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GOVERNORS. The term "governors" describes the chief executives of the American colonies and, later, of the states of the Union. The governor's role has evolved over the course of American history, but on the whole it has been relatively weak as governors lost power struggles at turns to state legislatures, other executive officials, and the federal government. Since about 1970, however, as the considerable legal restraints on their authority have been loosened, governors have steadily gained power and importance.

The Colonial Era

In the early seventeenth century, when the colonies were still owned by private charter companies, governors served primarily as corporate managers and were vested with only vague political authority. But as the Crown began to assert greater control over its possessions in America, governors were given an expanded role as the king's colonial proxies. By the middle of the eighteenth century only Connecticut and Rhode Island survived as charter colonies and they elected chief executives annually. The rest of the English territories were proprietary colonies or royal provinces, with governors who were either approved or appointed directly by the king.

On paper, proprietary and royal governors enjoyed broad powers over all the functions of colonial government. They were given the authority to appoint judges and other officials, veto legislation, and adjourn the assembly. Their political dominance, however, was greater in theory than in practice. Governors served at the pleasure of the king, who often tried to make day-to-day decisions about colonial administration. Moreover, colonial assemblies (like the English Parliament) were given the power of the purse, and they could wring significant concessions from uncooperative governors by withholding money and even refusing to pay their salaries. Governors grew increasingly vulnerable as the Revolution approached. As representatives of the Crown, they had to enforce the succession of unpopular laws, such as the Stamp and Coercive Acts, that would lead to war. In the mid-1770s, the colonists removed royal and proprietary governors from office and paved the way for the creation of independent state governments.

The Early Republic

The first state constitutions provided for strong legislatures and weak governors. The framers' recent experience with the Crown and its colonial representatives had convinced them that executive power led inevitably to despotism, whereas legislative power was impervious to tyranny because it was republican—that is, accountable to the people. Though rules differed in each state, in general governors were appointed to brief terms by a legislature that they could no longer summon or dissolve. Governors lacked veto power and could make decisions only with the advice and consent of an executive council chosen by the legislature. By and large, the first state constitutions envisioned governors who merely administered the laws passed by the assembly.

These early state governments, however, were so ineffectual and chaotic that the new Republic was forced to reconsider the rejection of executive power. Philadelphia's Constitutional Convention of 1787 created a presidential office with more independence and authority over national government than any governor had over state government (then or later). Gradually, the individual states tried to approximate the federal model, adopting new constitutions that vested executives with greater authority. For example, Illinois's first constitution, passed in 1818, provided for a popularly elected governor with four-year terms and significant appointment powers. New York's 1821 constitution granted the gubernatorial veto. Nevertheless, the office of governor remained comparatively powerless, and the persistent weakness of American governors can be traced to the precedent set in the early Republic.

The Jacksonian Era

In the 1830s and 1840s, a new political philosophy held that all white men, not just elite landowners, were the proper guardians of American democracy. In this view, voters mattered more than legislators, and the already aging model that gave assemblies authority over governors fell completely out of favor. Most states, reflecting the new importance placed on voters, wrote new constitutions that sought to free governors from legislative authority and make them directly accountable to the people.

In general, the new constitutions gave governors veto power and made the office an elected rather than appointed one. Both reforms validated governors' claims of authority. With a powerful weapon to use against the legislature and a popular mandate, the governors had gained political independence.

A third reform, however, significantly reduced governors' control over their own executive branch. In the spirit of popular democracy and suffrage for all white men, most states adopted some form of what became known as the long ballot, whereby voters selected a large number of state officers. For example, New York's 1846 constitution called for the election of not only the governor but also a lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, comptroller, attorney general, three canal commissioners, three prison inspectors, and a state engineer.

These elected executive officials claimed their own popular mandates, articulated their own political visions, worked to achieve their own objectives, and often belonged to their own party factions. Governors had little hope of putting together an efficient administration with a clear chain of command or a single set of goals. The problem only worsened as state governments grew more complex with the passage of time and the accretion of responsibilities. Progressive-Era administrations demonstrated a special fondness for proliferating bureaucracy. Illinois, for example, supported just twenty state agencies in 1850, but by 1925 that number had increased to more than 170. Governors found it nearly impossible to administer such sprawling organizations.

