Federalist 73; On Presidential Salary and the Veto

Hamilton continues his series on the nature of the Presidency by discussing both the Presidential salary and the veto power assigned to that office. In the days before people became fabulously wealthy in office, there was a concern that by controlling the President’s salary the legislative branch could “either reduce him by famine, or tempt him by largesses, to surrender at discretion his judgment to their inclinations.”[1] 

As anyone who has struggled to keep their opinion of their boss to themselves during a particularly arduous meeting will attest, the “power over a man’s support is a power over his will.” For this reason, the Founders decided that the Congress may not change the Presidential salary for the period of time for which he is elected.

But since the states hold the real power in this new Republic, they go further and point out that he shall also not receive “WITHIN THAT PERIOD ANY OTHER EMOLUMENT from the United States, or any of them.” (Emphasis in the original.) In this sense, emoluments would be any other form of compensation such as a piece of property, a sweetheart deal, or any other compensation.

Note here that Hamilton is writing of the concern that a particular state or group of states, might attempt to bribe the President. It goes without saying that the President of the United States should not be bribable by the states or anyone else. His salary should be the entirety of his compensation.

The second half of this paper deals with the power of the veto. The President retains the right of “returning all bills with objections”, effectively denying them becoming law unless both parties of Congress overrule that objection with two thirds majority votes. The concern here was more than that the Congress might attempt to pass bad laws, but rather that it might use its power of the budget to pass laws which infringed on the power of either the Judicial or Executive branch.

Congress could theoretically vote to restrict the power of the Executive, or by allowing persons other than elected congressmen to make laws such as a bureau or commission, enable the legislative and executive powers to “speedily come to be blended in the same hands.” In that case, the maker of the rules or statutes circumvents the veto authority of the Executive and becomes, effectively, both the legislator and executor of the statute. If that happens, the Executive branch has been left out of the legislative process in direct opposition to the intent of our Founders.

In addition to that key role, the veto is the last hurdle for legislation that “establishes a salutary check upon the legislative body, calculated to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good”. Remember that in the last paper, Hamilton views the Presidency as a stabilizing force against the more popular branch of the new Republic.

Hamilton points out that one of the objections might be that the wisdom of the many generally is more complete than the wisdom of a single man. And while that may be true, it is also demonstrable that the wisdom of the many is not always correct. And besides, “The injury which may possibly be done by defeating a few good laws, will be amply compensated by the advantage of preventing a number of bad ones.”

Once again, we see in the Constitution a bias for inaction over bad action. For those who object that the veto would likely be used to thwart the will of the people, Hamilton discusses the vastly more powerful King of England who used that same power with restraint. In fact, Hamilton believes that there is “greater danger of his not using his power when necessary, than of his using it too often.

Besides, unlike the absolute veto power of the King of England, our President can be overruled if only one third of the congress agrees with his decision. This power also acts as a kind of hedge against “unjustifiable pursuits”. The mere existence of the power to veto should, according to Hamilton, put a damper on the most egregious attempts at legislation which is not in the interest of the nation at large.


  1. All quotes are from https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-71-80#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493464


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