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What Experiences Shaped the Founders’ Perception of Executive Power?

What experiences shaped the Founders’ perception of executive power? Professor Steven Calabresi outlines the events between 1776 (the issuance of the Declaration of Independence) and 1787 (the Constitutional Convention). Article Two of the ratified Constitution, regarding the Presidency, emerged as a compromise between the broad rejection of executive power of 1776 and the desire for a strong executive in 1787. https://youtube.com/watch?v=Y2pgTPE1LT4


So, in 1776, the framers of the American colonies and of the Declaration of Independence were very opposed to executive power. And in fact, most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of grievances, all directed at the king and things that the king had done. The colonists didn't believe parliament had any power over them because they weren't represented in it, but they did think the king was their chief executive, and the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence expresses their disagreement with the idea that the king has what's called prerogative power. That is to say a power to legislate to fill in the gaps when parliament hasn't legislated. So, that broad view of executive power was rejected by Americans in 1776. This lead in the first 11 state constitutions to a series of very weak executive governors. Typically, governors were elected for a one year term by the legislature, not by the people. They didn't have the power to appoint officers. The legislature, elected officers. They didn't have the pardon power, and they were really sort of ceremonial heads of state. This system, between 1776 and 1787, worked very, very badly. Everybody disliked it. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was no lover of executive power, found his one year term as governor of Virginia to be absolutely insufferable. And by 1787, people were worried that state governments were too weak, that they couldn't suppress things like Shay's rebellion in Massachusetts where disaffected taxpayers rose up, and they thought that they needed a stronger executive. So at the Philadelphia Convention that wrote the Constitution in 1787, there were a group of young Turks led by Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and James Madison, who wanted a very strong presidency, also Governeur Morris, was an advocate of a strong presidency. And then there were some old Turks at the Philadelphia Convention, like Benjamin Franklin, who feared executive power, and Franklin wanted a three member executive committee. What emerged as Article Two was a compromise between the young Turks of 1787 and the old Turks who remembered 1776, both of which were dystopian experiences. And so the president is more powerful than the state governors were between 1776 and 1787, but less powerful than King George III.

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