The Debate Over the President and the Executive Branch

Soon after it convened, the Constitutional Convention agreed to have a single executive as opposed to a plural executive which was favored by a few delegates who feared the reinstitution of a monarchy. Greater disagreements persisted on the manner of electing the executive. Some wanted the President to be elected by Congress for a long term, but ineligible for reelection. Others favored direct election by the people for a shorter term with no term limits. A compromise eventually provided that the President would be elected for a four-year term by electors chosen in a manner prescribed by the state legislatures. No restrictions were placed on the President’s eligibility for reelection.

During the ratification debates, Antifederalists charged that the President would become an elected monarch, that cabals would develop to ensure his reelection, and that the presidential veto power would be abused. They further feared that presidential power to grant pardons would allow the president to conspire with others in treasonable activities with impunity.

Federalist praised the Presidency. They pointed to the weaknesses of the Confederation and state governments with their nearly powerless executives. For Federalists, America needed a separate President with executive powers to enforce federal laws and conduct foreign policy effectively. Federalists contrasted the American Presidency with the British Monarchy. They argued that the former had limited power, checked by the two other branches whereas the latter had almost unlimited power. Federalists maintained that the President would be accountable to both the people and Congress. If he failed to satisfy the people, he would not be reelected; if he committed crimes, he could be impeached by Congress. Furthermore, everyone realized that George Washington would be elected the first President. Washington had previously rejected total power in 1783, preferring retirement. He could be expected to follow a similar course of action after he set in motion the new government under the Constitution. Federalists argued that this example would be followed by his successors.

The following documents are taken from The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and have been grouped into sub-categories to better understand the nuances of the debate over the President and the executive branch during the ratification period.

(F) Federalist Essays/Speeches
(AF) Antifederalist Essays/Speeches

Blended with other Branches

Commander in Chief

Comparison to Monarchy

Election of Executive

General Criticism of Executive

General Praise of Executive

Impeachment of Executive

Powers of Executive

Term of Executive