Founders on the Need for a Vigorous but Limited Executive

Does the wisdom of 1787 warn of the grave danger of 2012?

Liberty Letters, Constitutional Convention of 1787

On June 1, 1787 in the early days of the Constitutional Convention the Founders entered upon a discussion of the creation of an executive officer (that is, a President of the United States) with executive power (something sorely lacking under the Articles of Confederation, indeed, it chief weakness).

Note as the discussion begins the founders go straight to the key points of both the newly proposed executive’s duties and powers and the vital need to limit those duties and powers. He needed to have the power to execute (enforce) the laws of the land (or they aren’t laws, bu only suggestions). It was preferred (by in large) that he be one man so that there might be “vigor, dispatch & responsibility” (vigor in this case meaning active enforcement power, dispatch meaning promptness and efficiency so vital in times of war where the President would be Commander In Chief, and responsibility meaning that with a multiheaded executive it would be too easy to hide blame where there was corruption, usurpation or ineptitude.

But note this too, they absolutely did not want the President to have the power to legislate or adjudicate (again, only to execute the law), and again and again is their objection that he not be given power over war and peace, that is to declare wars or end them (which power must reside in Congress/the people’s representatives), but only to act as the top general over the armies, or else we would have the worst of all monarchs on our hands, an elected one.

It is vital to note that these powers the Founders objected to the most are the very ones our presidents hold now, the power to legislate and adjudicate (which the president possesses via administrative agencies – such as OSHA, the DOE, the EPA, etc. – , and again the power to legislate via “Signing Documents,” and soon to come if the Republicans in Congress get their way the power to legislate via the line item veto power. And again, the Chief Executive has assumed the power to declare war by simply not calling it war, but a “police action.”

Is it any wonder that millions of American believe tyranny is on our doorstep at this very hour?  (Steve Farrell, Editor In Chief)

Here is the beginning of that discussion on June 1, 1787

The Committee of the whole proceeded to Resolution 7. 1 “that a national Executive be instituted, to be chosen by the national Legislature — for the term of ______ years &c to be ineligible thereafter, to possess the executive powers of Congress &c.”

Mr. PINKNEY was for a vigorous Executive but was afraid the Executive powers of the existing Congress might extend to peace & war &c., which would render the Executive a monarchy, of the worst kind, to wit an elective one.

Mr. WILSON moved that the Executive consist of a single person.

Mr. C PINKNEY seconded the motion, so as to read “that a National Ex. to consist of a single person, be instituted.

A considerable pause ensuing and the Chairman asking if he should put the question, Doctor FRANKLIN observed that it was a point of great importance and wished that the gentlemen would deliver their sentiments on it before the question was put.

Mr. RUTLIDGE animadverted on the shyness of gentlemen on this and other subjects. He said it looked as if they supposed themselves precluded by having frankly disclosed their opinions from afterwards changing them, which he did not take to be at all the case. He said he was for vesting the Executive power in a single person, tho’ he was not for giving him the power of war and peace. A single man would feel the greatest responsibility and administer the public affairs best.

Mr. SHERMAN said he considered the Executive magistracy as nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the Legislature into effect, that the person or persons ought to be appointed by and accountable to the Legislature only, which was the depositary of the supreme will of the Society. As they were the best judges of the business which ought to be done by the Executive department, and consequently of the number necessary from time to time for doing it, he wished the number might not be fixed but that the legislature should be at liberty to appoint one or more as experience might dictate.

Mr. WILSON preferred a single magistrate, as giving most energy dispatch and responsibility to the office. He did not consider the Prerogatives of the British Monarch as a proper guide in defining the Executive powers. Some of these prerogatives were of Legislative nature. Among others that of war & peace &c. The only powers he conceived 2 strictly Executive were those of executing the laws, and appointing officers, not appertaining to and appointed by the Legislature.

Mr. GERRY favored the policy of annexing a Council to the Executive in order to give weight & inspire confidence.

Mr. RANDOLPH strenuously opposed a unity in the Executive magistracy. He regarded it as the fetus of monarchy. We had he said no motive to be governed by the British Government as our prototype. He did not mean however to throw censure on that Excellent fabric. If we were in a situation to copy it he did not know that he should be opposed to it; but the fixed genius of the people of America required a different form of Government. He could not see why the great requisites for the Executive department, vigor, dispatch and responsibility could not be found in three men, as well as in one man. The Executive ought to be independent. It ought therefore in order to support its independence to consist of more than one.

Mr. WILSON said that unity in the Executive instead of being the fetus of monarchy would be the best safeguard against tyranny. He repeated that he was not governed by the British Model which was inapplicable to the situation of this Country; the extent of which was so great, and the manners so republican, that nothing but a great confederated Republic would do for it. Mr. Wilson’s motion for a single magistrate was postponed by common consent, the Committee seeming unprepared for any decision on it; and the first part of the clause agreed to, viz — “that a National Executive be instituted.”

Mr. MADISON thought it would be proper, before a choice should be made between a unity and a plurality in the Executive, to fix the extent of the Executive authority; that as certain powers were in their nature Executive, and must be given to that department whether administered by one or more persons, a definition of their extent would assist the judgment in determining how far they might be safely entrusted to a single officer. He accordingly moved that so much of the clause before the Committee as related to the powers of the Executive should be struck out and that after the words “that a national Executive ought to be instituted” there be inserted the words following viz. “with power to carry into effect the national laws, to appoint to offices in cases not otherwise provided for, and to execute such other powers “not Legislative nor Judiciary in their nature,” as may from time to time be delegated by the national Legislature.” The words “not legislative nor judiciary in their nature” were added to the proposed amendment in consequence of a suggestion by General Pinkney that improper powers might otherwise be delegated.

Source: Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention of 1787, June 1. Note: The spelling in this copy has been modernized and abbreviations have been eliminated in a number of places by this editor.

Liberty Letters is a project of The Moral Liberal’s, Editor in Chief, Steve Farrell. Introduction, editing, and formatting Copyright © 2012 Steve Farrell.