The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Will the President Be an Elected King?

photo-1467912407355-245f30185020_optJuly 24, 1787 (Click to read Madison’s notes on the day).


A committee was chosen to compose the decisions made thus far into a document for consideration (Rutledge,  Randolph,  Gorham,  Ellsworth, and  Wilson). The delegates discussed against the method of choosing the chief executive and at this juncture approved appointment by the national legislature.

Influences on the Delegates

North Carolina’s Hugh Williamson advocated reconsidering much of what the delegates had already covered. He also appealed to the differences between the United States and England.

Mr. WILLIAMSON was for going back to the original ground, to elect the Executive for seven years, and render him ineligible a second time. The proposed Electors would certainly not be men of the first, nor even of the second, grade in the States. These would all prefer a seat in the Senate, or the other branch of the Legislature. He did not like the unity in the Executive. He had wished the Executive power to be lodged in three men, taken from three districts, into which the States should be divided. As the Executive is to have a kind of veto on the laws, and there is an essential difference of interests between the Northern and Southern States, particularly in the carrying trade, the power will be dangerous, if the Executive is to be taken from part of the Union, to the part from which he is not taken. The case is different here from what it is in England; where there is a sameness of interests throughout the kingdom. Another objection against a single magistrate is, that he will be an elective king, and will feel the spirit of one. He will spare no pains to keep himself in for life, and will then lay a train for the succession of his children. It was pretty certain, he thought, that we should at some time or other have a king; but he wished no precaution to be omitted that might postpone the event as long as possible. Ineligibility a second time appeared to him to be the best precaution. With this precaution he had no objection to a longer term than seven years. He would go as far as ten or twelve years.

I reproduced this section for two reasons: because Williamson referred to England as a negative example, and because this brief section illustrates the fact that the “framers” were not ideologically on the same page. His view of the executive branch was much different from what actually came to pass. They had many ideas which did not make it in the final product. To say that the Constitution was based or founded on any one source (e.g., David Barton – the Bible), is to ignore the ideological diversity in Convention.
A particularly funny moment came from Rufus King, delegate from Massachusetts. After the delegates voted to allow the national legislature to choose the president, some wanted to revisit the provision that the president could be re-elected. The reasoning was that the executive could be more independent if not looking for re-election from the legislature. Thus, some delegates wanted to limit the president to one longer term. One suggested fifteen years (up from 11), and then King suggested:

Mr. KING twenty years.1  This is the medium life of princes.

It is not clear if King was serious or if this was meant as a joke to illustrate the dangerous direction of some delegates to approximate a kind of monarch. Even if serious, in context, it made me laugh.
Pennsylvania’s James Wilson offered comments which advocated for long term service from gifted people, even into advanced age. Also unusual in this comment is a somewhat favorable reference to the Pope.

Mr. WILSON. The difficulties and perplexities into which the House is thrown, proceed from the election by the Legislature, which he was sorry had been re-instated. The inconvenience of this mode was such, that he would agree to almost any length of time in order to get rid of the dependence which must result from it. He was persuaded that the longest term would not be equivalent to a proper mode of election, unless indeed it should be during good behaviour. It seemed to be supposed that at a certain advance of life a continuance in office would cease to be agreeable to the officer, as well as desirable to the public. Experience had shown in a variety of instances, that both a capacity and inclination for public service existed in very advanced stages. He mentioned the instance of a Doge of Venice who was elected after he was eighty years of age. The Popes have generally been elected at very advanced periods, and yet in no case had a more steady or a better concerted policy been pursued than in the Court of Rome. If the Executive should come into office at thirty-five years of age, which he presumes may happen, and his continuance should be fixed at fifteen years, at the age of fifty, in the very prime of life, and with all the aid of experience, he must be cast aside like a useless hulk. What an irreparable loss would the British jurisprudence have sustained, had the age of fifty been fixed there as the ultimate limit of capacity or readiness to serve the public. The great luminary Lord Mansfield, held his seat for thirty years after his arrival at that age. Notwithstanding what had been done, he could not but hope that a better mode of election would yet be adopted; and one that would be more agreeable to the general sense of the House. That time might be given for further deliberation, he would move that the present question be postponed till to-morrow.

Gouverneur Morris then spoke against the legislative appointment with reference again to England. He also suggested that Providence wouldn’t rescue the nation from human nature.

 Nothing had been said on the other side, of the intrigues to get him out of office. Some leader of a party will always covet his seat, will perplex his administration, will cabal with the Legislature, till he succeeds in supplanting him. This was the way in which the King of England was got out, he meant the real king, the Minister. This was the way in which Pitt (Lord Chatham) forced himself into place. Fox was for pushing the matter still further. If he had carried his India bill, which he was very near doing, he would have made the Minister the king in form almost, as well as in substance. Our President will be the British Minister, yet we are about to make him appointable by the Legislature. Something has been said of the danger of monarchy. If a good government should not now be formed, if a good organization of the Executive should not be provided, he doubted whether we should not have something worse than a limited monarchy. In order to get rid of the dependence of the Executive on the Legislature, the expedient of making him ineligible a second time had been devised. This was as much as to say, we should give him the benefit of experience, and then deprive ourselves of the use of it. But make him ineligible a second time — and prolong his duration even to fifteen years — will he, by any wonderful interposition of Providence at that period, cease to be a man? No; he will be unwilling to quit his exaltation; the road to his object through the Constitution will be shut; he will be in possession of the sword; a civil war will ensue, and the commander of the victorious army, on whichever side, will be the despot of America. This consideration renders him particularly anxious that the Executive should be properly constituted. The vice here would not, as in some other parts of the system, be curable. It is the most difficult of all, rightly to balance the Executive. Make him too weak — the Legislature will usurp his power. Make him too strong — he will usurp on the Legislature. He preferred a short period, a re-eligibility, but a different mode of election. A long period would prevent an adoption of the plan. It ought to do so. He should himself be afraid to trust it. He was not prepared to decide on Mr. WILSON’S mode of election just hinted by him. He thought it deserved consideration. It would be better that chance should decide than intrigue.

The delegates then assigned a committee to attempt to resolve the differences over the executive. It seems quite clear that the delegates wanted to find a systemic way to eliminate the possibility of a bad president. History and current events have shown us that there are checks on bad presidents but nothing which can prevent them.

The 1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)

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