Shaping the Electoral College Part XI of XIV

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Subtitle: In Convention August 24th – His Excellency, the President of the United States of America.

Today’s Summary:

• First formal use of “President.”
• Single seven year term.
• Elected by Congress, by joint session or by each house separately?
• By joint session, which threw dominance to large States, passed 7-4.
• One vote per State? No, by 6-5 vote.
• Corruption & intrigue w/Congressional election.
• Popular vote to appoint electors narrowly failed, 6-5.

From the Committee of Style’s August 6th report, “The executive power of the U. S. shall be vested in a single person. His stile shall be “The President of the U. S. of America” and his title shall be “His Excellency.” He shall be elected by ballot by the Legislature. He shall hold his office during the term of seven years; but shall not be elected a second time.”

So far, delegates accepted a tradeoff in the mode of electing this new guy to history, the President of the United States. In legislative appointment they expected cabal and intrigue. Imagine the scene, even prior to the 17th Amendment of 1913, of Congressmen and Senators, led by the majority and minority leaders, cajoling and offering side deals along the way of appointing a President! Did the Framers really believe the outcome of this behind the scenes plotting, a creature of Congress, could actually arrive in office without political debts and take the oath of office with a clear conscience?

Despite the unsaid and hidden quid-pro-quos around the neck of every President upon inauguration, delegates reasoned that due to their single, seven year terms, Presidents would hopefully double-cross their benefactors in Congress and actually perform their duties without regard to pre-election promises. Politics never was a game of beanbag anywhere but this method practically invited fisticuffs on the floor of Congress.

Now, was the election to be by each house of Congress or in joint session? In the interests of the small States, Roger Sherman (CN) objected to election in joint session. Separate approvals from each house would protect small State interests. Nathaniel Gorham (MA) asked members not to forget their first purpose: the public good. Great delay and confusion would ensue if the two Houses should vote separately, each having a negative on the choice of the other. Imagine the turmoil if one branch of government could shut down and effectively do away with another branch!

Populists saw their opportunity and motioned to strike out “by the Legislature” and insert “by the people.” No such luck. It went down in flames with only PA and DE in the affirmative.

James Wilson (PA) argued the reasonableness of joint session elections, of allowing the larger States a greater voice. Along with John Langdon (NH – former governor), who admitted the disadvantage to smaller States of a joint ballot, still believed it was the most prudent approach. In New Hampshire, the two legislative houses voted separately for governor. It was the source of “great difficulties.”1

Wilson anticipated another problem with the houses voting separately. Since the Senate elected its own President, count on these powerful men to extort Congress into electing themselves to the Presidency.

The convention approved election by joint session 7-4.

Jonathan Dayton (NJ) motioned voting by State delegation, rather than by individual Congressmen and Senators. His proposal to change the clause to “He shall be elected by ballot by the Legislature, each State having one vote,” went down 6-5. Recall this nearly identical phrase in the final draft, which exists to this day in the Constitution in the event no person wins a majority in the Electoral College. But instead of voting by State in joint session, each delegation in the House of Representatives has one vote.

Gouverneur Morris predicted disastrous outcomes from Congressional elections. Despite single terms, he expected he President of the Senate to work in a symbiotic, self-serving fashion with the nation’s chief Executive. In this relationship, one in which the interests of the nation are a distant second-place, the two men will conspire and intrigue to perpetuate their own power and wealth, as well as that of family, friends and accomplices. Morris foresaw legislative tyranny. Its remedy was to amend the clause to read, “he shall be chosen by Electors to be chosen by the People of the several States.”

Morris’ motion was seconded, and went down to defeat 6-5. The votes today exposed the delegates’ underwhelming support for Congressional elections. The Convention half-heartedly accepted a close Congress/President arrangement that terribly muddied separation of powers.

Next, the Convention considered the powers of this Congressionally-dependent President. As one can imagine, having decided the method of election, delegates could fill in the President’s powers. While not addressed here in detail, they reveal the familiar scope of his authority in the final draft Constitution.

The President shall:

• Present to the Legislature, information as to the state of the Union. He may recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
• Convene the Legislature on extraordinary occasions. In case of disagreement between the two Houses, with regard to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he thinks proper.
• Duly and faithfully execute the laws of the United States.
• Commission all the officers of the United States; and shall appoint officers in all cases not otherwise provided for by this Constitution.
• Receive Ambassadors, and may correspond with the supreme Executives of the several States.
• Have the power to grant reprieves and pardons; but his pardon shall not be pleadable in bar of an impeachment.
• Be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States.
• At stated times, receive for his services, a compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during his continuance in office.
• Take the following oath or affirmation, “I – solemnly swear, (or affirm) that that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States of America.”
• Be removed from his office on impeachment by the House of Representatives, and conviction in the supreme Court, of treason, bribery, or corruption.


1. On January 5th 1776, New Hampshire was the first state to adopt a formal constitution. Under this constitution, in effect until 1784, there was no established executive, and the legislature was supreme.