Signing of Constitution, by Howard C. Cristy
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory Collection.
As the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 continued to develop a plan of government that would remedy the defects of the Articles of Confederation, one of the most difficult challenges was creating the office of the presidency. All of the delegates agreed that some kind of executive office was necessary. Some delegates, however, recalled the recent tyranny of the English King and were hesitant to create an independent executive that might abuse its powers in like manner. Another group of delegates believed that an energetic and independent executive was necessary if the national government was to fulfill its responsibilities of promoting the security and stability of the Union. The debates between these two groups focused on several questions: What kinds of powers should the president have? What kinds of controls ought to be in place that would prevent the executive from abusing its powers, but still allow it to act with energy, speed and decision? How should the president be selected, and what length of term is appropriate? Should the president be eligible to run for re-election? Should the president be impeachable? The delegates debated these questions throughout the summer of 1787 and only reached a final agreement near the closing days of the Convention.
This lesson will focus on the arguments over the various characteristics and powers of the office of president as debated during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. By examining the views of delegates as recorded in James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, students will understand the arguments of those who supported either a strong, independent executive, or a very limited and highly controlled executive. Students will also see why, in the end, the delegates compromised on this question in order to fulfill their task of remedying the political flaws of the Articles of Confederation.
Why was creating the office of the presidency such an important and difficult task for the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
A major flaw with the Articles of Confederation, as identified by delegates to the 1787 Convention, was that the executive powers of the national government were vested in the Congress. The delegates agreed that a separate office of national executive must be established in order to ensure the implementation and enforcement of congressional acts. Beyond this general agreement, however, the delegates remained divided until almost the end of the Convention over how to establish an executive with enough power to fulfill its responsibilities, but not so much as to render it a "monarchy."
Early in the Convention (May 29) Edmund Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan, which recommended the creation of a "national executive" to be chosen by Congress for a single limited term. Randolph proposed that the powers of the executive include all of those powers "vested in Congress by the Confederation." Randolph's executive would also have the power to "negative" or veto bills, which could still become laws if re-passed by Congress. On June 15, William Paterson offered the New Jersey Plan, which proposed a "federal executive" to be chosen by Congress, consisting of more than one person. As in the Virginia Plan, the executives would serve only a single term in office. Unlike the Virginia Plan, Paterson's executives would not have a veto power, and would be impeachable by Congress on the request of a majority of state governors. Three days later, to the surprise (and dismay) of many delegates, Alexander Hamilton proposed the creation of a "supreme executive," consisting of one person, to hold office indefinitely, assuming that he practiced "good behaviour." Unlike the proposals in the Virginia and New Jersey Plans, Hamilton recommended that the executive be chosen by "electors" appointed in districts.
The initial debates in the Convention focused on whether the executive should consist of one or more persons. Some delegates believed that only a single executive would be able to act decisively and quickly. James Wilson, for example, "preferred a single magistrate, as giving most energy dispatch and responsibility to the office." Others, however, feared placing too much power in the hands of one person. Charles Pinckney, for example, "was for a vigorous Executive" but feared they might "render the Executive a monarchy, of the worst kind." Edmund Randolph also "strenuously opposed a unity in the Executive magistracy. He regarded it as the foetus of monarchy." By June 4, however, the delegates decided against multiple executives because it would most likely lead to disagreement and the opportunity for power struggles between them.
Delegates were more sharply divided over the best mode of selecting the president. The initial debates focused on whether to have election by the people directly, by the state legislatures, or by Congress. On June 2, James Wilson introduced the idea of having the president chosen by "electors" selected by the people in state districts, but this idea was initially rejected because it relied too much on the ability of the people to select good electors. On June 9, Elbridge Gerry proposed election by the state governors, but this too was rejected because it would make the president, once elected, too dependent on the will of the state governments. A second round of debates ensued between July 17 and July 26, during which time very little agreement was reached. The idea of what has become known as the Electoral College was finally re-introduced on August 24, and recommended by the Brearly Committee on September 4 as the best way to prevent "the danger of intrigue & faction if the appointm[en]t should be made by the Legislature." This mode also satisfied those delegates who believed the people should have some influence on the choice of the president. Despite Edmund Randolph's continued objections that the Convention had made "a bold stroke for Monarchy," the electoral system was finally approved by the Convention on September 6.
