Wilson and Morris: Arguments for a Nationally Elected Executive

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

As James Wilson argued for a powerful single executive, and the Committee of the Whole seemed to sway in his favor, other supporters stood up in favor of having a nationally elected chief executive. These included James Madison, and Gouverneur Morris. But even George Washington’s powerful presence was not enough to decide the matter.

Washington and other members of the Continental Congress.
George Washington was a powerful presence in the Convention, which prompted the members to seriously consider the idea of a powerful executive. (Image: John Trumbull/ Public domain)

The Presence of Washington

One of the odder comments in Madison’s notes of the Convention’s proceedings shows up at the beginning of the debate on the executive on June 1, 1787when John Rutledge of South Carolina animadverted on the shyness of gentlemen on this and other subjects. This shyness about  debating and discussing the executive was not because members of this Convention were in any way preternaturally afflicted with shyness—anything but.

It was because any mention of a National Executive quietly set heads turning in the direction of the man who, through the deliberations of the Committee of the Whole, sat without speaking at the Virginia delegation’s table, and whom no one wished to alienate by a careless or contrary word: George Washington.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Washington as Example

From the moment the Committee of the Whole committed itself to the idea of a single executive, Pierce Butler—also of the South Carolina delegation—noticed that “many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as President; and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his Virtue.”

By the time the Convention was ready to deal with the Committee of the Whole’s conclusions on the executive on July 17, the likelihood that Washington would be the first occupant of the single executive gave impetus to the idea of a nationally elected president, with a full array of executive powers that ranged from a veto over congressional legislation to commander-in-chief of the armed forces. No surprise, then, that James Wilson was soon predicting “that the idea was gaining ground, of an election mediately or immediately by the people.”

Learn more about Edmund Randolph’s plan.

Gouverneur Morris’s Arguments

This time, Wilson did not have to carry on the fight alone. James Madison had finally made up his mind that Wilson’s notion of the executive was the best way forward, and Gouverneur Morris, who had been absent from the Convention through the month of June, and had returned on July 2, now became Wilson’s pit bull.

The one great object of the executive is to control the legislature, Morris frankly announced, as though it had been the colonial legislatures rather than the colonial governors who had been defending the royal prerogative, and as though Morris had suddenly become not the junior partner of America’s first banker but a spokesman for the people. Morris said:

It is necessary…that the Executive Magistrate should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, against legislative tyranny, against the Great and the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body. If the Legislature elect, it will be the work of intrigue, of cabal, of faction; it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals. The Executive therefore ought to be so constituted as to be the great protector of the Mass of the people.

Sherman and Mason Resist

A portrait of Gouverneur Morris.
Gouverneur Morris mounted a spirited defense of the idea of a nationally elected executive, but met with resistance. (Image: Exta Ames/ Public domain)

But not even Gouverneur Morris could overcome the resistance of Roger Sherman, who insisted that “the sense of the Nation would be better expressed by the Legislature, than by the people at large.” George Mason, the one Virginian who was as close to being free from awe of George Washington as anyone else in the Convention, too expressed his criticism of the idea.

Mason “conceived that it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.” Not only were the people at large uneven in their capacity to estimate the worth of an individual for this office, but the sheer size “of the Country renders it,” Mason said, “impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates.”

Vote Against Direct Election

So, when the question was called on direct election by the people instead of the legislature, the vote was a lopsided 9–1 against. Wilson tried to head this off by proposing a compromise: let the people at large vote, not for a National Executive, but for a group of electors, on the model of the princely electors of the Holy Roman Empire, who elected a new emperor at the death of an old one.

These electors, elected by the people at large, would in turn do the voting—the actual voting—for the executive. It was, as Morris described it, a mixture of the lot, and at first it passed, 6–3, only to be reversed on July 24, 7–4.

Learn more about Elbridge Gerry’s committee.

The Committee of Detail

The entire issue was threatening to sink into a bog of rancor, so Elbridge Gerry, who had chaired the Grand Committee, proposed resorting to the same strategy: the formation of a Committee of Detail, which would take up all of the ragged-edge issues before the Convention and come out with a smoothly-planed set of recommendations which would nicely dovetail with each other.

At the end of the day on July 26, the Convention wearily voted to create a Committee of Detail and refer all of the resolutions it had adopted thus far to the committee to, as Hugh Williamson of North Carolina whimsically said, properly dress and clothe them. Then, having sat unendingly for two months in the humidity and heat of a Philadelphia summer, the entire Convention adjourned for a week’s recess, hoping devoutly that the Committee of Detail could resolve what the Convention had not.

Common Questions about the Arguments for a Nationally Elected Executive

Q: Why did the idea of a nationally elected executive gain ground in the Convention?

The likelihood that George Washington would be the first occupant of the single executive gave impetus to the idea of a nationally elected president, with a full array of executive powers that ranged from a veto over congressional legislation to commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Q: Who supported James Wilson’s idea of a chief executive?

Gouverneur Morris became the main supporter of James Wilson, and declared that a powerful executive was necessary to keep the legislature in check.

Q: What was George Mason’s argument against an executive elected by the people?

George Mason objected to directly electing a chief executive because he thought that people at large could not be expected to truly estimate a person’s capacity, and that the sheer size of the country meant that it was impossible for people to judge between the candidates.

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