In 1952, Harry Truman issued an executive order directing the Secretary of Commerce to take control of the nation’s steel mills. Under this plan, the employees of the steel mills would become employees of the US government. Truman issued his order to prevent a slowdown in steel production, a slowdown caused by a strike announced by United Steelworkers and a slowdown that Truman believed would undermine the nation’s war efforts in Korea. Under the Taft–Hartley Act of 1947, Truman had the power to order the workers to return to work for eighty days, but this law was passed over his veto by a Republican Congress and was perceived as anti-Labor. Truman’s seizure of the steel mills tested the outer limits of the president’s domestic powers during wartime. The steel companies took their case to the federal courts.

The Supreme Court ruled against Truman in a six to three decision. Justice Robert Jackson’s concurring opinion has emerged as the most important of these opinions. Jackson argues that the Constitution is unclear about the president’s authority, and instead offers a practical procedural framework for justices who have to decide similar cases. Jackson’s framework is still cited by presidents and judges.

Source: United States Reports. Volume 343, Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court at October Term, 1951 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 634-55.

Mr. Justice Jackson,[1] concurring in the judgment and opinion. . . .

That comprehensive and undefined presidential powers hold both practical advantages and grave dangers for the country will impress anyone who has served as legal adviser to a President in time of transition and public anxiety. While an interval of detached reflection may temper teachings of that experience, they probably are a more realistic influence on my views than the conventional materials of judicial decision which may seem unduly to accentuate doctrine and legal fiction. But as we approach the question of presidential power, we half overcome mental hazards by recognizing them. The opinions of judges, no less than executives and publicists, often suffer the infirmity of confusing the issue of a power’s validity with the cause it is invoked to promote, of confounding the permanent executive office with its temporary occupant. The tendency is strong to emphasize transient results upon policies – such as wages or stabilization – and lose sight of enduring consequences upon the balanced power structure of our Republic.

A judge, like an executive advisor, may be surprised at the poverty of really useful and unambiguous authority applicable to concrete problems of executive power as they actually present themselves. Just what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharaoh.[2] A century and a half of partisan debate and scholarly speculation yields no net results but only supplies more or less apt quotations from respected sources on each side of any question. They largely cancel each other. And court decisions are indecisive because of the judicial practice of dealing with the largest questions in the most narrow way.

The actual art of governing under this Constitution does not and cannot conform to judicial definitions of the power of any of its branches based on isolated clauses or even single Articles torn from context. While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government. It enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity. Presidential powers are not fixed but fluctuate, depending on their disjunction or conjunction with those of Congress. We may well begin by a somewhat over-simplified grouping of practical situations in which a President may doubt, or others may challenge, his powers, and by distinguishing roughly the legal consequences of this factor of relativity.

  1. When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate. In these circumstances, and in these only, may he be said (for what it may be worth) to personify the federal sovereignty. If his act is held unconstitutional under these circumstances, it usually means that the Federal Government as an undivided whole lacks power. A seizure executed by the President pursuant to an act of Congress would be supported by the strongest of presumptions and the widest latitude of judicial interpretation, and the burden of persuasion would rest heavily upon any who might attack it.
  2. When the President acts in absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, he can only rely upon his own independent powers, but there is a zone of twilight in which he and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain. Therefore, congressional inertia, indifference or quiescence may sometimes, at least as a practical matter, enable, if not invite, measures on independent presidential responsibility. In this area, any actual test of power is likely to depend on the imperatives of events and contemporary imponderables rather than on abstract theories of law.
  3. When the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb, for then he can rely only upon his own constitutional powers minus any constitutional powers of Congress over the matter. Courts can sustain exclusive presidential control in such a case only by disabling the Congress from acting upon the subject. Presidential claim to a power at once so conclusive and preclusive must be scrutinized with caution, for what is at stake is the equilibrium established by our constitutional system.

Into which of these classifications does this executive seizure of the steel industry fit? It is eliminated from the first by admission, for it is conceded that no congressional authorization exists for this seizure. That takes away also the support or the many precedents and declarations which were made in relation, and must be confined, to this category.

