Tenure of Office and the Treasury: The Constitution and Control Over National Financial Policy, 1787 to 1867
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
The disputed scope of the President’s authority to remove subordinates in the executive branch, and to direct them in the performance of their functions, is one of the central issues of federal constitutional law. On the one hand, some argue that Article II gives the President such authority. By contrast, others claim that the Constitution allows Congress to regulate the tenure of office of executive branch officers by limiting the President’s removal power.
In the context of this debate, some have argued that financial institutions—the components of the “treasury”—were historically insulated from presidential control. They rely on early Congresses’ creation of several commissions with the Chief Justice as a member, establishment of the First and Second Banks of the United States, and use of distinct language to establish the Department of the Treasury and some of its officers. This Article shows that these claims are incorrect. Drawing on congressional and executive sources, case law, and contemporaneous treatises, this Article demonstrates that the prevailing view in the years between the Constitution’s adoption and the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson was that financial government institutions were no different from other parts of the federal government for purposes of presidential control. The President had the constitutional authority to remove officials within the Department of the Treasury. The institutions over which presidential control was conspicuously lacking—the First and Second Banks of the United States—were generally understood to be private, rather than arms of the government, and to perform non-sovereign functions. But to the extent the Bank was understood to perform sovereign functions, its opponents argued that it did so impermissibly, using a variation of the modern argument that Congress may not delegate such functions to private entities. This Article’s exploration of these issues both bears on contemporary debates about the scope of the President’s removal power and shows how early expositors of the Constitution understood the allocation of federal government control over national financial policy.