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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.

Wednesday, July 25, 1787

July 25, 2020 - 4 minute read

James Wilson

Yesterday, James Wilson moved to postpone discussion of the executive so “that time might be given for further deliberation.” Such deliberation surely continued through the evening as some delegates lobbied for their own positions and others sought compromise or new ideas. Oliver Ellsworth was the first to speak, introducing a new proposition.

Ellsworth’s proposal is that the executive be appointed by the national legislature, except when the executive last chosen shall have completed his term. He would be re-eligible, but in that case, he would be elected by electors chosen by the State legislatures for that specific purpose. “By this means,” Ellsworth explained, “a deserving magistrate may be reelected without making him dependent on the legislature.” 

“An election at all by the national legislature is radically and incurably wrong,” blurted Elbridge Gerry. “The executive should be appointed by the Governors and Presidents of the States,” he insisted, “with advice of their councils, and when there are no councils, by electors chosen by the legislatures.”

Certain that today’s debate would be as rancorous and wide-ranging as that of yesterday, James Madison prepared a thoughtful summary and analysis of the propositions introduced by various delegates. William Pierce describes Madison as “always coming forward as the best-informed man in any point of debate. The affairs of the United States he perhaps has the most correct knowledge of, of any man in the Union.” Madison’s views do not always prevail, but few can present his own views and those of others more clearly.

“There are objections against every mode that has been, or perhaps can be proposed,” he began. “The election must be made either by some existing authority under the national government or State constitutions – or by some special authority derived from the people – or by the people themselves.” The two existing authorities under the national government are the legislative and judicial. The latter is out of the question and the former subject to “insuperable objections,” which he proceeded to summarize. Then, he raised a new concern, that “ministers of foreign powers would have and make use of the opportunity to mix their intrigues and influence with the election.” They would spare “no pains, nor perhaps expense, to gain from the legislature an appointment favorable to their wishes.”

Citing examples of such intrigue in European nations, Madison moved on to the next point, selection of the executive by State legislatures or State executives. Objections against such ideas had already been raised in debate but Madison added another. “The legislatures of the States had betrayed a strong propensity to a variety of pernicious measures,” he noted. “One object of the national legislature is to control this propensity. One objective of the national executive, so far as it would have a negative on the laws, is to control the national legislature.”

Continuing with his analysis of options, Madison concluded the only viable ones are “between an appointment by electors chosen by the people – and a direct appointment by the people…As the electors would meet once, and proceed immediately to an appointment, there would be very little opportunity for cabal or corruption.” For added security, he proposed that electors “should meet at some place distinct from the seat of government, and that no person within a certain distance of the place at the time should be eligible” to be an elector.

However, “with all its imperfections,” Madison still prefers election by the people while acknowledging they may vote for a person from their own State and popular elections might disadvantage the small States. After Madison’s appeal, the Convention rejected Ellsworth’s motion, but Charles Pinckney was ready with another one: the executive should be elected by the national legislature with the proviso that no person be eligible for more than six years in any twelve years. It avoids absolute ineligibility and renders the executive more independent. George Mason approved of the idea and admitted that comments about foreign interference had been the most important objections he had yet heard.

Foreign interference also concerns Georgia’s Pierce Butler. It is one of “the two great evils to be avoided.” The other is “cabal.” Butler prefers appointment by electors chosen by the State legislatures but also wants “an equality of States” in the vote. Once again, the debate was becoming more and more repetitious, akin to putting patches on old clothes, until Hugh Williamson spoke. “Sensible that election of the executive by the legislature opens a door for foreign influence and tends to disadvantage the small States,” he recommended “a cure for this difficulty - that each voter should vote for three candidates. One of these would probably be from his own State, the other two of some other States, and as probably of a small as of a large one.” 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.”

For Gerry, “a popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people” makes them susceptible to “some set of men dispersed throughout the Union who may delude them. Such a society of men exists in the Order of the Cincinnati.” He declared that his respect for the men composing this society “could not blind him to the danger of throwing such a power into their hands.” There is no record of a response from George Washington or any other member of the Cincinnati, but surely they bristled at this affront.

One last effort was put forth by John Dickenson. “Let the people of each State choose its best citizen,” he said, and let the executive be selected from among the thirteen by either the national legislature or electors. Gerry and Butler moved to refer the issue to the Committee of Detail, but the Convention adjourned without a vote.

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