The debates over the appropriate length of term for the president were even more confusing because they involved the questions of whether the president should be impeachable, and whether the president should be eligible to run for re-election. Some delegates favored a longer term (6-7 years) for a president who was impeachable and ineligible to run for re-election. Others favored shorter terms (2-3 years) for an unimpeachable president who was eligible for re-election. Some delegates feared that with a longer term the nation might be "saddled" with a president who was either a tyrant or incompetent. Other delegates believed that a short term, combined with ineligibility, would prompt the president to engage in schemes of usurpation in order to maintain his authority beyond his term in office. As Gouverneur Morris noted, ineligibility would "tempt him to make the most of the short space of time allotted him, to accumulate wealth and provide for his friends." Alexander Hamilton's proposal that the president hold his office during "good behavior" in order to promote "stability and permanency" in the national administration shook things up even further. George Mason and others strenuously opposed this idea, arguing that "an Executive during good behavior is a softer name only for an Executive for life, and that the next would be an easy step to hereditary Monarchy." Finally, the Brearly Committee recommended a four year term for a president who would be impeachable and eligible for re-election, and the delegates agreed to the compromise on September 6.
The delegates also reached compromises regarding the president's powers. Early in the Convention, delegates debated whether the president's veto power should be "absolute" or "qualified," in other words, whether the president's veto could be overridden by Congress or not. James Wilson, for example, favored an absolute negative, because "without such a self-defense the Legislature can at any moment sink [the Executive] into non-existence." George Mason, on the other hand, feared that an absolute veto would "pave the way to hereditary Monarchy," and allow the executive to "refuse its assent to necessary measures." The Convention finally settled on giving the president a "qualified" veto power. Delegates also compromised on whether the president or the Senate should have the powers to make treaties and appoint judges and other federal officers. Some delegates argued that giving the treaty-making and appointment powers to the Senate alone would place the president too much at their mercy. Other delegates, fearing the emergence of a monarchy, did not trust these powers in the hands of the president alone. The Convention finally compromised by allowing the president to make treaties and nominate federal judges and officers with the concurrence of a two-thirds vote in the Senate.
In the end, the final draft of the Constitution established an executive office that combined many aspects originally proposed in the Virginia, New Jersey and Hamilton Plans: executive power would be vested in one president, who would serve for a term of four years, would be eligible for re-election, and could be removed from office if impeached (by a majority vote in the House of Representatives) and convicted (by a two-thirds vote in the Senate) of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The president would be chosen by electors, appointed by the state legislatures and selected by the people. The powers and responsibilities of the president include a qualified veto, and the power to nominate federal judges and officers and make treaties "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate."
For more background information, the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Teaching American History offers an interactive website that includes a summary of the major themes of the Constitutional Convention, a day-by-day account of the debates, and useful biographies of the delegates. Useful background information on the debates over the office of the Presidency can also be accessed at the Digital History website.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the Text Document for each activity. Download the four PDF Text Documents for this lesson. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in the activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
Note to teachers on prioritizing activities: This lesson, because of the importance and complexity of the subject matter, involves activities that might require more time than is normally allotted for this topic. If your available time is limited to 2-3 days, it is recommended that teachers begin with Activity One, which deals with the general views of delegates on the executive, and then select one of the remaining three activities, depending on which aspect of the presidency (mode of election, length of term, or the president's powers) you would like to emphasize in your class. Teachers also have the discretion of modifying the assignments and materials to be covered in class to fit their allotted schedules. Teachers may also have the entire class engage in Activity One, and then assign the remaining activities to three smaller groups, which would then prepare a class presentation teaching the main points of the materials and activities to the rest of the class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
Time required for activity: One homework assignment and one class instructional period .
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the documents and questions assigned for homework and in-class analysis (listed below, included on pages 1-8 in the Text Document for Activity One).
