July 19: Executive Strength, Independence, and Re-eligibility

I apologize for posting this a day late. Unlike those in the Constitutional Convention, I think summer vacations are essential!

After having completed the debate on representation discussed in our previous posts, they began another difficult debate about the strength of the executive. Whereas the debate about representation mostly centered on questions of interest, rather than those of principle, the debate about executive power was much more theoretical. Governeur Morris demonstrated once again his mastery in this Convention by beginning the debate with a vigorous case for a vigorous executive.

At this point, a strong executive was tremendously controversial. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #70: “There is an idea, which is not without its advocates, that a vigorous Executive is inconsistent with the genius of republican government.” Some at the Convention and then in the subsequent ratification debate pushed this idea that this republican executive should be, in the words of one anti-Federalist, little more than a “clerk” for carrying out the will of the legislature. But, despite what some scholars still seem to think, the anti-Federalists lost this debate about the strength of the executive. The Constitution creates a strong and vigorous executive, whose initial strength remains underappreciated by modern political science.

As William Riker shows in his fascinating essay that combines American Political Thought with Rational Choice Theory, Morris and other “presidentialists” were able to manipulate the politics in the Convention in such a way that they could emerge with the vigorous Presidency they wanted. Morris sets the stage for this Presidency with the argument he makes at the beginning of July 19.

A strong executive, Morris argues, would have the “energy” necessary to sustain the extensive republic.” If they did not create an “executive with sufficient vigor to pervade every part of it” then they ought “renounce the blessings of the Union.”

This energetic executive would also be “the great protector of the Mass of the people” over and against a legislature that “will continually seek to aggrandize & perpetuate themselves.” The executive would protect the people against “the Great & the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body.”

Morris’s opening speech is strikingly prescient: the executive Morris sketches in this speech resonates even more today than he would have at the time. Both Trump and Obama, in their own very different ways, represented an assertion of the “Mass of the people” in opposition to the legislature and the “special interests” with which it is aligned. Trump promised to “drain the swamp;” Obama promised to be the “change you can believe in.” Even though republican theory holds that the legislature would best represent the people, Morris foresaw that the real agent of popular will would be the executive.

Because executives would be seeking the “esteem” of the people, they must have hope that they will be “rewarded with a reappointment.” Re-eligibility follows from the constitutional form of the executive power. Vigorous enough to pursue “the love of fame” which is “the great spring to noble & illustrious actions,” the executive must have the continual prospect of reelection. It’s worth noting that both in this debate and in the Federalist Papers on this question, the assumption seems to be that Presidents would seek almost perpetual reelection. The Federalist argument would oppose the notion that Presidents should leave office after two terms. Their opposition is rooted in a kind of eternal truth about the great who would be seeking the Presidency: “Shut the Civil road to Glory & he may be compelled to seek it by the sword.”

The question of independence was intertwined with that of re-eligibility. Who would elect this powerful executive? If it were to be the legislature, then how could they have sufficient independence as to stand up against the legislature? If re-eligible and chosen by the legislature, then they would be dependent on the legislature. If not re-eligible, then, though chosen by the legislature, they would be able to act independently of it–but then none of the agreed-upon benefits of re-eligibility.

Madison now argues:

“if it be a fundamental principle of free Govt. that the Legislative, Executive & Judiciary powers should be separately exercised, it is equally so that they be independently exercised. There is the same & perhaps greater reason why the Executive shd. be independent of the Legislature, than why the Judiciary should.”

Because they have mostly agreed on the need for re-eligibility and because they mostly agree on this Madisonian principle of independence, they turn now to finding a solution–the Electoral College ultimately emerges.

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