The correspondents’ increasing interest in a remedy—the idea of a stronger central government—included a more vigorous Congress, vested with authority to regulate interstate commerce, raise revenue for a navy to protect shipping and to promote exports, and enact a protective tariff to discourage imports of manufactures. Some of the Confederation’s problems were attributable to the absence of an executive, as seen in the need for steady administration and the enforcement of laws, essential duties that were inefficiently performed by ad hoc committees. By 1787, a growing circle of leaders among the landed, commercial and financial interests had become convinced of the need to create an executive branch. In his correspondence with various national leaders in 1786-1787, Washington had asked them to propose ideas for a new government. Among those that deeply impressed him was the proposal submitted by Secretary of War Henry Knox and Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay, both of whom called for the creation of an executive branch headed by a “Governor General.”
But what sort of “Governor General” ? The most obvious and familiar model for executive power on a national stage was the monarchical form, in particular, the English Kingship. But that concept held no charms for a nation that had, just a decade before, fought a war to liberate itself from the overweening power of a hereditary monarch. For his part, Washington, the presumptive choice of Americans to become the first President, evinced no interest in a monarchy and, in fact, had demonstrated his commitment to republican principles by rejecting the invitation to lead the Newburgh Mutiny. The monarchical form of an executive would have required a tradition and power structure that was unacceptable to Americans: an established church, a titled nobility, a willingness of taxpayers to support a royal court and a return to feudal privileges and franchises. Americans had demonstrated in the colonial upheaval their strong preference for elective politics over monarchism. James Wilson, perhaps second in importance to Madison as an architect of the Constitution, captured the sentiment of his colleagues when he observed in the Philadelphia Convention, that “the prerogatives of the Crown are inapplicable in a republic.”
The Framers’ contemplation of the concept of a Presidency—whatever that looked like—was complicated by the specter of the dreaded royal prerogative and that generation’s deep-seated fear of executive power, a direct result of their own experience and extensive reading of history, which depicted the tendencies of executives to abuse power. The founding generation’s objection to the term, “prerogative power,” was illustrated in the fact that it was, for them, a term of derision. Their disdain for the phrase inspired a substitute– “executive power”– a term of art introduced in the revolutionary period to provide republicans a means of discussing executive authority without having to invoke the fearsome concept of prerogative powers. Subsequent explanation will facilitate our understanding of the Founders’ aversion and distrust of executive powers, but that fear permeated the marrow of colonial thought, which believed that liberty was threatened by executive power and safeguarded by legislative power. If a monarchy was unavailable to the Framers, as it surely was, then the Convention’s search for the idea of a Presidency grounded in civil, secular, executive power, might be found in the dissenting tradition. But as crisply and efficiently as they tore down the claims of monarchical power, a clear alternative was not readily apparent.