Philadelphia –

Establishing the Presidency

One of the most persistent topics discussed in the Philadelphia Convention was the structure of the presidency. The Framers had grappled with this topic on June 1, 2, 4, 9, and 18, and then again on July 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, and 26. The main issues were questions of the President’s re-eligibility, term of office, method of election, and powers of office. Not only did the delegates debate various alternatives to resolve each of these issues, they also debated which of these issues should be resolved first. They ended up repeatedly returning to each.

In early June, delegates decided that the Executive would be one individual (rather than a committee), who would serve a seven-year term and be ineligible for re-election, but reached no decision concerning the method of election. After working through several other alternatives, the Framers in late July returned to the position that the President should be elected by the national legislature for a seven-year, non-renewable term. On July 24, one suggestion was that members of Congress be chosen by lot to select the President, to which Rufus King replied, “We ought to be governed by reason, not by chance.”

On Wednesday, July 25, the delegates returned yet again to the method of selecting the President. James Madison summarized the alternatives and objections to each. If the President were selected by the national legislature, or by the legislatures of the states, or by the governors of the states, then he would be subservient to the selecting group because they would only elect someone whom they expected to be able to control.

The result would be a likelihood of corruption and misconduct in office, and not the separation of powers that allowed each branch to function as a watchdog over the others.

Madison argued that this left two options: direct election by the people, or appointment by a group of electors chosen by the people. The convention’s delegates distrusted direct democracy. They were determined that the new government would embody republican principles, but believed that most people were unlikely to make wise choices in direct election of the President. Another argument against direct election by the people was that it would result in a disadvantage for smaller states. Madison’s notes reflect that, following his July 25 speech advocating appointment of the President by a group of electors chosen by the people, Gouverneur Morris supported a similar plan: “He [Morris] considered an election by the people as the best, by the Legislature as the worst, mode…” On July 19, Morris had explained why the President should not be dependent for his position on the will of Congress: “It is necessary then that the Executive Magistrate [President] should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, against Legislative tyranny, against the Great and the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body. Wealth tends to corrupt the mind and nourish its love of power, and to stimulate it to oppression… The Executive therefore ought to be so constituted as to be the great protector of the Mass of the people.”

On Thursday, July 26, after reviewing once again the various alternatives for electing the President, George Mason concluded that election by the national legislature was the best method, and that he be ineligible for re-election. At this point Benjamin Franklin stated that for an elected official to step down from office and return to the mass of the people was actually a promotion. “In free Governments the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors & sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade but to promote them.”

After repeatedly wrestling with the question of how to elect the President, the Convention on July 26 referred the question to the Committee of Detail. The Convention adjourned from July 26 until August 6, instructing the Committee of Detail to “prepare and report the Constitution.” This committee, having been formed on July 24, was assigned to draft a written constitution based on the 23 resolutions that had been approved through four weeks of vigorous debate. John Rutledge of South Carolina, Edmund Randolph of Virginia, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania labored over this task.

Using the Articles of Confederation, Virginia Plan, the debated resolutions, and the state constitutions, Randolph prepared a draft, which Wilson edited substantially. The Committee then made further improvements, resulting in the August 6 Report. These five men had a remarkable opportunity to apply their judgment to shape the Constitution. As they began, James Wilson reminded participants “We are providing a constitution for future generations, and not merely for the peculiar circumstances of the moment.”

How did this committee resolve the question of how to elect the President? In Article X of the Committee Report presented on August 6, they wrote, “…He shall be elected by ballot by the Legislature. He shall hold his office during the term of seven years; but shall not be elected a second time.” This early draft of the Constitution would be the subject of continuing debate and revision.

For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.

Posted in Countdown to the Constitution


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