Wednesday, July 25 | Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

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This Day in the Four Act Drama 

In Convention, — The clause relating to the Executive being again under consideration, —

Mr. ELLSWORTH moved, “that the Executive be appointed by the Legislature, except when the magistrate last chosen shall have continued in office the whole term for which he was chosen, and be re-eligible; in which case the choice shall be by Electors appointed by the Legislatures of the States for that purpose.” By this means a deserving magistrate may be re-elected without making him dependent on the Legislature.

Mr. GERRY repeated his remark, that an election at all by the National Legislature was radically and incurably wrong; and moved, “that the Executive be appointed by the Governors and Presidents of the States, with advice of their Councils; and where there are no Councils, by Electors chosen by the Legislatures. The Executives to vote in the following proportions, viz: —.”

Mr. MADISON. There are objections against every mode that has been, or perhaps can be, proposed. The election must be made either by some existing authority under the National or State Constitutions, — or by some special authority derived from the people, — or by the people themselves. The two existing authorities under the National Constitution would be the Legislative and Judiciary. The latter he presumed was out of the question. The former was, in his judgment, liable to insuperable objections. Besides the general influence of that mode on the independence of the Executive, in the first place, the election of the chief magistrate would agitate and divide the Legislature so much, that the public interest would materially suffer by it. Public bodies are always apt to be thrown into contentions, but into more violent ones by such occasions than by any others. In the second place, the candidate would intrigue with the Legislature; would derive his appointment from the predominant faction, and be apt to render his administration subservient to its views. In the third place, the ministers of foreign powers would have, and would make use of, the opportunity to mix their intrigues and influence with the election. Limited as the powers of the Executive are, it will be an object of great moment with the great rival powers of Europe who have American possessions, to have at the head of our government a man attached to their respective politics and interests. No pains, nor perhaps expense, will be spared, to gain from the Legislature an appointment favorable to their wishes. Germany and Poland are witnesses of this danger. In the former, the election of the Head of the Empire, till it became in a manner hereditary, interested all Europe, and was much influenced by foreign interference. In the latter, although the elective magistrate has very little real power, his election has at all times produced the most eager interference of foreign princes, and has in fact at length slid entirely into foreign hands. The existing authorities in the States are the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary. The appointment of the National Executive by the first was objectionable in many points of view, some of which had been already mentioned. He would mention one which of itself would decide his opinion. The Legislatures of the States had betrayed a strong propensity to a variety of pernicious measures. One object of the National Legislature was to control this propensity. One object of the National Executive, so far as it would have a negative on the laws, was to control the National Legislature, so far as it might be infected with a similar propensity. Refer the appointment of the National Executive to the State Legislatures, and this controlling purpose may be defeated. The Legislatures can and will act with some kind of regular plan, and will promote the appointment of a man who will not oppose himself to a favorite object. Should a majority of the Legislatures, at the time of election, have the same object, or different objects of the same kind, the National Executive would be rendered subservient to them. An appointment by the State Executives was liable, among other objections, to this insuperable one, that being standing bodies, they could and would be courted, and intrigued with by the candidates, by their partizans, and by the ministers of foreign powers. The State Judiciaries had not been, and he presumed would not be, proposed as a proper source of appointment. The option before us, then, lay between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people, and an immediate appointment by the people. He thought the former mode free from many of the objections which had been urged against it, and greatly preferable to an appointment by the National Legislature. As the Electors would be chosen for the occasion, would meet at once, and proceed immediately to an appointment, there would be very little opportunity for cabal, or corruption: as a further precaution, it might be required that they should meet at some place distinct from the seat of government; and even that no person within a certain distance of the place at the time, should be eligible. This mode, however, had been rejected so recently, and by so great a majority, that it probably would not be proposed anew. The remaining mode was an election by the people, or rather by the qualified part of them at large. With all its imperfections, he liked this best. He would not repeat either the general arguments for, or the objections against, this mode. He would only take notice of two difficulties, which he admitted to have weight. The first arose from the disposition in the people to prefer a citizen of their own State, and the disadvantage this would throw on the smaller States. Great as this objection might be, he did not think it equal to such as lay against every other mode which had been proposed. He thought, too, that some expedient might be hit upon that would obviate it. The second difficulty arose from the disproportion of qualified voters in the Northern and Southern States, and the disadvantages which this mode would throw on the latter. The answer to this objection was — in the first place, that this disproportion would be continually decreasing under the influence of the republican laws introduced in the Southern States, and the more rapid increase of their population; in the second place, that local considerations must give way to the general interest. As an individual from the Southern States, he was willing to make the sacrifice.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. The objection drawn from the different sizes of the States is unanswerable. The citizens of the largest States would invariably prefer the candidate within the State; and the largest States would invariably have the man.

On the question on Mr. ELLSWORTH’S motion, as above, — New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, aye — 4; Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 7.

Mr. PINCKNEY moved, “that the election by the Legislature be qualified with a proviso, that no person be eligible for more than six years in any twelve years.” He thought this would have all the advantage, and at the same time avoid in some degree the inconvenience, of an absolute ineligibility a second time.

Col. MASON approved the idea. It had the sanction of experience in the instance of Congress, and some of the Executives of the States. It rendered the Executive as effectually independent, as an ineligibility after his first election; and opened the way at the same time, for the advantage of his future services. He preferred on the whole, the election by the National Legislature; though candor obliged him to admit, that there was great danger of foreign influence, as had been suggested. This was the most serious objection, with him, that had been urged.

