|Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention
By James Madison
June 4, 1787
Monday, June 4, 1787
IN COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE
The Question was resumed on motion of Mr. PINKNEY 2ded. by WILSON, "shall the blank for the number of the Executive
be filled with a single person?"
Mr. WILSON was in favor of the motion. It had been opposed by the gentleman from Virginia [Mr. Randolph] but the
arguments used had not convinced him. He observed that the objections of Mr. R. were leveled not so much against the
measure itself, as against its unpopularity. If he could suppose that it would occasion a rejection of the plan of which it
should form a part, though the part was an important one, yet he would give it up rather than lose the whole. On examination
he could see no evidence of the alleged antipathy of the people. On the contrary he was persuaded that it does not exist.
All know that a single magistrate is not a King. One fact has great weight with him. All the 13 States, though agreeing in
scarce any other instance, agree in placing a single magistrate at the head of the Government. The idea of three heads has
taken place in none. The degree of power is indeed different; but there are no co-ordinate heads. In addition to his former
reasons for preferring a unity, he would mention another. The tranquility not less than the vigor of the Government, he
thought would be favored by it.
Among three equal members, he foresaw nothing but uncontrolled, continued, and violent animosities; which would not only
interrupt the public administration; but diffuse their poison through the other branches of Government, through the States,
and at length through the people at large. If the members were to be unequal in power the principle of the opposition to the
unity was given up. If equal, the making them an odd number would not be a remedy. In Courts of Justice there are two
sides only to a question. In the Legislative and Executive departments questions have commonly many sides. Each member
therefore might espouse a separate one and no two agree.
Mr. SHERMAN. This matter is of great importance and ought to be well considered before it is determined. Mr. Wilson, he
said had observed that in each State a single magistrate was placed at the head of the Government. It was so, he admitted,
and properly so, and he wished the same policy to prevail in the federal Government. But then it should be also remarked that
in all the States there was a Council of advice, without which the first magistrate could not act. A council he thought
necessary to make the establishment acceptable to the people. Even in Great Britain the King has a Council; and though he
appoints it himself, its advice has its weight with him, and attracts the Confidence of the people.
Mr. WILLIAMSON asks Mr. WILSON whether he means to annex a Council.
Mr. WILSON means to have no Council, which oftener serves to cover, than prevent malpractices.
Mr. GERRY was at a loss to discover the policy of three members for the Executive. It Would be extremely inconvenient in
many instances, particularly in military matters, whether relating to the militia, an army, or a navy. It would be a general with
On the question for a single Executive it was agreed to Massachusetts, aye. Connecticut, aye. New York, no. Pennsylvania
aye. Delaware, no. Maryland, no. Virginia, aye. [Mr. R. and Mr. Blair, no ---Dr. Mc Cg. Mr. M. & Gen. W. aye. Col. Mason
being no, but not in house, Mr. Wythe, aye, but gone home. North Carolina, aye. South Carolina, aye. Georgia, aye.
First Clause of Proposition 8th, relating to a Council of Revision taken into consideration.
Mr. GERRY doubts whether the Judiciary ought to form a part of it, as they will have a sufficient check against
encroachments on their own department by their exposition of the laws, which involved a power of deciding on their
Constitutionality. In some States the Judges had actually set aside laws as being against the Constitution. This was done too
with general approbation. It was quite foreign from the nature of the office to make them judges of the policy of public
measures. He moves to postpone the clause in order to propose "that the National Executive shall have a right to negative any
Legislative act which shall not be afterwards passed by _____ parts of each branch of the national Legislature."
Mr. KING seconds the motion, observing that the Judges ought to be able to expound the law as it should come before
them, free from the bias of having participated in its formation.
Mr. WILSON thinks neither the original proposition nor the amendment go far enough. If the Legislative, Executive and
Judiciary ought to be distinct and independent, the Executive ought to have an absolute negative. Without such a self-defense
the Legislature can at any moment sink it into non-existence. He was for varying the proposition in such a manner as to give
the Executive and Judiciary jointly an absolute negative.
On the question to postpone in order to take Mr. Gerry's proposition into consideration it was agreed to, Massachusetts, aye.
Connecticut, no. New York, aye. Pennsylvania, aye. Delaware, no. Maryland, no. Virginia, no. North Carolina, aye. South
Carolina, aye. Georgia, aye.
Mr. GERRY'S proposition being now before Committee, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Hamilton move that the last part of it [viz.