The Progressive Era

Government grew so rapidly during the Progressive Era (about 1890 to 1920, though historians continue to debate the dates) because Americans' faith in the power of government was exploding. Industrial society seemed to be spinning out of control, and Progressives turned to government to fix a host of problems from alcoholism and corruption to child labor and corporate monopoly. Despite the often-crippling hodgepodge of agencies, then, state executives were empowered to take aggressive action on a range of issues, and governors temporarily escaped their narrow spheres of influence.

Woodrow Wilson began his political career serving as governor of New Jersey from 1910 to 1912, and he pushed through several good-government measures. Hiram Johnson, California's governor from 1910 to 1917, passed the Public Utilities Act, giving an independent state commission the power to regulate the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. Robert La Follette served as Wisconsin's governor from 1900 to 1906; he became the most renowned Progressive governor, and his state was regarded as a model for the rest of the nation. Wilson, Johnson, and La Follette achieved power earlier governors could only have imagined, and the reputation of state government in general improved. Future presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all gained prominence as governors during the first third of the twentieth century.

The Great Depression and States' Rights

When the Great Depression hit, however, the brief moment of gubernatorial power ended. States did not have the resources to cope with the huge demand for government services, and governors who still lacked coherent authority could not respond adequately to the crisis. During the New Deal, Washington, D.C., became firmly entrenched as the center of American government, and the foreign policy crises of World War II and the Cold War kept all eyes on national affairs. Governors again sunk into relative powerlessness and obscurity, and for thirty years after World War II no governor was elected president.

In the 1950s and 1960s, governors generally made news only in their embarrassing capacity as spokespeople for segregation and states' rights in the South. Southern senators and representatives urged their constituents to defy the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public education, but it fell to governors to implement the legal and political strategy of "massive resistance." Governors such as Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, and George Wallace of Alabama symbolized southern racism and provincialism. But the governors' empty rhetoric of states' rights also forced the federal government to display its supremacy to the humiliation of the states.

In 1957, when Faubus refused to enforce a federal court order desegregating Central High School in Little Rock, President Dwight Eisenhower called in the army and troops remained on campus for the entire school year. Similarly, Wallace famously stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of black students, but he was forced to relent when federal marshals arrived.

The Modern Governor

In the 1960s, states finally addressed their collective governor crisis by reorganizing and consolidating executive administration. Between 1965 and 1975, forty states underwent at least a partial reorganization. Many states were unable to get rid of the long ballot that remains a favorite target of reformers, but they eliminated most of the other checks on their governors. States have consolidated and rationalized their labyrinthine bureaucracies, collapsing hundreds of agencies into dozens and placing them under accountable department heads. They have given governors the authority to make annual budgets, and almost all states have extended the term of office to four years and allow governors to serve at least two consecutive terms. Many experts argue that these changes have attracted more talented candidates and produced the innovative administrations that now serve as models for national government.

From 1976 until the end of the twentieth century, every president except George H. W. Bush had been a former governor. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush modeled their presidencies closely on their experiences as governors. It may still be too soon to conclude that American governors have finally emerged from ineffectiveness, but without question they are more powerful than ever before.


Black, Earl. Southern Governors and Civil Rights: Racial Segregation as a Campaign Issue in the Second Reconstruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Kallenbach, Joseph E. The American Chief Executive: The Presidency and the Governorship. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Lipson, Leslie. The American Governor: From Figurehead to Leader. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1939.

Osborne, David. Laboratories of Democracy: A New Breed of Governor Creates Models for National Growth. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1988.

Ransone, Coleman Bernard. The American Governorship. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Sabato, Larry. Goodbye to Good-Time Charlie: The American Governor Transformed, 1950–1975. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1978.

Sanford, Terry. Storm over the States. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.


See alsoState Constitutions .

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