Benjamin Franklin – “The first man at the helm will be a good one.”
The road to the Framers’ Electoral College was . . . arduous. At the open of today’s business, again in the committee-of-the-whole, one man would hold the executive office, be elected by the House of Representatives, and would remain in office for one seven-year term. His duty was to execute the law and the executive powers granted to Congress in the Articles of Confederation.
One and all knew perfectly well who was to be the first good man in the executive office. We cannot measure the influence and commanding presence of the most famous and trusted George Washington. Delegate Pierce Butler (SC) later wrote to a friend that the powers of the President “are full great, and greater than I was disposed to make them. Nor do I believe they would have been so great had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as President.” The American Presidency was for men like George Washington and Donald Trump. It was not established for the likes of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Ultimately, how was the American executive to be not only strong and energetic like the British Monarch, but also be safe for liberty? Our Framers admired the British system. While it would not do for Americans, the powers of Parliament and King hovered over the delegates. After the Convention, Luther Martin (MD) remarked, “We were eternally troubled with arguments and precedents from the British government.”
James Wilson (PA) provided a partial answer to checking the power of a single chief Executive. The recent experience among the thirteen states was that powerful legislatures will roll the Executive. He thus supported an absolute negative, with no override by the legislature.
In opposition, Benjamin Franklin related how the absolute veto in PA fostered incredible public corruption, even at the expense of scalped frontier settlers. Pennsylvania colonial Governors constantly used the veto to extort money. No good law could be passed without a private bargain with him. An increase of his salary, or some donation, was always a condition until at last it became the regular practice to have orders in his favor on the Treasury, presented along with the bills to be signed, so that he might actually receive the former before he should sign the latter. Roger Sherman (CN) also disapproved of the executive veto. Why should a single man be empowered to absolutely overturn the will of the whole?
Pierce Butler (SC) had been in favor of a single Executive Magistrate, but not when armed with an absolute negative over the law. He observed that the Executive power was growing in all the countries of Europe. Gentlemen seemed to think that we had nothing to apprehend from an abuse of the Executive power. But why might not a Cataline or a Cromwell arise in this country?
Judge Gunning Bedford (DE) and George Mason (VA) also opposed Executive checks over the legislative. Experience, per Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania proved the danger. Rather than institute a veto over the representatives of the people, why not enumerate the legislative powers of Congress? The Representatives of the people were the best judges of their interest, and ought to be under no external control whatever. In this framework there was no need for the veto.
Mason related further abuse of the veto. The Executive may refuse his assent to necessary measures until he gets the appointments he wants, and having by degrees engrossed all these into his own hands, the American Executive, like the British, will by bribery and influence save himself the trouble & odium of exerting his negative afterwards. We are not indeed constituting a British Government, but a more dangerous monarchy, an elective one. We are introducing a new principle into our system, and not necessary as in the British Government where the Executive has greater rights to defend. Do gentlemen mean to pave the way to hereditary monarchy? Do they flatter themselves that the people will ever consent to such an innovation?
The people never will consent to this executive power. Notwithstanding the oppressions and injustice experienced among us from democracy, the genius of the people is in favor of it, and the genius of the people must be consulted. Mason hoped that nothing like a monarchy would ever be attempted in this country. A hatred to its oppressions had carried the people through the late Revolution. Will it not be enough to enable the Executive to suspend offensive laws, until they are coolly revised, and the objections to them overruled by a greater majority than was required in the first instance? He never could agree to give up all the rights of the people to a single Magistrate. If more than one had been fixed on, greater powers might have been entrusted to the Executive. He hoped this attempt to give such powers would have its weight hereafter as an argument for increasing the number of Executives.
James Madison (VA) provided a compromise solution in a qualified legislative override. It was against the temper of Americans to grant monarchal powers to the Executive. His motion for a legislative 2/3 veto override passed.
Delegates then defeated the judicial veto of Congressional bills.
Like every other delegate, Franklin knew the first man at the helm would be a good one, but unless they devised an adequate electoral system, the Executive power would certainly increase, as elsewhere, until it ended in monarchy.