Mr. BUTLER. The two great evils to be avoided are, cabal at home, and influence from abroad. It will be difficult to avoid either, if the election be made by the National Legislature. On the other hand the Government should not be made so complex and unwieldly as to disgust the States. This would be the case if the election should be referred to the people. He liked best an election by Electors chosen by the Legislatures of the States. He was against a re-eligibility at all events. He was also against a ratio of votes in the States. An equality should prevail in this case. The reasons for departing from it do not hold in the case of the Executive, as in that of the Legislature.

Mr. GERRY approved of Mr. PINCKNEY’S motion, as lessening the evil.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was against a rotation in every case. It formed a political school, in which we were always governed by the scholars, and not by the masters. The evils to be guarded against in this case are, — first, the undue influence of the Legislature; secondly, instability of councils; thirdly, misconduct in office. To guard against the first, we run into the second evil. We adopt a rotation which produces instability of councils. To avoid Scylla we fall into Charybdis. A change of men is ever followed by a change of measures. We see this fully exemplified in the vicissitudes among ourselves, particularly in the State of Pennsylvania. The self-sufficiency of a victorious party scorns to tread in the paths of their predecessors. Rehoboam will not imitate Solomon. Secondly, the rotation in office will not prevent intrigue and dependence on the legislature. The man in office will look forward to the period at which he will become re-eligible. The distance of the period, the improbability of such a protraction of his life, will be no obstacle. Such is the nature of man — formed by his benevolent Author, no doubt, for wise ends — that although he knows his existence to be limited to a span, he takes his measures as if he were to live forever. But taking another supposition, the inefficacy of the expedient will be manifest. If the magistrate does not look forward to his re-election to the Executive, he will be pretty sure to keep in view the opportunity of his going into the Legislature itself. He will have little objection then to an extension of power on a theatre where he expects to act a distinguished part; and will be very unwilling to take any step that may endanger his popularity with the Legislature, on his influence over which the figure he is to make will depend. Finally, to avoid the third evil, impeachments will be essential; and hence an additional reason against an election by the Legislature. He considered an election by the people as the best, by the Legislature as the worst, mode. Putting both these aside, he could not but favor the idea of Mr. Wilson, of introducing a mixture of lot. It will diminish, if not destroy, both cabal and dependence.

Mr. WILLIAMSON was sensible that strong objections lay against an election of the Executive by the Legislature, and that it opened a door for foreign influence. The principal objection against an election by the people seemed to be the disadvantage under which it would place the smaller States. He suggested as a cure for this difficulty, that each man should vote for three candidates; one of them he observed, would be probably of his own State, the other two of some other States; and as probably of a small as a large one.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS liked the idea; suggesting as an amendment, that each man should vote for two persons, one of whom at least should not be of his own State.

Mr. MADISON also thought something valuable might be made of the suggestion, with the proposed amendment of it. The second best man in this case would probably be the first in fact. The only objection which occurred was, that each citizen, after having given his vote for his favorite fellow citizen, would throw away his second on some obscure citizen of another State, in order to ensure the object of his first choice. But it could hardly be supposed that the citizens of many States would be so sanguine of having their favorite elected, as not to give their second vote with sincerity to the next object of their choice. It might, moreover, be provided, in favor of the smaller States, that the Executive should not be eligible more than — times in — years from the same State.

Mr. GERRY. A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union and acting in concert, to delude them into any appointment. He observed that such a society of men existed in the Order of the Cincinnati. They are respectable, united and influential. They will, in fact, elect the Chief Magistrate in every instance, if the election be referred to the people. His respect for the characters composing this Society could not blind him to the danger and impropriety of throwing such a power into their hands.

Mr. DICKINSON. As far as he could judge from the discussions which had taken place during his attendance, insuperable objections lay against an election of the Executive by the National Legislature; as also by the Legislatures or Executives of the States. He had long leaned towards an election by the people, which he regarded as the best and purest source. Objections he was aware lay against this mode, but not so great, he thought, as against the other modes. The greatest difficulty, in the opinion of the House, seemed to arise from the partiality of the States to their respective citizens. But might not this very partiality be turned to a useful purpose? Let the people of each State choose its best citizen. The people will know the most eminent characters of their own States; and the people of different States will feel an emulation in selecting those of whom they will have the greatest reason to be proud. Out of the thirteen names thus selected, an Executive Magistrate may be chosen either by the National Legislature, or by Electors appointed by it.

On a question which was moved, for postponing Mr. PINCKNEY’S motion, in order to make way for some such proposition as had been hinted by Mr. WILLIAMSON and others, it passed in the negative, — Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, aye — 5; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6.

On Mr. PINCKNEY’S motion, that no person shall serve in the Executive more than six years in twelve years, it passed in the negative, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 5; Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, no — 6.

On a motion that the members of the Committee be furnished with copies of the proceedings, it was so determined, South Carolina alone being in the negative.

It was then moved, that the members of the House might take copies of the Resolutions which had been agreed to; which passed in the negative, — Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, aye — 5; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6.

Mr. GERRY and Mr. BUTLER moved to refer the resolution relating to the Executive (except the clause making it consist of a single person) to the Committee of detail.

Mr. WILSON hoped that so important a branch of the system would not be committed, until a general principle should be fixed by a vote of the House.

Mr. LANGDON was for the commitment.


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