Round 3: Monarchists v. Democratic Republicans

This is part of a continuing series of blog posts leading up to Constitution Day on September 17. Last time we examined the dispute between northern and southern states. Today, we will review the debate over how to structure the executive branch.

One of the most persistent topics discussed in the Philadelphia Convention was the structure of the presidency. The Framers had grappled with this topic throughout June and July. 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, but would be ineligible for re-election. They reached no decision concerning the method of election. After discussing several other alternatives, in late July the Framers were still undecided as 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, 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. The separation of powers that allowed each branch to function as a watchdog over the others would be null and void. George 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.

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

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.

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. Elbridge Gerry, who continued to display a knack for compromise, stated that election by either the national legislature or 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.

Having resolved the most controversial aspects of the new Constitution, the Convention continued to work out other details. The Framers set up a Committee of Style to write and arrange the actual text of the Constitution, and on Wednesday, September 12, the Committee presented the plan, reading it aloud by paragraph, and ordered that printed copies of this almost-final draft be provided to the delegates. Upon completion, the Constitution was sent to each state to be ratified by a convention in each state. Nine states were needed for its ratification, and eventually each state ratified it, the last being Rhode Island.

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