Electing the President

wilson-james
James Wilson, delegate from Pennsylvania
Philip Fisbourne Wharton, 1873

Independence National Historical Park

Electing the President

"This subject has greatly divided the House, and will also divide people out of doors. It is in truth the most difficult of all on which we have had to decide."

- James Wilson in Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention

Chairman Brearly (NJ) of the Committee on Unfinished Parts made a partial report. The delegates agreed to the first clause of the report without opposition: "The Legislature shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare." Approving this very broad grant of power, giving the Congress power to provide for the general welfare of the United States has led the Federal Government into a host of activities which the delegates likely could not have foreseen.


The delegates then took up the part of the report recommending election of the President by an electoral college. They discussed it for the rest of the session. In fact, the method for choosing the Executive occasioned more debate over the entire convention than any other issue, except for whether people or states were to be represented in Congress.


This Leftover Committee proposal provided that in elections where no candidate had a majority, the Senate would choose the President from the five with the most votes. The delegates assumed that most elections would result in a Senate selection of the Executive. But there were deep reservations about having the Senate make the selection and a growing preference to shift the choice to the House, as James Wilson's summary of the election process (as recorded by Madison) indicated:


"The eventual election by the Legislature would not open cabal anew,…as [a small number of candidates] must have had the previous sanction of a number of the States: and if the election be made…as soon as the votes of the electors are opened & it is known that no one has a majority… there can be little danger of corruption. Another reason for preferring the Legislature…was that the House of Reps. will be so often changed as to be free from the influence & faction to which the permanence of the Senate may subject that branch."


Debate on the presidency continued in the succeeding days.

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Wednesday, September 5, 1787
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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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