The True Story Of How The Presidency Was Almost A Three-Person Committee

Whom do you put in charge of your country after you’ve overthrown a king?

We now know the answer of course — just call the new leader “president” and make him accountable to two other branches of government.

But for a faction at the Constitutional Convention — the triumph of which, we celebrate this week — the answer was not so simple.

For Delegate Edmund Randolph of Virgina, the country had not gone through eight years of war only to reconstruct the British system at home.

A single executive would amount to “the foetus of monarchy,” he said, according to James Madison’s notes on the debate. “The fixt genius of the people of America required a different form of Government.”

Randolph believed that in general, pluralities were superior to a single decision-maker; a lone “Magistrate,” as he referred to the position, would struggle to gain the necessary confidence to properly govern.

Plus, nominees to the position would inevitably come from more populous areas, giving rural areas short shrift.

A three-person executive, Randolph concluded, would be optimal. Per Madison:

“He could not see why the great requisites for the Executive department, vigor, despatch & responsibility could not be found in three men, as well as in one man. The Executive ought to be independent. It ought therefore in order to support its independence to consist of more than one.”

Delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut was more agnostic on the number of men (and, unfortunately, it was going to be men) to serve in the executive, but that was only because he conceived of the position as more of an administrator — a kind of modern-day city manager, only with the entire country as his jurisdiction.

The office, he explained, should be limited to carrying out the will of the people as expressed in the legislature, which could add or reduce the number of people holding executive office at will:

“As [legislators] were the best judges of the business which ought to be done by the Executive department, and consequently of the number necessary from time to time for doing it, he wished the number might not be fixed, but that the legislature should be at liberty to appoint one or more as experience might dictate.”

If these arguments don’t seem convincing now, they weren’t then either.

Randolph and Sherman lost the vote on the question 7-3. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts probably wins for most colourful counter-argument:

“Mr. Gerry was at a loss to discover the policy of three members for the Executive. It wd. 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 three heads.”

Can’t have that.

Historians agree that the unanimous election of General George Washington to the presidency of the Convention helped nudge the executive in the direction of a single office holder.

It also helped reinforce that the executive would be referred to as “the President.”

But how would you address him to his face, now that the war was over?

John Adams, Washington’s vice president (this question now came after ratification), had some unusual ideas for this. He wrote to a friend:

“A royal or at least a princely title will be found indispensably necessary to maintain the reputation, authority, and dignity of the President. His Highness, or, if you will, His Most Benign Highness, is the correct title that will comport with his constitutional prerogatives and support his state in the minds of our own people or foreigners.”

Eventually he convinced a Senate committee to propose, “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.”

That didn’t get very far either.

Here’s what happened next, according to Gordon S. Wood:

“When Jefferson learned of Adams’s obsession with titles and the Senate’s action, he could only shake his head and recall Benjamin Franklin’s now famous characterization of Adams as someone who means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, and sometimes and in some things, absolutely out-of-his senses.”

But somehow Washington, perhaps out of deference to his friend and sidekick, seconded Adams’ argument, Wood writes:

“Washington himself had initially favoured for a title “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.”

Eventually, though, Washington was talked down, and established the convention we still know today:

“When the President heard the criticism that such titles smacked of monarchy, he changed his mind and was relieved when the House of Representatives under Madison’s leadership succeeded in fixing the simple title of “Mr. President.”

Still, an uncomfortably close call.

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