The Veto and the Modern Presidency

The system of checks and balances defined in our Constitution requires that the President approve every Bill passed by Congress before it can become a law.

Article I Section VII states:

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.

The power to reject laws is called the Presidential Veto. Overall, there have been 2,564 Bills vetoed, and the veto has become a commonly wielded political tool. Initially, however, Presidents considered the veto as a power to be used extremely sparingly. George Washington vetoed two Bills in his eight years in office, because he felt them to be unconstitutional. Adams and Jefferson vetoed zero. In all, the first six Presidents vetoed a total of ten Bills — all on the grounds that the bills were unconstitutional.

Then came Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory vetoed a total of twelve bills. This is not a large total, but it was more than all the other Presidents in history, combined. More importantly, when Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road Bill in 1830, he did it on the grounds that he disagreed with spending money in that manner. In other words, for the first 41 years of the Presidency, no one had ever treated the veto as a tool to affect policy. Rather, the veto was designed to stop Bills that they deemed illegal. In that one veto, the Presidency moved from being a watchdog to a powerful policy force, and the modern President was born.

Jackson’s twelve vetoes pale in comparison to the totals that have come after him. Grover Cleveland vetoed 584 bills — in non-consecutive terms — and FDR vetoed a whopping 635. However, none of that would have been possible without Andrew Jackson.

Note: It should not surprise us that Jackson would be willing to take on Congress in an unprecedented fashion. After all, he is the same man, who, after a would-be assassin’s pistol misfired at point-blank range,  proceeded to beat the man soundly with his cane.

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