The purpose of the activity is to provide students with an understanding of how the delegates agreed on the need for an executive office, but disagreed over the extent to which the executive could be safely trusted with its powers. Students will also become familiar with the views of some of the more prominent delegates at the Convention. They will also understand why the question of a single versus a plural executive arose, and why it was settled in favor of a unitary executive.
Students will read the following documents, available in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives Experience and The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, and in excerpted form on pages 1-2 and 6-7 of the Text Document for Activity One:
For each student, make copies of Reading Set A (The Virginia Plan, The New Jersey Plan, The Hamilton Plan) and the Graphic Organizer, found on pages 1-4 of the Text Document for Activity One. (A Sample with Answers for the Teacher is found on page 5 of the Text Document for Activity One) Students should read these documents and complete the Graphic Organizer for homework.
Students should use the graphic organizer to participate in a class discussion initiated by the teacher. Possible questions could include:
Give each student a copy of Reading Set B and the corresponding worksheet, found on pages 6-8 of the Text Document for Activity One. Ask them to read the documents silently, summarizing the ideas of the delegates regarding the number of executives on the handout as they read. When completed, discuss the following questions:
Optional activity: Ask seven students (perhaps for extra credit) to prepare and perform a dramatic role play of one of the seven delegates from Reading Set B. Have each student assume the identity of one of the delegates included in Reading Set B. They should rewrite their character's comments into first person language that is easier to understand. These students should re-enact the discussions for the entire class before all students are assigned Part 2 above. If it would better serve students' needs, the teacher could rewrite the discussions and ask individuals to read the parts.
Time required for activity: One homework assignment and one class instructional period
Preparing for the activity:
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the documents, Note Guide, and Graphic Organizer assigned for homework and in-class discussion (listed below, included on pages 1-13 in the Text Document for this lesson).
The purpose of the activity is to provide students with an understanding of the difficulties in determining the manner in which the president should be elected. They will become familiar with the various modes of election proposed by delegates (election by the people, by Congress, by state legislatures, by state governors, or by a body of electors) and their reasons for or against these procedures. They will also understand why the delegates finally agreed on the electoral system, and how to a certain extent it combined aspects of the other proposed methods (i.e., state legislatures appoint and the people vote for electors who cast their votes for president; the House of Representatives decides in cases of ties or when no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes). Students will also see how the electoral system was meant to reduce the likelihood of corruption in presidential elections.
Students will read the following documents, available in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, and in excerpted form on pages 1-5 and 10-12 of the Text Document for Activity Two:
Reading Set A: Mode of election—first round of arguments
Reading Set B: Mode of election—second round of arguments
Reading Set C: Mode of election—third round of arguments
On the day before the activity:
Divide the class into two groups and assign for homework either Readings Set A or B (available on pages 1-5 of the Text Document for Activity Two) to each group. Students will complete the worksheet (available on pages 6-7 of the Text Document for Activity Two) by listing arguments for and against each mode of election, as well as showing the name of the delegate supporting or opposing each proposal. (See also the Teacher's Copy of the worksheet on pages 8-9 of the Text Document for Activity Two.)
On the day of the activity:
Teachers also have the option of allowing students to meet in individual groups to answer the questions before engaging in full class discussion. Teachers might divide the class into six groups, and assign each one of the questions on the graphic organizer. After 5-10 minutes of answering their question, reshuffle the groups so that there is one student in each new group who has answered one of the six questions. Then allow students to complete the rest of the graphic organizer before engaging in full class discussion. This will encourage students to take a greater lead in the activity and permit the teacher to serve more as a moderator when necessary.
Time required for activity: In class reading assignment and two instructional periods
Divide the class into two or more groups. Assign each group one of the following sets of documents, available in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, and in excerpted form on pages 1-2 and 4-6 of the Text Document for Activity Three:
Allow each group approximately 10-15 minutes to discuss the documents and complete the Analysis Question sheet for their readings (available on pages 3 and 7 in the Text Document for Activity Three).