Can it be defended under flexible tests available to the second category? It seems clearly eliminated from that class because Congress has not left seizure of private property an open field but has covered it by three statutory policies inconsistent with this seizure. In cases where the purpose is to supply the needs of the Government itself, two courses are provided: one, seizure of a plant which fails to comply with obligatory orders placed by the Government; another, condemnation of facilities, including temporary use under the eminent domain. The third is applicable where it is the general economy of the country that is to be protected rather than exclusive government interests. None of these were invoked. In choosing a different and inconsistent way of his own, the President cannot claim that it is necessitated or invited by failure of Congress to legislate upon the occasions, grounds and methods for seizure of industrial properties.

This leads the current seizure to be justified only by the severe tests under the third grouping, where it can be supported only by any remainder of executive power after subtraction of such powers as Congress may have over the subject. In short, we can sustain the President only by holding that seizure of such strike-bound industries is within his domain and beyond the control of Congress. Thus, this Court’s first review of such seizures occurs under circumstances which leave presidential power most vulnerable to attack and in the least favorable of possible constitutional postures.

I did not suppose, and I am not persuaded, that history leaves it open to question, at least in the courts, that the executive branch, like the Federal Government as a whole, possesses only delegated powers. The purpose of the Constitution was not only to grant power, but to keep it from getting out of hand. However, because the President does not enjoy unmentioned powers does not mean that the mentioned ones should be narrowed by a niggardly construction. Some clauses could be made almost unworkable, as well as immutable, by refusal to indulge some latitude of interpretation for changing times. I have heretofore, and do now, give to the enumerated powers the scope and elasticity afforded by what seem to be reasonable, practical implications instead of the rigidity dictated by a doctrinaire textualism.

The Solicitor General seeks the power of seizure in three clauses of the Executive Article, the first reading, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” Lest I be thought to exaggerate, I quote the interpretation which his brief puts upon it: “In our view, the clause constitutes a grant of all the executive powers of which the Government is capable.” If that be true, it is difficult to see why the forefathers bothered to add several specific items, including some trifling ones. . . .

As to whether there is imperative necessity for such powers, it is relevant to note the gap that exists between the President’s paper powers and his real powers. The Constitution does not disclose the measure of the actual controls wielded by the modern presidential office. That instrument must be understood as an Eighteenth-Century sketch of a government hoped for, not as a blueprint for the Government that is. Vast accretions of federal powers, eroded from that reserved by the states, have magnified the scope of presidential activity. Subtle shifts take place in the centers of real power that do not show on the face of the Constitution.

Executive power has the advantage of concentration in a single head in whose choice the whole nation has a part, making him the focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude and finality his decisions so far overshadow any others that almost alone he fills the public eye and ear. No other personality in public life can begin to compete with him in access to the public mind through modern methods of communications. By his prestige as head of state and his influence upon the public opinion he exerts a leverage upon those who are supposed to check and balance his power which often cancels their effectiveness.

Moreover, the rise of the party system has made a significant extraconstitutional supplement to real executive power. No appraisal of his necessities is realistic which overlooks that he heads a political system as well as a legal system. Party loyalties and interests, sometimes more binding than law, extend his effective control into branches of government other than his own and he often may win, as a political leader, what he cannot command under the Constitution. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson, commenting on the President as leader both of his party and of his nation, observed, “If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible. . . . His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it.”[3] I cannot be brought to believe that this country will suffer if the Court refuses further to aggrandize the presidential office, already so potent and relatively immune from judicial review, at the expense of Congress.

But I have no illusion that any decision of this Court can keep power in the hands of Congress if it is not wise and timely in meeting its problems. A crisis that challenges the President equally, or perhaps primarily, challenges Congress. If not good law, there was worldly wisdom in the maxim attributed to Napoleon that “The tools belong to the man who can use them.” We may say that power to legislate for emergencies belongs to the hands of Congress, but only Congress itself can prevent power from slipping through its fingers. . . .

Study Questions

A. Is Jackson’s opinion a ruling against Truman or a ruling against presidential power? What does he recommend that a judge do in each of the three practical situations he outlines?

B. Can Jackson’s opinion be squared with the result in Curtiss-Wright? Is the difference that the question involves domestic action rather than foreign action? Or is the difference more fundamental?


  1. Robert Jackson (1892 – 1954), was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1941 to 1954. He was appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in whose administration he served as Solicitor General and Attorney General. He is considered by many legal historians to be one of the leading Justices of the twentieth century.
  2. See Genesis 40–41.
  3. Woodrow Wilson makes this comment in a passage from his Constitutional Government (Document 21), although this passage is not included in this volume.