Philadelphia –

As the convention pressed into the late days of July, debate turned to the revised Virginia Plan’s resolutions on the Executive Branch.

The ninth resolution proposed that “a National Executive be instituted to consist of a single person, to be chosen by the National Legislature for the term of seven years…”. All delegations present agreed that the Executive ought to be composed of a single individual, but other issues raised deep differences between delegates. These differences were chiefly on key principles of republicanism and separation of powers.

Regarding the means of election, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania vigorously opposed election by the national Legislature. Though one of the most aristocratic delegates by background and temperament, Morris feared that election by the Legislature would violate the principle of separation of powers, making the Executive a mere “creature” of that branch. He thought the judgment of the people as a whole would be far more likely to result in the election of a “man of distinguished character,” or of “continental reputation”.

But outside of his fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson, Morris found little support for direct popular election for the Executive. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina voiced his opinion that it is better to have a few “active and designing men” make this choice. George Mason of Virginia likened Morris’ proposal to asking a blind man to name the colors before him.  The convention shot down Morris’ proposal and affirmed the original—though this solution would only be temporary.

Debate on issues of the term of and eligibility for office was also inconclusive. Momentarily postponing discussion of term length, delegates rejected a proposal to make the Executive ineligible for re-election. On the whole, delegates viewed re-election as an incentive that would drive the Executive to perform his proper duties. But the idea of imposing term limits on the Executive was dropped in favor of a proposal by Virginia’s James McClurg to strike the 7 years term and insert “during good behavior.”

Because the Executive was to be elected by the national Legislature, and because the proposal for making the Executive ineligible for re-election had been rejected, McClurg  – joined by Morris – thought that the only way to ensure a proper separation of powers was to allow the Executive to remain in office, effectively, for life. Madison concurred, drawing an analogy between the Judicial and Executive branches, both of which he believed required complete separation from the power of the Legislature to avoid being absorbed by it.

Others did not accept this logic. Roger Sherman thought the measure redundant. Re-election logically entails that the Executive is behaving properly—especially since the national legislative, the few “active and designing men,” are overseeing the selection process. Mason also bristled at the proposal of an Executive that would serve during good behavior, denouncing that such a policy would lead to the re-establishment of a hereditary monarchy in the new Republic within the lifetime of his children or grandchildren, if not his own. Surely no state, he lectured, “had so far revolted from Republican principles as to have the least bias” toward that proposal.

With the specter of monarchy having been raised, and with Mason having clearly challenged the commitment to republican principles of some of the convention’s leading members – including Madison and Morris – the delegations agreed unanimously to re-open discussion about the Executive. Luther Martin had moved to reconsider the eligibility requirement, in hopes of limiting the Executive to just one term of office. Gouverneur Morris took this opportunity, however, to rebut to Mason and make a case for extensive Executive power. “It has been a maxim in Political Science,” he explained, challenging Mason’s republican ideal, “that Republican Government is not adapted to a large extent of Country”. He reasoned that in a republican government – where the people are represented by the Legislative Branch – the Executive Branch is necessarily weak, and made a case that the Executive Branch “should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, against Legislative tyranny.”

Morris continued to advocate that the Executive keep office during good behavior, but barring that proposed that the Executive be elected directly by the people. Madison (perhaps slightly chastened by Mason) concurred in recommending the Executive be selected by “the people at large,” downplaying his earlier suggestion that the Executive hold office during good behavior. Elbridge Gerry, who continued to display a knack for compromise, stated that both election by the national Legislature and by the people had disadvantages. He proposed a third way – a committee of electors chosen by state Executives. Oliver Ellsworth accepted the idea of electors, but suggested that state Legislatures select them. This compromise was easily approved, as was eligibility for re-election and – for a short time, at least – a six-year term.

Posted in Countdown to the Constitution


3 Responses to “Countdown to the Constitution – Reviewing Committee of Detail Report”

  1. [...] Delegates had debated the resolutions presented by the delegation of Virginia, amended them, and debated them again. Before sending the revised amendments to a Committee of Detail that would create a rough draft of [...]

  2. [...] 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 [...]

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