Teachers have the option of reshuffling the students in each group so that "experts" on each reading set can lead a discussion in the new groups. Give each student the other Reading Set (the one they were not assigned in their original group), allowing approximately 10-15 minutes for students to complete the Analysis Questions for both reading sets.
Teachers also have the option, if time permits, to have each group choose a spokesperson(s) to lead a class discussion on the following questions:
Divide the class into nine groups, and distribute the role play cards (available on pages 8-10 in the Text Document for Activity Three) that will be used in the next day's activity. Each group will represent the delegate on the role play card they are assigned. Explain to the students that a debate will take place on the following day over the following recommendation of the Brearly Committee: "He shall hold his office during the term of four years…He shall be removed from his office on impeachment by the House of Representatives, and conviction by the Senate, for Treason, or bribery." Students will debate in character over whether to accept the Brearly Committee proposal. Teachers might also want to explain the rules of the debate (e.g. time permitted to each speakers, etc.) in advance.
Students should also complete the Analysis Question sheet for Reading Set C available on page 13 of the Text Document for Activity Three.
Time required for activity: One homework assignment and one class instructional period
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the documents and analysis questions assigned for homework and class discussion (listed below, included on pages 1-7 in the Text Document for Activity Four). This activity is designed to give students a better understanding of why the delegates at the 1787 Convention placed certain powers in the hands of the president, particularly the veto power, the treaty-making power, and the appointment power. Students will also see how the debate over a "qualified negative" (i.e., the president's veto of a bill can be overturned by a 2/3 vote in both houses of Congress) or an "absolute negative" (the president's veto cannot be overturned) reflected the concerns of two groups of delegates: one group believed that an absolute veto was necessary to give the executive the means to protect itself against the legislature; another group feared that an absolute veto would allow the president to prevent Congress from passing necessary laws. Students will see why delegates eventually compromised on this power by making the veto "qualified" but making it very difficult for Congress to overturn the president's veto. Students will also see why the Convention compromised on the treaty-making and appointment powers.
Initiate a class discussion over the documents in Reading Set A, using the homework questions as a guide. As class discussion proceeds, fill in the chart on the board by showing the major debates and decisions under each category. Students should also fill in their own charts as discussion proceeds. For example, under the "Veto" power heading, you might summarize the debates of June 4 as follows:
Continue summarizing the debates of each date under the appropriate heading.
Allow students to read the documents silently or aloud. Then initiate a discussion on Reading Set B, continuing to fill in the chart. Possible discussion questions include:
Hand out copies of the documents in Reading Set C, available in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, and in excerpted form on pages 5-6 of the Text Document for Activity Four:
Allow students to read the documents silently or aloud. Then initiate a discussion on Reading Set C, continuing to fill in the chart. Possible discussion questions include:
If time permits, teachers might conclude with a discussion about the significance of the Brearly Committee in reaching several compromises regarding the powers of the president.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1-2 paragraph) answers to the following questions:
Students should also be able to debate the themes addressed in this lesson, and write a longer (2-3 pages) essay answering the following question: Why was it so difficult for delegates at the 1787 Convention to create a presidency that was both sufficiently "energetic" (i.e., had sufficient power and independence) and sufficiently restrained from abusing executive power?
An alternative method of assessment might be to divide the class into small groups, and have each one develop a thesis statement that encompasses all the various elements of this lesson. They should be given roughly 15 minutes to do this. Once they have done so, each group should write its thesis statement on the board, and as a class discuss which is the best, and why. The entire class could then be given a homework assignment to write an essay that defends the statement.
Students should be able to identify and summarize the views of the following delegates:
Students should also be able to identify and explain the significance of the following concepts:
Teachers can extend this lesson by engaging in the following supplemental activities:
U.S. Constitution (as recommended by the Convention, September 17, 1787)
Teachers could alternatively have students annotate this U.S. Constitution excerpt by writing the names of delegates or the various plans that influenced each particular section in the margins.
Article. II. Section. 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed…
Section. 2. The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States...
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments…
Section. 3. [H]e shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed…
Section. 4. The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
4-5 class periods