The seventh of Edmund Randolph’s original Virginia Plan resolutions back on May 29, 1787 had called for the creation of a National Executive to be chosen by the National Legislature with a general authority to execute the national laws. And it was James Wilson who rose to champion the idea of a powerful executive.
The first debate on the subject followed almost immediately on June 1, 1787 as the Convention went into Committee of the Whole, and four days were spent in what amounted to preliminary skirmishing around the idea of the National Executive.
The ebullient Charles Pinckney, whose alternative plan had been so quietly pigeonholed by James Madison and the Virginians, was already prepared to call for an executive whom he called a president in whom the executive authority of the United States shall be vested, and he took the floor to propose the creation of a vigorous executive to consist of a single person.
It would not be Pinckney, though, who emerged as the chief advocate for a chief executive, however, but the bespectacled and curiously neglected legal scholar from Pennsylvania, James Wilson. Wilson was actually born in Scotland in 1742, and graduated from the University of St. Andrews, followed by further study under the doyens of Scotland’s philosophical Enlightenment, Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith. He arrived in Pennsylvania in 1765 to set up a law practice in Reading, as well as lecturing on law at the College of Philadelphia.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
James Wilson’s Reputation
Wilson had been stymied by the states’ erratic fiscal policies in his investments in western lands. Yet, he was no elitist aristocrat, and he denied that “property was the sole or primary object of government and society. The cultivation and improvement of the human mind was the most noble object.”
William Pierce thought that Wilson surely: “is no great Orator. He draws the attention not by the charm of his eloquence, but by the force of his reasoning.”
Wilson Snatches the Lead
Nor was Wilson exactly a commanding figure in public. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia thought that Wilson was indefatigable and confident, but also unpopular. And although he was remarked on as a tall, solid man, thick-muscled, Wilson was also “inclined a little to stoutness, with a ruddy complexion, a neat white wig, and thick-lensed glasses.”
Wilson snatched the lead on the executive debate out of Pinckney’s hands almost at once on June 1, 1787, seconding his motion for a vigorous executive, and adding at once that it should be filled by a single person. Wilson preferred what he called a single magistrate, as giving most energy, dispatch, and responsibility to the office. Edmund Randolph at once took alarm. His notion of an executive had not been that of a quasi-king, and denounced a unity in the executive magistracy as the fetus of monarchy.
Learn more about James Madison’s Conference.
Wilson’s Arguments for the Executive
Happily, James Madison intervened at this moment and diverted the subject. “It would be proper,” he said, “before a choice should be made between a unity and a plurality in the Executive, to fix the extent of the Executive authority,” and then let that determine whether the executive should be a single person or, as Randolph preferred, a committee of three.
But Wilson was ready to continue the fight over those grounds as well, arguing that the executive should be elected at large by the people, that the term of office should be three years, and that an option for reelection should be allowed. But especially, Wilson was determined that the executive should be filled by a national election, not by the new Congress or by the state legislatures.
The Direct Election Proposal
The direct election idea horrified Roger Sherman even more than a single executive had disturbed Edmund Randolph, and Sherman retorted that he:
Was for the appointment by the Legislature, and for making him absolutely dependent on that body, as it was the will of that which was to be executed. An independence of the Executive on the supreme Legislature, was in his opinion the very essence of tyranny if there was any such thing.
But Wilson had his eye not on the past, but on the future. “If we are to establish a national Government,” Wilson declared, “that Government ought to flow from the people at large.” An executive appointed by the state legislatures would always be beholden to them; an executive appointed by either house of the new Congress would likewise be beholden to them; only appointment by the people, Wilson argued, would guarantee a National Executive free of such dependence, and fully in a position to check the Congress and the states from careening off the republican track.
Learn more about the early Congress.
Wilson’s Partial Victory
And this was consistent, he argued, with the overall desire of the Virginia Plan. He wished to derive not only both branches of the legislature from the people, without the intervention of the state legislatures, but the executive also.
Wilson repeated his arguments in favor of an election without the intervention of the states several times over the following week, and just as tenaciously, critics spoke, including Benjamin Franklin, who warned that “the executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, until it ends in monarchy.”
Wilson won at least a partial victory. The Committee of the Whole voted 7–3 in favor of a single executive, but voted 8–2 in favor of electing the executive by the National Legislature for the term of seven years. After that, the more contentious matter of Congress and representation took over, and Wilson had to cool his heels on the subject.
Common Questions about James Wilson’s Defense of the Executive
Charles Pinckney, was already prepared to call for an executive whom he called a president in whom the executive authority of the United States shall be vested, and he took the floor to propose the creation of a vigorous executive to consist of a single person.
James Wilson seconded Pinckney’s suggestion for a vigorous executive, and added at once that it should be filled by a single person. Wilson preferred what he called a single magistrate, as giving most energy, dispatch, and responsibility to the office. Edmund Randolph at once took alarm.
James Wilson argued that the executive should be elected at large by the people, that the term of office should be three years, and that an option for reelection should be allowed. But especially, Wilson was determined that the executive should be filled by a national election, not by the new Congress or by the state legislatures.