A History of the Presidency - Fashioning the new office

At the Constitutional Convention, the first time the discussion of the executive came up, the delegates debated whether that office should be held by one person or be a plural office. One delegate argued that "unity in the executive magistracy" would be too risky. It would prove to be, he said, the "fetus of monarchy." The specter of a tyrannical executive was well-grounded in the history of the American Revolution. Thomas Paine in his magisterial Common Sense, published in 1776, had affixed to George III the label "the Royal Brute of Britain." The fear of a new brute was ineradicable in the public mind. So, how much power should the proposed executive have? A deeply concerned delegate unhesitatingly declared that he regarded "the executive magistracy as nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the legislature into effect." The legislature, he maintained, "was the depository of the supreme will of the people." This view of a president as dominated by Congress swiftly lost favor among the delegates.

As the work of the Convention proceeded, one of the most influential in shaping the executive was James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a Scotsman who had emigrated to America as a young man and had ardently supported the break with the Mother Country; in 1776 he had signed the Declaration of Independence. Wilson had no fear that a new monarchy was in the making, for he was confident, he said, that republican instincts were too well rooted in the public mind. He was convinced that there must be a single magistrate who would give "most energy, dispatch, and responsibility to the office." Wilson keenly favored also the direct popular election of the president, another idea that the Convention was not willing to accept. George Mason, a Virginian, was adamant: allowing the people to choose the president, he insisted, would be "as unnatural as it would be to refer a trial of colors to a blind person."

A second shaper of the emerging presidency was James Madison of Virginia, who, holding the view that Congress could become as oppressive as George III had been, also argued for a strong executive. Such an officer would serve as a counterweight to the legislature which, experience had shown, did not shrink from exerting its power. Madison supported a single seven-year term for the president—yet another idea that was rejected.

Early in September, a Committee on Unfinished Business, chaired by David Brearley of New Jersey, added precise touches to the specifications for the new executive. The proposals were honed in a vigorous but not prolonged series of discussion. The term of office would be four years. The president would be required to be a "natural-born citizen" and at least thirty-five years of age. An electoral college—with the number of each state's electors equaling the number of its congressional representatives plus its two senators—was devised for the election of the president, both to make election indirect and to balance the interests of the large and the small states. The electors chosen by the state legislatures in a manner determined by each state, would vote for two persons, not inhabitants of the same state. While this design gave the advantage to the large states it was assumed, as one delegate said, that "nineteen times in twenty" no individual would win a majority of the votes. The decision would then devolve upon the House of Representatives, where each state, regardless of the size of its delegation, would have one vote.

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