Author: Drake, Sarah E. - Vontz, Thomas S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
The delegates to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, who framed the U.S. Constitution, brought with them various conceptions of executive power. Three questions dominated the framers' consideration of the role the executive would play in the new government. First, the delegates discussed whether the executive should be a single individual or whether multiple persons should share the office. Second, they considered at length the amount of power the executive should wield. And third, they debated the best means by which to elect the executive. Generally, deliberations on these questions involved the balance of power in the new government.
The framers feared that a powerful executive could usurp legislative authority and engage in tyrannical actions. The weak executives created by the state constitutions, however, proved unable to prevent state legislatures from trampling on the people's rights. The founding fathers sought to create a government in which, as James Madison explained in FEDERALIST 51, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Madison deemed a balance of power necessary, and he called for a governmental arrangement in which it would be in the best interest of all citizens to resist executive encroachment.
Although they recognized the importance of strong leadership, Americans feared executive tyranny. To guard against the creation of an authoritarian monarchy, many delegates called for a plural executive. Advocates of a plural executive believed that vesting presidential power in more than one man would lessen the danger that leaders would abuse power. When the Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson moved on June 1, 1787 that the executive should consist of one person, a lengthy silence ensued. The framers eventually decided upon a single executive. They decided this on the basis that conflicts would be more easily avoided if there were only one executive. Also, they believed that Congress could more carefully watch and check a single executive.
The length of the president's term and the method of election were also contested issues. The delegates initially agreed that the president would serve a seven-year term and would be ineligible for reelection. After much debate, they decided a bicameral Congress would elect the executive. On July 26, the Convention presented its decisions to the Committee of Detail, which was charged with the task of organizing the resolutions into a constitutional draft. Of the five members of the Committee of Detail, only Nathaniel Gorham advocated executive authority. As a result, the Committee's draft of the description of the executive provided the office with scant power (McDonald 1994, 171).
In late August, as the Committee of the Whole reconvened to examine the Committee of Detail's draft, the proposed presidency consisted of the following: there would be a single president elected for a seven-year term by a joint session of Congress. The president would be ineligible for reelection, would have no power of appointment or removal, and could be impeached by the House and convicted by the Supreme Court. The president would be commander-in-chief, would possess a conditional veto over Congressional legislation, and could grant pardons and reprieves.
In the final days of the Convention, several adjustments were made in these provisions and the executive office evolved into its current form. The president's enumerated powers as listed in Article II of the Constitution included commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the authority to grant pardons and reprieves, the ability to veto legislation, the power to make treaties with other nations, and the power to appoint judges, executive department heads, and ambassadors. To ensure a balance of power, the legislative and executive branches had the ability to check presidential actions. For example, only Congress could declare war, two-thirds of both Congressional houses could override a presidential veto, the Senate must confirm all treaties made by the president, and the Senate must approve presidential appointments. The House could impeach the president with the Senate serving as judge or court. The framers hoped this system of checks and balances would prevent the reign of a tyrannical executive. In addition to finalizing the executive's power, the framers discussed methods of selecting the president.
Lacking trust in the people's ability to elect the president directly and hesitating to allow existing legislative bodies to select the president, they designed the electoral college.