The Story of the Founding Fathers’ Debate Over Presidential Power

After breaking away from monarchy, convention delegates faced theoretical indecision on the creation of a single American ruler. Who would speak first?

| October 2012

During the last two weeks of the Federal Convention of 1787, delegates found themselves perplexed by, in the words of James Madison, “a point of great importance” — who should rule over a newly created nation? In Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), Ray Raphael recreates the formation of the executive office, giving those interested in political history a narrative insight into the decisions behind the creation of American presidential power. In this excerpt from the book’s prologue, Raphael sets the tense and questioning scene. 

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They had been meeting together in the east chamber of the Pennsylvania State House for a week, and their time had not been wasted. The delegates were almost at full strength — forty-three men from eleven states — and they were working their way down the list of proposals suggested by Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia. Having dwelled at some length on the first six items, which focused on the structure and purpose of a new national legislature, they set out to tackle the seventh. James Madison, who would chronicle this and every other moment for more than three months, recorded in his copious notes what happened next:

FRIDAY JUNE 1st 1787: The Committee of the whole proceeded to Resolution 7th “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.” 

The first speaker to the resolution, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, said he favored a “vigorous Executive,” but not with powers that extended “to peace & war &c.” That, he feared, “would render the Executive a monarchy, of the worst kind, to wit an elective one.” Other delegates no doubt shared this concern, yet before addressing what executive powers might be, they took up one essential question that was on all their minds. From Madison’s notes: “MR. WILSON moved that the Executive consist of a single person.” Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Charles’s cousin, seconded and clarified the motion — “National Executive,” he said.

Then there was silence. For the first and only time during the Federal Convention of 1787, not one eminent statesman ventured even a passing comment, much less a reasoned position.