"Which. Shall not be afterwards passed unless by _____ parts of each branch of the National legislature] be struck out, so as
to give the Executive an absolute negative on the laws. There was no danger they thought of such a power being too much
exercised. It was mentioned by Col. Hamilton that the King of Great Britain had not exerted his negative since the Revolution.
Mr. GERRY sees no necessity for so great a control over the legislature as the best men in the Community would be
comprised in the two branches of it.
Dr. FRANKLIN, said he was sorry to differ from his colleague for whom he had a very great respect, on any occasion, but
he could not help it on this. He had had some experience of this check in the Executive on the Legislature, under the
proprietary Government of Pennsylvania. The negative of the Governor was constantly made use of to extort money. No
good law whatever could be passed without a private bargain with him. An increase of his salary, or some donation, was
always made a condition; till at last it became the regular practice, to have orders in his favor on the Treasury, presented
along with the bills to be signed, so that he might actually receive the former before he should sign the latter.
When the Indians were scalping the western people, and notice of it arrived, the concurrence of the Governor in the means
of self-defense could not be got, till it was agreed that his Estate should be exempted from taxation: so that the people were
to fight for the security of his property, whilst he was to bear no share of the burden. This was a mischievous sort of check.
If the Executive was to have a Council, such a power would be less objectionable.
It was true the King of Great Britain had not, as was said, exerted his negative since the Revolution; but that matter was
easily explained. The bribes and emoluments now given to the members of parliament rendered it unnecessary, every thing
being done according to the will of the Ministers. He was afraid, if a negative should be given as proposed, that more power
and money would be demanded, till at last enough would be gotten to influence and bribe the Legislature into a complete
subjection to the will of the Executive.
Mr. SHERMAN was against enabling any one man to stop the will of the whole. No one man could be found so far above all
the rest in wisdom. He thought we ought to avail ourselves of his wisdom in revising the laws, but not permit him to overrule
the decided and cool opinions of the Legislature.
Mr. MADISON supposed that if a proper proportion of each branch should be required to overrule the objections of the
Executive, it would answer the same purpose as an absolute negative. It would rarely if ever happen that the Executive
constituted as ours is proposed to be would, have firmness enough to resist the legislature, unless backed by a certain part of
the body itself. The King of Great Britain with all his splendid attributes would not be able to withstand the unanimous and
eager wishes of both houses of Parliament. To give such a prerogative would certainly be obnoxious to the temper of this
Country; its present temper at least.
Mr. WILSON believed as others did that this power would seldom be used. The Legislature would know that such a power
existed, and would refrain from such laws, as it would be sure to defeat. Its silent operation would therefore preserve
harmony and prevent mischief. The case of Pennsylvania formerly was very different from its present case. The Executive
was not then as now to be appointed by the people. It will not in this case as in the one cited, be supported by the head of a
Great Empire, actuated by a different and sometimes opposite interest. The salary too is now proposed to be fixed by the
Constitution, or if Dr. Franklin's idea should be adopted, all salary whatever interdicted. The requiring a large proportion of
each House to overrule the Executive check might do in peaceable times; but there might be tempestuous moments in which
animosities may run high between the Executive and Legislative branches, and in which the former ought to be able to defend
Mr. BUTLER had been in favor of a single Executive Magistrate; but could he have entertained an idea that a complete
negative on the laws was to be given him he certainly should have acted very differently. It had been observed that in all
countries the Executive power is in a constant course of increase. This was certainly the case in Great Britain. Gentlemen
seemed to think that we had nothing to apprehend from an abuse of the Executive power. But why might not a Cataline or a
Cromwell arise in this Country as well as in others.
Mr. BEDFORD was opposed to every check on the Legislative, even the Council of Revision first proposed. He thought it
would be sufficient to mark out in the Constitution the boundaries to the Legislative Authority, which would give all the
requisite security to the rights of the other departments. The Representatives of the people were the best Judges of what was
for their interest, and ought to be under no external control whatever. The two branches would produce a sufficient control
within the Legislature itself.
Col. MASON observed that a vote had already passed he found [he was out at the time] for vesting the executive powers in
a single person. Among these powers was that of appointing to offices in certain cases. The probable abuses of a negative
had been well explained by Dr. Franklin as proved by experience, the best of all tests. Will not the same door be opened here.
The Executive may refuse its assent to necessary measures till new appointments shall be referred to him; and having by
degrees engrossed all these into his own hands, the American Executive, like the British, will by bribery and influence, save
himself the trouble and odium of exerting his negative afterwards. We are, Mr. Chairman going very far in this business. We
are not indeed constituting a British Government, but a more dangerous monarchy, an elective one. We are introducing a new
principle into our system, and not necessary as in the British Government, where the Executive has greater rights to defend.
