The creation of the Tribunes of the People was a watershed in Roman history. The Senate, led by patricians, was the senior branch of government. They proposed legislation, which was ratified by the People in various kinds of Assemblies. In theory, the People had the power to make law and set policy, but in practice everything was reserved for Senate action. This provoked a crisis. The plebeians – the common people – seceded from the State. To resolve the crisis, the position of Tribune was created.
There were ten Tribunes, elected directly by the People. They were ex officio members of the Senate, and they sat up front on a special bench. They had the power to veto any act of the Senate – any one of them. This was to protect the commoners from actions the Senate might take which would oppress them. Later, they gained the power to convoke an Assembly and initiate law-making on their own, bypassing the Senate. Of course, one Tribune could veto what another Tribune was doing, so the various Senate factions began to connive to make sure they had at least one tame Tribune on the bench who would use his power for their partisan advantage. A Tribune who, when bought, stayed bought, was considered an honest man.
In any case, the tribunician power was an awesome thing. Speaking directly for the People and in defense of the commoners, the Tribune could challenge the other magistrates of more seniority. When Augustus became the first emperor, he didn’t call himself any such thing. He called himself princeps, which meant “first” of “chief.” But the power he exercised, whatever other offices he awarded himself, was the power of the Tribune. He alone spoke for all the People, so his decisions were final.
This position didn’t make it into our Constitution in any form. The Founders were wary of executive power, including military power. They made Congress the primary actor in the federal government. In their debates over the executive, they fretted much over how much power to give the President and how he was to be chosen. They wanted no Tribunes claiming to speak for the People; the People spoke through their elected representatives in Congress.
This system was skewed by Andrew Jackson, of course, a military strongman type if there ever was one. His presidency was backed most notably by the western frontiersmen, and with Jackson we begin to speak of populism in American politics. His brand of populism was called Jacksonian Democracy. And yet, though Jackson could be high-handed, he didn’t stretch the office of President that much. He was, in theory, less a Roman Tribune than a Scots-Irish Clan Chief. In the culture from which he came, it was the honor of every clansman to defend the honor of his chief, whatever his chief had decided to do. The frontiersmen backed Jackson more out of personal loyalty than because of any direct benefits he was claiming to confer on them or injuries to them he was claiming to make whole. There are similarities here, to be sure, between the Chief and the Tribune, but Jackson had fought in the Revolution and remained in his heart and mind wedded to the Constitution.
Things began to change in the early 20th Century. The idea that Congress was too slow, too outdated, and that what the country needed was strong central direction by the executive came from the new Progressive Movement. It was articulated by a professor of political science named Woodrow Wilson, who said that since the President was elected by the whole People (ignoring the workings of the Electoral College), only he could claim to speak with their mandate. The various Representatives and Senators only represented small collections of the People, with special and competing interests. In effect, the President was a Tribune, and he should be pre-eminent over Congress.
The Wilson Administration had a centralizing tendency, especially upon entering World War I. The administration spied on the American people and deputized ordinary people to fink on their neighbors. It criminalized dissent in the Sedition Act of 1917, sending perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs to prison for opposition to the war. The administration did much to centralize the economy, too. After the war, the presidency was won by Warren G. Harding, who campaigned on “a return to normalcy.” Normalcy meant that all the central planning and executive overreach and bullying of the war years was to be dropped and the government would go back to doing its job without attempting to run everybody’s life for their own good.
When FDR took power in 1932, he pushed a progressive agenda, some of which looks pretty sinister in retrospect. He hinted to veterans that they owed him a special loyalty, over and above what they owed to the country and the law. He pushed for more government control of the economy, saying, “We planned in war!” – so why not pursue central planning in peacetime? Henry James had advocated mobilizing people for peacetime development as we did when we drafted people in wartime in an essay called “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906). This became a keystone of progressive thought. Jimmy Carter tried to appeal to it in the 1970s.
In more recent years, Barack Obama’s “if Congress won’t act, I will” and “I’ve got a pen and a phone” were predicated on the President being able to exercise some kind of tribunician power. Joe Biden is currently claiming the same kind of authority to act, to be able to sweep governors aside, issuing executive orders which he knows to be illegal for the good of the people, etc., etc. Eventually, Tribunes of the People exercising extraordinary powers always devolve into dictators exercising ever-increasing power over ordinary matters. Tribunician government is invariably bad government.