While Americans clamor to roll back the powers of the Imperial Congress, we seem to take for granted the broad powers held by the executive branch. What better time than during a presidential election year, then to read of how the American presidency came to weld its enormous authority?

The executive branch has been something of an anomaly in a federal republic, although the U.S. Constitution generally sought to limit federal powers. Article 2 failed to specify the limits of presidential authority. Clearly, the Founders were ambivalent about “the executive power” they had created. Having witnessed abuses by the royal governors, revolutionary citizens adopted state constitutions that severely reduced executive power. At the same time, however, the disorder of the Revolutionary War and the first years of the peace turned many toward a stronger union with more “energy” in the executive. Hemmed in by Britain, Spain, and France, the founding generation sought a stronger federal government to meet foreign dangers.

In his seminal book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn shows how the Founders’ unique blend of republican theory, classical liberalism, and English law shaped political thought in the 18th century. This “transforming ideology” reconciled a broadly libertarian conception of civil society with state power; its influence on the nation’s distinctive institutions, especially the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, was profound.

How all this shaped the highest office is discussed in Forrest McDonald’s The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. McDonald argues that the presidency inherited from royal “prerogative” power discretionary authority to deal with emergencies no written charter could fully anticipate. Even so, McDonald agrees that presidents have long since overstepped their constitutional boundaries.

Debate over the presidency—within the revolutionary ideological framework—persisted well into the 19th century. Two issues stood out: first, the power of the states relative to the federal government; second, the power of the presidency relative to Congress and the federal courts.

As the 18th century closed, would-be “strict” republicans coalesced behind Thomas Jefferson in opposition to the dominant Federalists. To the Federalists’ lingering mercantilism, they opposed the insights of laissez-faire economic thinking, but their ideas on the presidency were less clear.

The election of George Washington—planter, surveyor, revolutionary war commander—as the first U.S. president was probably inevitable. As a symbol of disinterested republican virtue, Washington lent his prestige to the fledgling government. Douglas Southhall Freeman’s Washington (abridged from seven volumes) thoroughly portrays the man, soldier, and stateman. Although no great strategist, Washington kept the continental army together long enough for British ineptitude and French help to ensure independence. Basically, a Federalist, Washington meant to stand above factionalism and was stunned at the Jeffersonians’ attacks on him. He pioneered presidential ceremony, relations with Congress, and the organization of the executive branch.

Although Washington’s successor, John Adams, probably did little for his office, he is one of the most intellectually complex presidents. Peter Shaw’s The Character of John Adams rescues Adams from neglect and misunderstanding. His puritanical “Yankee” republican ethic allowed Adams to achieve heights of self-denial but rendered him ineffective as a leader. Never a party man, Adams was undermined by the intrigues of Hamilton. Distrustful of democracy and viewing the Jeffersonian societies as threatening order, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. This action paved the way for Jefferson’s election and the Republican “revolution” of 1800. Adam’s greatest achievement, however, was to keep peace with revolutionary France—against the will of his own party.

Jefferson took power committed to implementing limited-government republicanism. In Mr. Jefferson, Albert Jay Nock paints a vivid portrait of the Sage of Monticello, highlighting his character and vision rather than his presidency. By contrast, Forrest McDonald is quite critical of Jefferson in The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Linking Jeffersonianism to 18th-century English opposition thought (rather than classical liberalism), he argues that ideology itself was the Jeffersonian party’s undoing. Obsessed with paying off the national debt while also eliminating most internal taxes, the Jeffersonians made the country’s revenues dependent on foreign trade while severely cutting back the Navy. All this while faced with threats from Britain, France and Spain! An excellent biography of Jefferson can be found in Merrill Peterson’s Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, and edited collections of his numerous writings can be found in The Portable Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson: Writings.

Jefferson’s successors, James Madison and James Monroe—both Virginians—continued Jefferson’s policies, broadly speaking Monroe’s successor, John Quincy Adams (son of John Adams), resurrected much of the old centralizing Federalist program that the Virginia Dynasty had at least curtailed. John Quincy Adam’s neomercantilism provoked a revival of strict republicanism even more laissez-faireist than Jeffersonianism. Andrew Jackson, frontier general and military hero, embodied this severe republicanism. As shown in Glydon G. Van Deusen’s The Rise and Decline of Jacksonian Democracy. Jackson’s presidency attempted a serious reduction of the federal role in American life by dismantling the economic interventionist Second Bank of the United States in favor of hard money. While Jefferson’s style of governing and Madison’s War of 1812 strengthened the presidency, Jackson did not more to push it towards its modern conception. Jackson saw himself as leader and tribune of people. The Whig Party, successor of John Quincy Adams’s “National Republicans”, denounced his “monarchist” tendencies and opposed a strong presidency.

Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, saw himself as a party man, and the party as the vehicle of the hard-money, decentralist, laissez-faire program. Major L. Wilson’s The Presidency of Martin Van Buren chronicles the reign of perhaps the last president whose positive program was reduction of federal power and creation of a purely free market economy. Van Buren was undone by recession and the politics of banking. His achievement was keeping the peace with Mexico and Britain.

After Van Buren, the presidency alternated between the “Democracy” and the Whig Party. Politics unraveled over new issues—especially whether incorporating the Louisiana Purchases and territory acquired from Mexico into the union required the extension of slavery. Compromise became increasingly difficult.

As director of a colossal war effort Abraham Lincoln set innumerable precedents for a stronger presidency. Richard Bensel’s Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 throws the “state-strengthening” character of war into clear relief. The North’s victory seriously undermined federalism. Centralization also made it possible for Lincoln’s new Republican Party to create an interventionist political economy with protective tariffs, soft money, and subsides for favored businesses.

In the decades after 1865 new issues arose that displaced classical republicanism. With the exception of Grover Cleveland, Republicans dominated down to 1913. The turn of the century saw the rise of Progressivism, a middle way” between laissez-faire liberalism and socialism. With an urban, northeastern and big-business base, Progressivism shaped both major parties in the 20th-century. John Morton Blum’s The Progressive Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt treats four Presidents who promoted centralization, bureaucratic regulation and soft money: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

As an architect of overseas empire, Theodore Roosevelt nicely illustrates the consistent interventionism—domestic and foreign—of most Progressives. He arbitrarily judged businesses in enforcing antitrust laws. (The whole concept was a delusion.) Roosevelt saw the presidency as a “bully pulpit” from which to undertake ambitious domestic and foreign-policy agendas.

Woodrow Wilson broke the Republican near-monopoly on the White House in 1912. Originally a Southern Democrat, he too was deeply committed to better living through bureaucratic oversight. His lowering of tariffs was virtually the only remnant of the older Democratic ideology. Wilson intervened at home, but more importantly abroad: first in the Mexican Revolution, then in the pointless carnage of World War I. Wartime federal management of industry realized the Progressive ideal and forecast a new economic order. This collaboration of business and labor under government aegis was the American form of “corporatism” the supposed alternative to both competitive capitalism and socialism. Even more than previous wars, World War I fostered presidential and federal power, undermining the original constitutional system, as Robert Higgs demonstrates in the Independent Institute book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government.

Disillusioned with “the war to end wars”. Americans repudiated Wilson’s legacy, electing a series of allegedly do-nothing Republican presidents whose “laissez-faire policies” allegedly caused the Great Depression. This common interpretation is almost entirely wrong, and interested readers should consult the appropriate chapters of Paul Johnson’s brilliant Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties for a corrective. Murray N. Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression shows us that Hoover was a Progressive and a moderate corporatist who anticipated many New Deal programs but thought corporatism had its limits. Readers will find Rothbard very illuminating on the causes of the 1929 debacle (as Paul Johnson did). In addition, the Independent Institute’s award-winning book, Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America, by Richard K. Vedder and Lowell E. Gallaway, superbly traces the disastrous policies of Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt in creating and prolonging the Great Depression.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hoover’s Democratic successor, was essentially a pragmatist with few doubts about bureaucratic solutions, an activist president, he sponsored innumerable “antidepression” programs. The only four-term president, he probably went beyond his legal authority to bring American into World War II. War once again gave us centralization and presidential rule, as Frank Leuchtenberg’s In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton shows us. With the onset of the Cold War in 1947, republican governance gave way to permanent bureaucratic mobilization under “strong” presidents like Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. Even the “weak” presidents possessed powers the madcap old Hanoverian, George III, could scarcely have imagined. And this process of government is described in the award-winning, Independent Institute book by randy Simmons, Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure.

We can hardly leave this large topic without looking at a major paradox. America’s elected monarch is often unable to command the entrenched agencies that nominally answer to him. The Independent Institute’s book Regulation and Reagan Era: Politics, Bureaucracy and the Public Interest, edited by Roger E. Meiners and Bruce Yandle, shows the difficulties encountered by Ronald Reagan. A popular president, elected with a substantial majority and a vague mandate for retrenchment, Reagan found his path blocked. (It didn’t help that the Reaganites pursued the reverse of retrenchment in the “defense” bureaucracies.) The book is a case study in the resistance that the most minor and sensible reforms meet in the various regulatory agencies.

While the American president is now a virtual Roman emperor, federal bureaucrats may constrain him more than the nobleman of yore constrained kings under the ancient regime. Whether or not this is true, the executive office has—for good or evil—played a crucial role in the lives of millions of Americans.