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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.

Tuesday, July 24, 1787

July 24, 2020 - 4 minute read

Declaration of Independence

The Convention decided yesterday to postpone until today reconsideration of how the national executive is to be chosen, specifically whether electors should make the appointment. Georgia’s William Houston opposes electors, preferring the recommendation of the Committee of the Whole, that the executive be appointed by the national legislature. “It is improbable,” he said, “that capable men would undertake the service of electors from the more distant States.”

Elbridge Gerry immediately countered Houston. Election of the executive he asserted, “will be considered of vast importance and will excite great earnestness. The best men will not hold it derogatory from their character to be electors.” But if we decide the legislature should select the executive, “then we should assure he cannot be eligible for a second term which would render him independent from the legislature.”

Re-eligibility is not of concern to Caleb Strong. By the time the executive’s first term is ended, new elections of the legislature would have occurred. The executive “will not depend for his second appointment on the same set of men as his first.” Strong advised they “not make the government too complex, which would be the case if a new set of men, such as electors, should be introduced into it.”

Gerry then proposed an even more complex mode of choosing the executive. Let the State legislatures vote (in the same proportion as proposed for the number of electors). If there is no majority, the 1st branch of the legislature will choose two of the four candidates having the most votes and, from the two, the 2nd branch will choose the executive. Rufus King seconded the motion, but it failed, “the noes so prominent that the States were not counted.”

Hugh Williamson, respected for “his close attention to most subjects,” laid out several concerns with respect to the executive. As for electors, they would not be the best men, “not men of the 1st or even of the 2nd grade in the States.” The best men “would all prefer a seat either in the Senate or the other branch of the legislature” he continued. Moreover, he opposes a single executive and recommends it be composed of three men, one from each part of the United States. A single executive is to be feared even more if he is to have a veto power over State legislation. But the major objection, warned Williamson, 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.”

Williamson had just expressed what others feared and are seeking to prevent. But Williamson is not optimistic. “It is pretty certain,” he believes, “that we should at some time or other have a king but wishes no precaution to be omitted that might postpone the event as long as possible.” Ineligibility for a second term appears to be the best precaution. With this precaution, he would not object to terms of ten or even twelve years.

With that, Gerry and Luther Martin moved to reinstate the ineligibility clause. Why limit the executive? Ellsworth asked. “The executive should be reelected if his conduct proves him worthy of it, and he will be more likely to render himself worthy of it if he be rewardable with it.” Since everyone seems to agree that “the executive should be independent of the legislature,” Gerry relied, perhaps it would be best to make him ineligible for reappointment but extend his term of office. “The longer the duration of his appointment, the more will his dependence be diminished.” Martin, who had seconded Gerry’s motion, then proposed a term of eleven years.

James Madison’s frustration with the haggling is evident in his Convention notes: “Mr. Gerry suggested fifteen years. Mr. King twenty years (this is the medium life of princes). Mr. Davie eight years.” Finally, frustrated by “the difficulties and perplexities into which the house is thrown,” James Wilson announced “he would agree to almost any length of time in order to get rid of the dependence” the executive would have on the legislature if it were to elect him. Debate seemed to devolve into a free-for-all. With a motion to postpone on the table, Gerry observed they were “entirely at a loss on this head” and suggested it be referred to the Committee of Detail approved yesterday. His motion was ignored, and the wrangling continued unabated.

Unexpectantly, James Wilson threw out an idea which he admitted “was not a digested idea and might be liable to strong objections.” Elect the executive for six years by a small number, not more than fifteen, of the national legislature, to be selected not by ballot, but by lot. Intrigue among electors or legislators would be avoided and “the dependence would be diminished.” Gouverneur Morris launched into a lengthy dissertation on the executive, still adamantly opposed to legislative selection, but thought Wilson’s idea “deserved consideration. It would be better that chance should decide than intrigue.”

The vote to postpone, still on the table, failed. Wilson then put his new idea in a formal motion, seconded by Charles Carroll. Gerry didn’t buy it. “This is committing too much to chance,” he argued. “If the lot should fall on a set of unworthy men, an unworthy executive must be saddled on the country.” The lot might fall on a majority from the same State, added King. Not really, retorted Morris, “Chances are almost infinite against a majority of electors from the same State.”

The debate over the executive is tedious and tiring, but it reflects the passion and apprehensions delegates have about this most important position. Before adjournment, members of the Committee of Detail were selected by ballot: John Rutledge, Edmund Randolph, Nathaniel Gorham, Oliver Ellsworth, and James Wilson. It is their task to draft a constitution based on the numerous propositions decided on during the previous five weeks.

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