Orientation and Getting Started
The Creation of the Constitution
The Road to Philadelphia
Slavery and the Constitution
The Presidency
The Federal Judiciary
Some Other Important Details
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Selecting the Executive

The Degree of Independence for the Executive

When the Framers debated the principal features of the presidency, the recurring theme under consideration was the proper degree of independence and dependence for this office. An independent executive was one who could act with decision and force; he could stand up to the legislature when needed; he could successfully resist any encroachments on executive prerogatives; and he could protect the nation from enemies both at home and abroad. If the Framers had wanted to make the executive office completely independent, they could have vested that power in a single person who held his office for a very long term and was ineligible for a second term (or, if he was reeligible, then the body which elected him must somehow be incapable of being influenced by the incumbent). An independent executive would also be provided with a guaranteed salary that could neither be raised nor diminished during his tenure (to prevent the possibility he could be influenced by either bribery or threats to cut off his means of support). And finally, a thoroughly independent executive could never be punished or removed from office (just as the king’s person had been legally untouchable in Great Britain, and any executive misdeeds were blamed on his ministers).

Fear of Tyranny and the Dependent Executive

An executive with complete independence would have sufficient energy when that was required of him; however, he would also be accountable to no one and could therefore abuse his power. He could rule in an incompetent or tyrannical manner with impunity, and there would be no remedy for misconduct or maladministration. And the only way to be entirely safe from that peril seemed to be by making the executive branch completely dependent. A dependent executive is one who served for short terms and with no term limits. And the body which was charged with holding him accountable (presumably the legislature) would be empowered to select him, remove him whenever they were dissatisfied, and determine his pay. This wholly dependent executive would have been very safe—if abuses arose in the government, they could never emanate from this office—but this pliable, submissive executive would also never be effective at his job. The Framers were therefore trying to chart a course that would be a middle ground between these two extremes. They acted like a responsible homeowner, who wants a guard dog that has enough freedom and ferocity to chase off intruders but not so much that it might terrorize the neighborhood. In a similar fashion, the Framers were considering very carefully how long the president’s leash should be. 

James Wilson’s Independent Executive

James Wilson was in favor of considerable independence, and he thought he knew how to get it. He was “almost unwilling” to admit which method he preferred for appointing the executive, “being apprehensive that it might appear chimerical” to the others. To own the truth, “in theory, he was for an election by the people.” Not only would a popular election produce the best choice, but it would render each branch of the government “as independent as possible of each other.” It would also make the president independent of the state legislatures. 

Wilson had also favored a short term and reeligibility, but only so long as he wasn’t dependent on the legislature for his reappointment. Wilson’s idea of a popular election was not dismissed out of hand. Mason declared that he “favors the idea, but thinks it impracticable.” He urged Wilson to formulate a workable plan from that idea. Accordingly, the next day Wilson proposed a system that looked very much like what would eventually become the Electoral College. The states would be divided into a certain number of districts, and qualified voters within each district would vote for electors who would, in turn, vote for the chief executive. Wilson’s idea met with a cold reception, but no weighty objections were offered that day. Gerry “liked the principle of Mr. Wilson’s motion,” but he worried that it might alarm the partisans of state authority if the state governments were excluded entirely from the election process. Williamson thought the system offered too little advantage and too much “trouble and expense.” When the question came up for a vote, it lost 8-to-2. The Committee of the Whole then decided to have the national legislature choose the executive (having already decided that he would serve the longer, seven-year term), by the same vote of 8-to-2 (Pennsylvania and Maryland being the only states to object).