Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

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Thursday, July 19

In Convention, — On re-consideration of the vote rendering the Executive re-eligible a second time, Mr. MARTIN moved to re-instate the words, “to be ineligible a second time.”

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. It is necessary to take into one view all that relates to the establishment of the Executive; on the due formation of which must depend the efficacy and utility of the union among the present and future States. It has been a maxim in political science, that republican government is not adapted to a large extent of country, because the energy of the executive magistracy cannot reach the extreme parts of it. Our country is an extensive one. We must either then renounce the blessings of the Union, or provide an Executive with sufficient vigor to pervade every part of it. This subject was of so much importance that he hoped to be indulged in an extensive view of it. One great object of the Executive is, to control the Legislature. The Legislature will continually seek to aggrandize and perpetuate themselves; and will seize those critical moments produced by war, invasion, or convulsion, for that purpose. It is necessary, then, that the Executive magistrate 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; — to nourish its love of power; and to stimulate it to oppression. History proves this to be the spirit of the opulent. The check provided in the second branch was not meant as a check on legislative usurpations of power, but on the abuse of lawful powers, on the propensity of the first branch to legislate too much, to run into projects of paper-money, and similar expedients. It is no check on legislative tyranny. On the contrary it may favor it; and, if the first branch can be seduced, may find the means of success. The Executive, therefore, ought to be so constituted as to be the great protector of the mass of the people. It is the duty of the Executive to appoint the officers, and to command the forces, of the Republic; to appoint, first, ministerial officers for the administration of public affairs; secondly, officers for the dispensation of justice. Who will be the best judges whether these appointments be well made? The people at large, who will know, will see, will feel, the effects of them. Again, who can judge so well of the discharge of military duties for the protection and security of the people, as the people themselves, who are to be protected and secured? He finds, too, that the Executive is not to be re-eligible. What effect will this have? In the first place, it will destroy the great incitement to merit, public esteem, by taking away the hope of being rewarded with a re-appointment. It may give a dangerous turn to one of the strongest passions in the human breast. The love of fame is the great spring to noble and illustrious actions. Shut the civil road to glory, and he may be compelled to seek it by the sword. In the second place, it will tempt him to make the most of the short space of time allotted him, to accumulate wealth and provide for his friends. In the third place, it will produce violations of the very Constitution it is meant to secure. In moments of pressing danger, the tried abilities and established character of a favorite magistrate will prevail over respect for the forms of the Constitution. The Executive is also to be impeachable. This is a dangerous part of the plan. It will hold him in such dependence, that he will be no check on the Legislature, will not be a firm guardian of the people and of the public interest. He will be the tool of a faction, of some leading demagogue in the Legislature. These, then, are the faults of the Executive establishment, as now proposed. Can no better establishment be devised? If he is to be the guardian of the people, let him be appointed by the people. If he is to be a check on the Legislature, let him not be impeachable. Let him be of short duration, that he may with propriety be re-eligible. It has been said that the candidates for this office will not be known to the people. If they be known to the Legislature, they must have such a notoriety and eminence of character, that they cannot possibly be unknown to the people at large. It cannot be possible that a man shall have sufficiently distinguished himself to merit this high trust, without having his character proclaimed by fame throughout the Empire. As to the danger from an unimpeachable magistrate, he could not regard it as formidable. There must be certain great officers of state, a minister of finance, of war, of foreign affairs, &c. These, he presumes, will exercise their functions in subordination to the Executive, and will be amenable, by impeachment, to the public justice. Without these ministers, the Executive can do nothing of consequence. He suggested a biennial election of the Executive, at the time of electing the first branch; and the Executive to hold over, so as to prevent any interregnum in the administration. An election by the people at large, throughout so great an extent of country, could not be influenced by those little combinations and those momentary lies, which often decide popular elections within a narrow sphere. It will probably be objected, that the election will be influenced by the members of the Legislature, particularly of the first branch; and that it will be nearly the same thing with an election by the Legislature itself. It could not be denied that such an influence would exist. But it might be answered, that, as the Legislature or the candidates for it, would be divided the enmity of one part would counteract the friendship of another; that if the administration of the Executive were good, it would be unpopular to oppose his re-election; if bad, it ought to be opposed, and a re-appointment prevented; and lastly, that in every view this indirect dependence on the favor of the Legislature could not be so mischievous as a direct dependence for his appointment. He saw no alternative for making the Executive independent of the Legislature, but either to give him his office for life, or make him eligible by the people. Again, it might be objected, that two years would be too short a duration. But he believes that as long as he should behave himself well he would be continued in his place. The extent of the country would secure his re-election against the factions and discontents of particular States. It deserved consideration, also, that such an ingredient in the plan would render it extremely palatable to the people. These were the general ideas which occurred to him on the subject, and which led him to wish and move that the whole constitution of the Executive might undergo re-consideration.

