At AEI, Joseph M. Bessette and Gary J. Schmitt have a report titled “Crafting a Republican Executive: The Presidency and the Constitutional Convention.” Key points:
- The Constitutional Convention of 1787 knew the young nation needed a strong executive that was still accountable to the general public. In short, the new executive was to be an unprecedented mix of monarchic-like vigor and republican restraint.
- The first major issue the Convention faced was what powers in addition to executing the nation’s laws could be given to the new executive. The office needed to be made both capable and accountable before those powers could be added. The second and related issue was how best to select the president to maintain the office’s independence and energy. The Convention ultimately settled on the Electoral College system as the best practical means to select a president.
- In the end, the authorities the delegates vested in the chief executive were as much a reflection of their confidence in the characteristics of the institution they crafted and its concomitant promotion of “presidential” behavior as it was trust in the personal characteristics of the men they expected would rise to the nation’s highest office.
To make an obvious point, the delegates would hardly have committed themselves to making the president impeachable if they expected every president to be a Washington. Nor would they have required Senate approval to the appointment of high-ranking executive officials. In the end, the authorities the delegates vested in the chief executive were as much a reflection of their confidence in the characteristics of the institution they so carefully crafted and the ways that institution would promote “presidential” behavior as it was trust in the personal characteristics of the men they expected would rise to the nation’s highest office.
Indeed, it is remarkable how frank the delegates were in their discussions of the executive. Those concerned about creating too strong an office were not at all reluctant to speak of ignoble cabals and monarchic designs, while those who favored a powerful and energetic executive were quite open about the need to tie the president’s passions and interests to
Rather than looking to Washington as the kind of man they expected typically to occupy the office, the delegates may have been thinking more of someone like New York Gov. George Clinton. By the summer of 1787, Clinton was serving in his 11th consecutive
year as governor. Among the state governors, only William Livingston of New Jersey had served longer (by one year), and no governor had become as powerful a political figure in his state. Although Clinton was not without talent, few would rank him with fellow
New Yorkers Hamilton or Jay, never mind with the likes of Washington. Operating under a constitution that gave him renewable three-year terms and vested the office with substantial independent powers, Clinton proved to be an effective and responsible governor.
The architects of the presidency hoped their Electoral College system would raise to the nation’s highest office men with a reputation for exemplary public service. As the delegates themselves implied, reputation was an approximation for real virtue. Men of the caliber of Washington were desired, but men like Clinton were more likely to fill the office.