president’s action, and to warn citizens against what is called “the one man power.”

About this Quotation:

On this “Presidents Day” in the U.S. (the 3rd Monday in February between the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – it was first proclaimed in 1880) our quote comes from the British jurist Viscount James Bryce who noted the enormous powers granted to the President in what he called “troublous times.” Bryce was not the first to observe or fear that the President might one day assume the powers of a king or a tyrant. Tom Paine, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson all expressed these worries well before Lincoln showed how it might come about, during a war when “the direct domestic authority of the president… expands with portentous speed. ” It is interesting that Bryce thought that one of the distinguishing features of such a dictatorship was the suspension of habeas corpus. In the late 19th century he still believed that “the one man power” of a tyrant president would be held in check by the rivalrous powers of Congress and the various state governments.

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