 Mr. RANDOLPH urged the motion of Mr. L. MARTIN for restoring the words making the Executive ineligible a second time. If he ought to be independent, he should not be left under a temptation to court a re-appointment. If he should be re-appointable by the legislature, he will be no check on it. His revisionary power will be of no avail. He had always thought and contended, as he still did, that the danger apprehended by the little States was chimerical; but those who thought otherwise ought to be peculiarly anxious for the motion. If the Executive be appointed, as has been determined, by the Legislature, he will probably be appointed, either by joint ballot of both houses, or be nominated by the first and appointed by the second branch. In either case the large States will preponderate. If he is to court the same influence for his re-appointment, will he not make his revisionary power, and all the other functions of his administration, subservient to the views of the large States? Besides, is there not great reason to apprehend, that, in case he should be re-eligible, a false complaisance in the Legislature might lead them to continue an unfit man in office, in preference to a fit one? It has been said, that a constitutional bar to re-appointment will inspire unconstitutional endeavors to perpetuate himself. It may be answered, that his endeavors can have no effect unless the people be corrupt to such a degree as to render all precautions hopeless; to which may be added, that this argument supposes him to be more powerful and dangerous than other arguments which have been used admit, and consequently calls for stronger fetters on his authority. He thought an election by the Legislature, with an incapacity to be elected a second time, would be more acceptable to the people than the plan suggested by Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS.

Mr. KING did not like the ineligibility. He thought there was great force in the remark of Mr. SHERMAN, that he who has proved himself most fit for an office ought not to be excluded by the Constitution from holding it. He would therefore prefer any other reasonable plan that could be substituted. He was much disposed to think, that in such cases the people at large would choose wisely. There was indeed some difficulty arising from the improbability of a general concurrence of the people in favor of any one man. On the whole, he was of opinion that an appointment by electors chosen by the people for the purpose would be liable to fewest objections.

Mr. PATTERSON’S ideas nearly coincided, he said, with those of Mr. KING. He proposed that the Executive should be appointed by electors, to be chosen by the States in a ratio that would allow one elector to the smallest, and three to the largest, States.

Mr. WILSON. It seems to be the unanimous sense that the Executive should not be appointed by the Legislature, unless he be rendered ineligible a second time; he perceived with pleasure that the idea was gaining ground of an election, mediately or immediately, by the people.

Mr. MADISON. If it be a fundamental principle of free government that the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary powers should be separately exercised, it is equally so that they be independently exercised. There is the same, and perhaps greater, reason why the Executive should be independent of the Legislature, than why the Judiciary should. A coalition of the two former powers would be more immediately and certainly dangerous to public liberty. It is essential, then, that the appointment of the Executive should either be drawn from some source, or held by some tenure, that will give him a free agency with regard to the Legislature. This could not be, if he was to be appointable, from time to time, by the Legislature. It was not clear that an appointment in the first instance, even with an ineligibility afterwards, would not establish an improper connection between the two Departments. Certain it was, that the appointment would be attended with intrigues and contentions that ought not to be unnecessarily admitted. He was disposed, for these reasons, to refer the appointment to some other source. The people at large was, in his opinion, the fittest in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished character. The people generally could only know and vote for some citizen whose merits had rendered him an object of general attention and esteem. There was one difficulty, however, of a serious nature, attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election, on the score of the negroes. The substitution of Electors obviated this difficulty, and seemed, on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.

