University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Debate Over the President and the Executive Branch

Americans had considerable experience with executives—they had lived under the British king, who had broad powers. The Articles of Confederation provided for no separate executive, but the Congress did elect its own president who was more or less the Speaker of Congress. Charles Thomson of Pennsylvania served as secretary of Congress from 1774 to 1789 and handled some executive functions. After a couple of years, Congress realized that it could not effectively deal with all executive matters, therefore several departments were created: Finance, War, Foreign Affairs in addition to the Post Office. The Post Office had originally been established under the Continental Congress. Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris initially served as defacto prime minister. When Morris resigned, Secretary for Foreign Affairs John Jay filled the political vacuum and served as defacto prime minister. All states had relatively weak governors with the exception of New York and Massachusetts, who served as the best models for the Constitutional Convention when creating the American Presidency.

Soon after it convened, the Constitutional Convention agreed to have a single executive as opposed to a multiple 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 restriction on the number of consecutive terms. 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 a king—in fact, he would be the worst kind of king: an elected one. They charged that cabals and intrigues would certainly develop over the reelection of the incumbent. Antifederalists also charged that the Constitution was defective in that it denied the commonly held belief that the three branches of government ought to be separate. The mixture of power and responsibility over appointments to offices and treaty-making bothered many Americans. Since treaties were to be the supreme law of the land, and the House was excluded from the process, Antifederalists saw a dangerous combination between the Executive and the Senate and in turn advocated that a Privy Council be created in lieu of the Senate. If the Privy Council offered faulty advice, they could be held accountable. Antifederalists also alleged that the Executive held too much power over legislation through the veto. The pardoning power of the President was alleged to be a dangerous feature in the proposed Constitution. The President could conspire with others in treasonable activities and guarantee his co-conspirators pardons if their activities were discovered.

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.

(F) Federalist Essays/Speeches

(AF) Antifederalist Essays/Speeches

Blended with other Branches

(F) Aristides: Remarks on the Proposed Plan, 31 January 1788 (pdf)
(F) Marcus II, Norfolk and Portsmouth Journal, 27 February 1788
(AF) George Mason’s Objections to the Constitution of Government formed by the Convention, Fall 1787 (pdf)
(AF) Federal Farmer: An Additional Number of Letters to the Republican, New York, 2 May 1788 (pdf)

Commander in Chief

(AF) Tamony, Virginia Independent Chronicle, 9 January 1788 (pdf)
(AF) Patrick Henry Speech in the Virginia Convention, 5 June 1788 (pdf)

Comparison to Monarchy

(F) Fabius IX, Pennsylvania Mercury, 1 May 1788 (pdf)
(AF) An Old Whig V, Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 1 November 1787 (pdf)
(AF) Philadelphiensis IX, Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, 6 February 1788 (pdf)
(AF) Philadelphiensis X, Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, 20 February 1788 (pdf)

Election of Executive

(F) Publius: The Federalist 68, New York Independent Journal, 12 March 1788 (pdf)
(AF) Luther Martin: Genuine Information IX, Baltimore Maryland Gazette, 29 January 1788 (pdf)

General Criticisms of Executive

(AF) Massachusetts Centinel, 21 November 1787 (pdf)
(AF) Luther Martin: Genuine Information IX, Baltimore Maryland Gazette, 29 January 1788 (pdf)

General Praise of Executive

(F) Americanus II, New York Daily Advertiser, 23 November 1787 (pdf)
(F) Publius: The Federalist 69, New York Packet, 14 March 1788 (pdf)
(F) A Native of Virginia: Observations upon the Proposed Plan of Federal Government, 2 April 1788 (pdf)

Impeachment of Executive

(F) An American Citizen, On the Federal Government I, II, Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 26-29 September 1787 (pdf)
(F) Publius: The Federalist 66, New York Independent Journal, 8 March 1788 (pdf)
(AF) Cincinnatus IV: To James Wilson, Esquire, New York Journal, 22 November 1787 (pdf)
(AF) James Monroe: Some Observations on the Constitution, c. 25 May 1788 (pdf)

Powers of Executive

(F) Marcus III, Norfolk and Portsmouth Journal, 5 March 1788 (pdf)
(F) Publius: The Federalist 67, New York Packet, 11 March 1788 (pdf)
(F) Publius: The Federalist 73, New York Packet, 21 March 1788 (pdf)
(F) Publius: The Federalist 74, New York Packet, 25 March 1788 (pdf)
(AF) An Old Whig III, Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 20 October 1787 (pdf)
(AF) Philadelphiensis IX, Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, 6 February 1788 (pdf)
(AF) The Impartial Examiner IV, Virginia Independent Chronicle, 11 June 1788 (pdf)
(AF) Patrick Henry Speech in the Virginia Convention, 18 June 1788 (pdf)(1)

Term of Executive

(F) Aristides: Remarks on the Proposed Plan, 31 January 1788 (pdf)
(F) Publius: The Federalist 72, New York Independent Journal, 19 March 1788 (pdf)
(AF) Cato IV, New York Journal, 8 November 1787 (pdf)
(AF) George Mason Speech in the Virginia Convention, 17 June 1788 (pdf)