Shaping the Electoral College, Part III
by Rodney Dodsworth, Aug 12, 2019
June 2nd, 1787.
Delegates once again met in committee, the committee of the whole, a parliamentary device that allows a more open exchange of views without the urgency of a final vote. For instance, in a committee setting George Washington, the President of the Convention, sat with his fellow VA delegates. After debating, the committee submits its conclusions to the Convention where the same people deliberate once again, as if they hadn’t before, and where the votes are generally final.
Executive Electors. Recall James Wilson’s (PA) closing comments from yesterday in which he wished to see popular election of men with general notoriety, a respected nationwide reputation like that of George Washington. Today, Wilson proposed the people elect Electors from special districts who in turn appoint the Executive. An advantage of this mode is that it would produce more confidence among the people in the first magistrate than an election by the national Legislature per the Virginia Plan. We can thank James Wilson for what would eventually evolve into the Electoral College.
Elbridge Gerry (MA) feared corruption if the National Legislature appointed the executive. Imagine the sleaze and bribery! He leaned toward election by the state legislatures either directly or by selecting nominees for electors to elect. The people ought not to act directly even in the choice of electors, being too little informed of personal characters in large districts, and liable to deceptions. His idea would find its way into Article II, “Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . “
But, at this early juncture, Wilson’s motion to set up districts in which the people elect electors failed 7-2. The committee-of-the-whole then agreed by an 8-2 vote with the appointment of the Executive by the first branch of the Legislature for a term of seven years.
Presidential Character. George Washington was the model; he was the ideal, the sort of man our Framers sought. Wilson mentioned national notoriety. But what of the motivations of other men?
Benjamin Franklin (PA) saw “inconveniences in the appointment of salaries; I see none in refusing them, but on the contrary, great advantages.” Franklin feared the sort of men attracted to well-paying federal offices. Everyone in the room was familiar with the widespread, open, and infamous British corruption of saleable offices. He went on in words that ring true down through the ages, “Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. Place before the eyes of such men, a post of honor that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”1
In closing, he pointed out the public virtue of George Washington who didn’t accept a salary for his eight arduous years of military service. Franklin did not believe that salaries are necessary to attract patriots to government.2
Removal From Office. John Dickinson (DE) proposed the Executive be removable by the National Legislature on request by a majority of the states. I’ve wondered if this arrangement wouldn’t be preferable to, as practiced today, the ineffective impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate. Considering the absence of the States from the Senate since 1913, I admittedly favor the additional federal element of state impeachment, even though today’s Senate is thoroughly corrupted by democracy.
In response to Dickinson, Gunning Bedford (DE) seconded the motion. Roger Sherman (CN) would have the National Legislature alone responsible for Executive removal. George Mason (VA) warned of Executive dependency if he was both elected by and impeachable by the National Legislature. While he unequivocally supported some means of Executive disposal, legislative removal was questionable if the Legislature had a part in Executive appointment.
James Madison and James Wilson reflected their general preference for popular government rather than federal majorities when they pointed out that a majority of States calling for executive removal could easily mean a minority of people represented. Overall, they thought State participation in impeachment was bad policy. Today, we can see that Madison/Wilson’s views prevail. Since the foundation of Congress went fully popular with the 17th Amendment, the impeachment and conviction of high administration officials doesn’t depend on high crimes or misdemeanors at all; they shamefully depend on the President’s popularity polls.
All states except DE rejected Mr. Dickinson’s motion that the “Executive be removable by the National Legislature on request by a majority of the states.”
Instead ,Hugh Williamson (NC) motioned and the committee passed: “And to be removable on impeachment & conviction of malpractice or neglect of duty.” Thankfully, these terms did not make the final cut. Instead, much later on, delegates determined only crimes against the Constitution itself were worthy of removal from office.
Keep the States – Check the Executive. In his speech, Dickinson argued that a firm executive office could exist outside limited Monarchy, and was safely possible in a republic. Now, in the British government, the weight of the Executive arose from the political attachments which the Crown drew to itself, and not merely from the force of its prerogatives. In place of these attachments an American republic must look for something else. One source of stability was the double branch of the Legislature. Since a Senate of the States had yet to make its way into the Constitution, Dickinson expressed hope for a second legislative branch as stable as the Brit House of Lords. The division of the country into distinct States formed the other principal source of stability. This division ought therefore to be maintained, and considerable powers left with the States, especially as a check on the Executive (my words and italics).
Lessons of History. If ancient republics were found to flourish for a moment and then vanish forever, Dickinson said it only proves that they were badly constituted and that we ought to find remedies for their diseases. I say the Framers did just that, and it is to our shame that Americans since 1913 have not recognized the folly of the 17th Amendment and its negative impact on lawmaking, the Judiciary and the Presidency.
Among the take-aways from today’s proceedings is the Framers’ careful consideration of electors to the executive office. While all power flows from the people, they are not, as a group, qualified to judge the character and ability of men outside their local area.
Much depends on the duty and character of the office itself. Was the president to merely execute the law? If so, state legislative appointment of an experienced business CEO with experience in the law would probably suffice. But what if the Framers envisioned a higher place? If their executive was the face of the nation, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the man who led the nation in foreign affairs, who nominated judges, ambassadors, and had a limited veto over congressional bills, then his office should have a foundation on the people. Such an executive, when he occasionally goes toe-to-toe with Congress or other nations will need support, and that is best derived from the people themselves.
The motion as to the number of supreme Executives was postponed
In closing, a vote was taken to limit the President to one term, which passed 7-2-1.
- Franklin – “Besides these evils, Sir, tho’ we may set out in the beginning with moderate salaries, we shall find that such will not be of long continuance. Reasons will never be wanting for proposed augmentations. And there will always be a party for giving more to the rulers, that the rulers may be able in return to give more to them. “The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes; the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partisans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure.”
2. Just ask Donald Trump.