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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Friday, June 1, 1787

June 01, 2020 - 4 minute read

James Wilson

James Wilson is one of three immigrants and eight signers of the Declaration of Independence who has been appointed to the Constitutional Convention.  Born in Scotland in 1742, he attended three universities, including the University of Edinburgh, before emigrating from his home in Fife to America in 1765.  His arrival coincided with the British imposition of the Stamp Act and the violent colonial reaction to it.  Carrying letters of introduction, he obtained a position teaching Latin at the College of Philadelphia and almost immediately began studying law under John Dickinson, who is also a delegate to the Convention. Wilson was admitted to the bar in 1767.

Like James Madison, Wilson is steeped in Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and quickly embraced the patriot cause. His Considerations of the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, written in 1768 but not published until 1774, was one of the earliest to cogently make the case that Americans are entitled to the same privileges as their fellow subjects in Britain and cannot be taxed without their consent.

Wilson was selected to represent Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress and is a fierce advocate for involving the people in their government, although in times past some questioned what they perceived as an aristocratic leaning. He is an intellectual giant with studied views on republican government, some of which were evident in debate today.

Resuming consideration of elements of the Virginia Plan, Gov. Randolph introduced number seven in the list, that is, “resolved that a national executive be instituted; to be chosen by the national legislature; for a term of _____ years,” receive a fixed compensation, be limited to one term, execute national laws, and “enjoy the executive rights vested in Congress by the confederation.”

Wilson rose instantly to make a motion, seconded by Mr. Pinckney (S. Carolina), that a national executive “consist of a single person.” Shocked by such an idea, the delegates sat in stunned silence. Madison’s notes recorded the “considerable pause” in debate immediately after Wilson’s proposal.  Another delegate grumbled in his personal notes about the “general silence.” No one was addressing the issue on the floor. No one opposed it, no one endorsed it.  Hearing nothing, the Committee Chairman, Nathaniel Gorham, finally asked if he should put the question to a vote.

Rising slowly, plagued by gout, Benjamin Franklin broke the awkward silence. “This is a point of great importance,” he said, and “wished  that the gentlemen would deliver their sentiments on it before the question was put.”

John Rutledge (S.C.) was the first to speak, but before offering his opinion on a single executive, he questioned “the shyness of gentlemen on this and other subjects. It looks as if they supposed themselves precluded by having frankly disclosed their opinions from afterwards changing them.”  Were they too timid to express an opinion which they might later change? 

Then, following Franklin’s lead, Rutledge opened debate, expressing his opinion in support of a single executive, but he would not give the executive the power of war and peace.

Next, Wilson explained his support for a single executive. It gives “most energy, dispatch and responsibility to the office,” he began, but “we should not use the prerogatives of the British monarch as a guide, because some of those prerogatives are of a legislative nature.” The only powers of the executive Wilson conceived are strictly limited to carrying out the laws and appointing offices not appointed by the legislature.

Randolph objected strenuously, calling a single executive “the fetus of monarchy.” There is no reason “to be governed by the British government as our prototype,” he asserted.  And why cannot “vigor, dispatch, and responsibility” be found in three men as well as in one? 

Wilson repeated that he is not governed by the British model and insisted that rather than being “the fetus of monarchy,” a single executive would be “the best safeguard against tyranny.” Remember, he said, “the people of America did not oppose the British King but the Parliament – the opposition was not against a Unity, but a corrupt multitude.” By common agreement, further discussion of the issue was postponed.

James Madison intervened. “Before a choice should be made between a unity and a plurality in the executive,” he counseled, it would be proper “to fix the extent of the executive authority.” The executive’s authority will help determine its composition. Surprisingly, the Committee quickly approved a preliminary scope of executive power: “to carry into effect the national laws, to appoint to offices in cases not otherwise provided for, and to execute such other powers as may from time to time be delegated by the legislature.”

Far more contentious were questions concerning how the executive would be selected, how long he would continue in office, and whether he could serve more than one term. The debate was wide ranging. Wilson preferred election by the people (citing New York and Massachusetts as good examples), a three-year term, and re-eligibility. Roger Sherman (Conn.) wanted the legislature to appoint the executive and make the executive “absolutely dependent on that body.” An independent executive, he asserted is “the very essence of tyranny.” Mr. Pinckney opted for seven years. Sherman announced his support for three years and “against the doctrine of rotation.” The debate continued at length, culminating in a 5 – 4  - 1 vote in favor of seven years (North and South Carolina, Georgia and Connecticut voting “nay” with Massachusetts divided.) The manner of appointment was postponed.

After the first week of deliberations, George Mason confided to his son, “When I first came here…I was apprehensive,” but there are at this Convention “many gentlemen of the purest intentions, of fine republican principles…The eyes of the United States are turned on this assembly and their expectations raised to a very anxious degree.”

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