Mr. GERRY. If the Executive is to be elected by the Legislature, he certainly ought not to be re-eligible. This would make him absolutely dependent. He was against a popular election. The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men. He urged the expediency of an appointment of the Executive by Electors to be chosen by the State Executives. The people of the States will then choose the first branch; the Legislatures of the States the second branch of the National Legislature; and the Executives of the States, the National Executive. This he thought would form a strong attachment in the States to the National system. The popular mode of electing the Chief Magistrate would certainly be the worst of all. If he should be so elected, and should do his duty, he will be turned out for it, like Governor Bowdoin in Massachusetts, and President Sullivan in New Hampshire.

On the question on Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS’S motion, to reconsider generally the constitution of the Executive, — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and all the others, aye.

Mr. ELLSWORTH moved to strike out the appointment by the National Legislature, and to insert, “to be chosen by Electors, appointed by the Legislatures of the States in the following ratio; to wit: one for each State not exceeding two hundred thousand inhabitants; two for each above that number and not exceeding three hundred thousand; and three for each State exceeding three hundred thousand.”

Mr. BROOM seconded the motion.

Mr. RUTLEDGE was opposed to all the modes, except the appointment by the National Legislature. He will be sufficiently independent, if he be not re-eligible.

Mr. GERRY preferred the motion of Mr. ELLSWORTH to an appointment by the National Legislature, or by the people; though not to an appointment by the State Executives. He moved that the Electors proposed by Mr. ELLSWORTH should be twenty-five in number, and allotted in the following proportion: to New Hampshire, one; to Massachusetts, three; to Rhode Island, one; to Connecticut, two; to New York, two; to New Jersey, two; to Pennsylvania, three; to Delaware, one; to Maryland, two; to Virginia, three; to North Carolina, two; to South Carolina, two; to Georgia, one.

The question, as moved by Mr. ELLSWORTH, being divided, on the first part “Shall the National Executive be appointed by Electors?” — Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, aye — 6; North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 3; Massachusetts, divided.

On the second part, “Shall the Electors be chosen by the State Legislatures?” — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, aye — 8; Virginia, South Carolina, no — 2.

The part relating to the ratio in which the States should choose Electors was postponed, nem. con.

Mr. L. MARTIN moved that the Executive be ineligible a second time.

Mr. WILLIAMSON seconds the motion. He had no great confidence in electors to be chosen for the special purpose. They would not be the most respectable citizens; but persons not occupied in the high offices of government. They would be liable to undue influence, which might the more readily be practised, as some of them will probably be in appointment six or eight months before the object of it comes on.

Mr. ELLWORTH supposed any persons might be appointed Electors, except, solely, members of the National Legislature.

On the question, “Shall he be ineligible a second time?” — North Carolina, South Carolina, aye — 2; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, no — 8.

On the question, “Shall the Executive continue for seven years?” It passed in the negative, — 1 Connecticut, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 3; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, no — 5; Massachusetts, North Carolina, divided.

Mr. KING was afraid we should shorten the term too much.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was for a short term, in order to avoid impeachments, which would be otherwise necessary.

Mr. BUTLER was against the frequency of the elections. Georgia and South Carolina were too distant to send electors often.

Mr. ELLSWORTH was for six years. If the elections be too frequent, the Executive will not be firm enough. There must be duties which will make him unpopular for the moment. There will be outs as well as ins. His administration, therefore, will be attacked and misrepresented.

Mr. WILLIAMSON was for six years. The expense will be considerable, and ought not to be unnecessarily repeated. If the elections are too frequent, the best men will not undertake the service, and those of an inferior character will be liable to be corrupted.

On the question for six years, — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; Delaware, no.


1In the printed Journal, Connecticut, no: New Jersey, aye. Return to text

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The year was 1787. The place: the State House in Philadelphia. This is the story of the framing of the federal Constitution.

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