The Story of the Founding Fathers’ Debate Over Presidential Power

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“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.
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“Mr. President” tells the little-known story of the dramatic political maneuverings and personalities behind the creation of the office of the president, with ramifications that continue to this day.

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.

Not Gouverneur Morris, the flamboyant, peg-legged orator who spoke more than anyone else at the convention and had a particular fascination with the executive office. Morris was never at a loss for words — except this once.

Nor James Wilson, perhaps the sharpest legal mind in the room, who gave more speeches than anyone but Morris. Wilson undoubtedly hoped someone else would step forth to support his motion, but nobody did.

James Madison, the third-most-talkative delegate over the course of the summer, had an excellent excuse for not coming forth: he was genuinely perplexed. Six weeks earlier, before the convention, he had outlined a broad plan of government to his friend George Washington. The national legislature should have supreme power over the states, Madison stated boldly, and it should be composed of two branches, organized much as they are today. A central judiciary department should also exercise “national supremacy.” On the other hand, “the national supremacy in the Executive departments is liable to some difficulty,” he admitted. “I have scarcely ventured as yet to form my opinion either of the manner in which it ought to be constituted or of the authorities with which it ought to be cloathed.”

The three delegates next in line for the honor of most loquacious, Roger Sherman, Elbridge Gerry, and George Mason, also passed. Sherman, a veteran of the drafting committees for both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, undoubtedly had some ideas on the matter, but he didn’t wish to share them just yet. Neither did Gerry, who voiced wildly unpredictable notions on almost every item discussed, nor Mason, Washington’s neighbor and intellectual mentor, who had co-authored the Virginia Constitution in 1776 and who had preempted Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence by declaring in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights that “all men are born equally free and independent.” All these great orators held their tongues.

Even Alexander Hamilton, who would soon hold the floor for an entire day and who would suggest at that time that a single executive serve for life, opted at this moment not to say what he really thought.

Two of the three superstars in the room, George Washington and Robert Morris, also remained silent. Washington, of course, was blessed with an excuse even better than Madison’s, for as the convention’s presiding officer, he was supposed to remain above the fray. Morris, the all-powerful “Financier” or “Great One,” possessed exclusive firsthand experience as a national executive, for he had run the affairs of the United States virtually on his own not once but twice, first for a few weeks during the winter of 1776–77, and later for three whole years at the end of the Revolutionary War, from 1781 to 1784 — but Morris, like the others, said nothing.

It fell to the oldest and wisest among them, Benjamin Franklin, to end the eerie quiet. Madison’s notes continue:

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. 

“A point of great importance” — that was precisely the problem. Eleven years earlier, the United States of America had made a great to-do about rejecting the British monarch, in principle as well as in person. The new nation had buttressed its very existence with the cardinal principle that people can and must rule themselves, free and clear of any king or queen, so how could they now place one man above all the rest, in charge of executing the myriad affairs of government?

Yet most delegates believed their national government, which currently lacked an executive branch, had proved too weak. (Morris’s three-year “reign” had been a temporary aberration, born of necessity to bring the struggling government out of bankruptcy.) Americans should be more realistic, they felt, or the new nation might not survive.

To explore their dilemma and its full implications, let us transport ourselves to that time and place, June 1, 1787, the Assembly Room of the State House in Philadelphia, with James Wilson’s motion to create a one-man national executive suspended in the air, unsupported but also unchallenged, and as yet poorly defined. Stripping away our knowledge of what has transpired since, let us savor that moment of indecision. Would this really be such a good idea? Did the prospects for increased efficiency outweigh the manifold dangers?

Further, aside from theoretical concerns, how would Wilson’s proposal play politically? Would the people “out of doors” — the politicized populace that had pushed the Revolution forward — ever allow a single person to rule?

Excerpted fromMr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executiveby Ray Raphael. Copyright © 2012 by Ray Raphael. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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