Tuesday, July 24 | Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

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This Day in the Four Act Drama 

In Convention, — The appointment of the Executive by Electors being reconsidered, —

Mr. HOUSTOUN moved that he be appointed by the National Legislature, instead of “Electors appointed by the State Legislatures,” according to the last decision of the mode. He dwelt chiefly on the improbability that capable men would undertake the service of Electors from the more distant States.

Mr. SPAIGHT seconded the motion.

Mr. GERRY opposed it. He thought there was no ground to apprehend the danger urged by Mr. HOUSTON. The election of the Executive Magistrate will be considered as of vast importance, and will create great earnestness. The best men, the Governors of the States, will not hold it derogatory from their character to be the Electors. If the motion should be agreed to, it will be necessary to make the Executive ineligible a second time, in order to render him independent of the Legislature; which was an idea extremely repugnant to his way of thinking.

Mr. STRONG supposed that there would be no necessity, if the Executive should be appointed by the Legislature, to make him ineligible a second time; as new Elections of the Legislature will have intervened; and he will not depend for his second appointment on the same set of men that his first was received from. It had been suggested that gratitude for his past appointment would produce the same effect as dependence for his future appointment. He thought very differently. Besides, this objection would lie against the Electors, who would be objects of gratitude as well as the Legislature. It was of great importance not to make the government too complex, which would be the case if a new set of men, like the Electors should be introduced into it. He thought, also, that the first characters in the States would not feel sufficient motives to undertake the office of Electors.

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.

Mr. GERRY moved that the Legislatures of the States should vote by ballot for the Executive, in the same proportions as it had been proposed they should choose Electors; and that in case a majority of the votes should not centre on the same person, the first branch of the National Legislature should choose two out of the four candidates having most votes; and out of these two the second branch should choose the Executive.

Mr. KING seconded the motion; and on the question to postpone, in order to take it into consideration, the noes were so predominant, that the States were not counted.

On the question on Mr. HOUSTON’S motion, that the executive be appointed by the National Legislature, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 7; Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, no — 4.

Mr. L. MARTIN and Mr. GERRY moved to re-instate the ineligibility of the Executive a second time.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. With many this appears a natural consequence of his being elected by the Legislature. It was not the case with him. The Executive he thought should be re-elected if his conduct proved him worthy of it. And he will be more likely to render himself worthy of it if he be rewardable with it. The most eminent characters also, will be more willing to accept the trust under this condition, than if they foresee a necessary degradation at a fixed period.

Mr. GERRY. That the Executive should be independent of the Legislature, is a clear point. The longer the duration of his appointment, the more will his dependence be diminished. It will be better, then, for him to continue ten, fifteen, or even twenty years, and be ineligible afterwards.

Mr. KING was for making him re-eligible. This is too great an advantage to be given up, for the small effect it will have on his dependence, if impeachments are to lie. He considered these as rendering the tenure during pleasure.

Mr. L. MARTIN, suspending his motion as to the ineligibility, moved, “that the appointment of the Executive shall continue for eleven years.”

Mr. GERRY suggested fifteen years.

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

Mr. DAVIE eight years.

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.

Mr. BROOM seconded the motion to postpone.

Mr. GERRY. We seem to be entirely at a loss on this head. He would suggest whether it would not be advisable to refer the clause relating to the Executive to the committee of detail to be appointed. Perhaps they will be able to hit on something that may unite the various opinions which have been thrown out.

Mr. WILSON. As the great difficulty seems to spring from the mode of election, he would suggest a mode which had not been mentioned. It was, that the Executive be elected for six years by a small number, not more than fifteen of the National Legislature, to be drawn from it, not by ballot, but by lot, and who should retire immediately and make the election without separating. By this mode intrigue would be avoided in the first instance, and the dependence would be diminished. This was not, he said, a digested idea, and might be liable to strong objections.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. Of all possible modes of appointment that by the Legislature is the worst. If the Legislature is to appoint, and to impeach, or to influence the impeachment, the Executive will be the mere creature of it. He had been opposed to the impeachment, but was now convinced that impeachments must be provided for, if the appointment was to be of any duration. No man would say, that an Executive known to be in the pay of an enemy should not be removable in some way or other. He had been charged heretofore, (by Col. MASON), with inconsistency in pleading for confidence in the Legislature on some occasions, and urging a distrust on others. The charge was not well founded. The Legislature is worthy of unbounded confidence in some respects, and liable to equal distrust in others. When their interest coincides precisely with that of their constituents, as happens in many of their acts, no abuse of trust is to be apprehended. When a strong personal interest happens to be opposed to the general interest, the Legislature cannot be too much distrusted. In all public bodies there are two parties. The Executive will necessarily be more connected with one than with the other. There will be a personal interest, therefore, in one of the parties, to oppose, as well as in the other to support, him. Much had been said of the intrigues that will be practised by the Executive to get into office. 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.

On the question to postpone the consideration of the resolution on the subject of the Executive, — Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, aye — 4; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6; Delaware, divided.

Mr. WILSON then moved, that the Executive be chosen every — years by — Electors, to be taken by lot from the National Legislature, who shall proceed immediately to the choice of the Executive, and not separate until it be made.

Mr. CARROLL seconds the motion.

Mr. GERRY. This is committing too much to chance. If the lot should fall on a set of unworthy men, an unworthy Executive must be saddled on the country. He thought it had been demonstrated that no possible mode of electing by the Legislature could be a good one.

Mr. KING. The lot might fall on a majority from the same State, which would insure the election of a man from that State. We ought to be governed by reason, not by chance. As nobody seemed to be satisfied, he wished the matter to be postponed.

Mr. WILSON did not move this as the best mode. His opinion remained unshaken, that we ought to resort to the people for the election. He seconded the postponement.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS observed, that the chances were almost infinite against a majority of Electors from the same State.

On a question whether the last motion was in order, it was determined in the affirmative, — ayes, 7; noes, 4.

On the question of postponement, it was agreed to, nem. con.

Mr. CARROLL took occasion to observe, that he considered the clause declaring that direct taxation on the States should be in proportion to representation, previous to the obtaining an actual census, as very objectionable; and that he reserved to himself the right of opposing it, if the report of the Committee of detail should leave it in the plan.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS hoped the Committee would strike out the whole of the clause proportioning direct taxation to representation. He had only meant it as a bridge2 to assist us over a certain gulf; having passed the gulf, the bridge may be removed. He thought the principle laid down with so much strictness liable to strong objections.

On a ballot for a committee to report a Constitution conformable to the Resolutions passed by the Convention, the members chosen were: —


On motion to discharge the Committee of the Whole from the propositions submitted to the Convention by Mr. C. PINCKNEY as the basis of a Constitution, and to refer them to the Committee of Detail just appointed, it was agreed to, nem. con.

A like motion was then made and agreed to, nem. con., with respect to the propositions of Mr. PATTERSON.


1 This might possibly be meant as a caricature of the previous motions, in order to defeat the object of them. 

2 The object was to lessen the eagerness, on one side, for, and the opposition, on the other, to the share of representation claimed by the Southern States on account of the negroes. 

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