Do gentlemen mean to pave the way to hereditary Monarchy? Do they flatter themselves that the people will ever consent to
such an innovation? If they do I venture to tell them, they are mistaken. The people never will consent. And do gentlemen
consider the danger of delay, and the still greater danger of a rejection, not for a moment but forever, of the plan which shall
be proposed to them.
Notwithstanding the oppressions and injustices experienced among us from democracy; the genius of the people is in favor
of it, and the genius of the people must be consulted. He could not but consider the federal system as in effect dissolved by
the appointment of this Convention to devise a better one. And do gentlemen look forward to the dangerous interval between
the extinction of an old, and the establishment of a new Government, and to the scenes of confusion which may ensue? He
hoped that nothing like a Monarchy would ever be attempted in this Country. A hatred to its oppressions had carried the
people through the late Revolution. Will it not be enough to enable the Executive to suspend offensive laws, till they shall be
coolly revised, and the objections to them overruled by a greater majority than was required in the first instance. He never
could agree to give up all the rights of the people to a single Magistrate. If more than one had been fixed on, greater powers
might have been entrusted to the Executive. He hoped this attempt to give such powers would have its weight hereafter as an
argument for increasing the number of the Executive.
Dr. FRANKLIN. A Gentleman from South Carolina [Mr. Butler] a day or two ago called our attention to the case of the
United Netherlands. He wished the gentleman had been a little fuller, and had gone back to the original of that Government.
The people being under great obligations to the Prince of Orange whose wisdom and bravery had saved them, chose him for
the Stadtholder. He did very well. Inconveniences however were felt from his powers; which growing more and more
oppressive, they were at length set aside.
Still however there was a party for the Prince of Orange, which descended to his son who excited insurrections, spilt a great
deal of blood, murdered the de Witts, and got the powers revested in the Stadtholder. Afterwards another Prince had power
to excite insurrections and to make the Stadtholdership hereditary. And the present Stadtholder is ready to wade through a
bloody civil war to the establishment of a monarchy.
Col. Mason had mentioned the circumstance of appointing officers. He knew how that point would be managed. No new
appointment would be suffered as heretofore in Pennsylvania unless it be referred to the Executive; so that all profitable
offices will be at his disposal. The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come
afterwards. The Executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a Monarchy.
On the question for striking out so as to give the Executive an absolute negative-Massachusetts, no. Connecticut, no. New
York, no. Pennsylvania, no. Delaware, no. Maryland, no. Virginia, no. North Carolina, no. South Carolina, no. Georgia, no.
Mr. BUTLER moved that the Resolution be altered so as to read -"Resolved that the National Executive have a power to
suspend any Legislative act for the term of _____.”
Dr. FRANKLIN seconds the motion.
Mr. GERRY observed that a power of suspending might do all the mischief dreaded from the negative of useful laws;
without answering the salutary purpose of checking unjust or unwise ones.
On question for giving this suspending power" all the States, to wit Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania,
Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were No.
On a question for enabling two thirds of each branch of the Legislature to overrule the revisionary check: it passed in the
affirmative sub silentio; and was inserted in the blank of Mr. Gerry's motion.
On the question on Mr. Gerry's motion which gave the Executive alone without the Judiciary the revisionary control on the
laws unless overruled by 2/3 of each branch; Massachusetts, aye. Connecticut, no. New York, aye. Pennsylvania, aye.
Delaware, aye. Maryland no. Virginia, aye. North Carolina, aye. South Carolina, aye. Georgia, aye.
It was moved by Mr. Wilson 2ded. by Mr. Madison -that the following amendment be made to the last resolution-after the
words "National Ex." to add “and a convenient number of the National Judiciary."
An objection of order being taken by Mr. Hamilton to the introduction of the last amendment at this time, notice was given by
Mr. Wilson, and Mr. Madison -that the same would be moved tomorrow, -whereupon Wednesday (the day after) was
assigned to reconsider the amendment of Mr. Gerry.
It was then moved and 2ded. to proceed to the consideration of the 9th resolution submitted by Mr. Randolph -when on
motion to agree to the first clause namely "Resolved that a National Judiciary be established" It passed in the affirmative nem.
con. It was then moved & 2ded. to add these words to the first clause of the ninth resolution namely -"to consist of one
supreme tribunal, and of one or more inferior tribunals," which passed in the affirmative-
The Committee then rose and the House adjourned.
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