July 25, 1787 (Click to read Madison’s notes on the day)
Since the delegates appointed a Committee of Detail (see yesterday’s post), they planned to take a break beginning July 27. The committee worked through the break and hammered out a draft of the Constitution. In session, the delegates debated, then defeated a proposal to allow the Virginia plan to be printed and given to the delegates during the break. Madison was particularly active today and outlined the previously suggested methods for electing a president. In this instance, he preferred a vote of the people.
Influences on the Delegates
Using Poland and Germany as illustrations, Madison waxed prophetic about the possibility that foreign powers might try to influence our elections.
Mr. MADISON. There are objections against every mode that has been, or perhaps can be, proposed. The election must be made either by some existing authority under the National or State Constitutions, — or by some special authority derived from the people, — or by the people themselves. The two existing authorities under the National Constitution would be the Legislative and Judiciary. The latter he presumed was out of the question. The former was, in his judgment, liable to insuperable objections. Besides the general influence of that mode on the independence of the Executive, in the first place, the election of the chief magistrate would agitate and divide the Legislature so much, that the public interest would materially suffer by it. Public bodies are always apt to be thrown into contentions, but into more violent ones by such occasions than by any others. In the second place, the candidate would intrigue with the Legislature; would derive his appointment from the predominant faction, and be apt to render his administration subservient to its views. In the third place, the ministers of foreign powers would have, and would make use of, the opportunity to mix their intrigues and influence with the election. Limited as the powers of the Executive are, it will be an object of great moment with the great rival powers of Europe who have American possessions, to have at the head of our government a man attached to their respective politics and interests. No pains, nor perhaps expense, will be spared, to gain from the Legislature an appointment favorable to their wishes. Germany and Poland are witnesses of this danger. In the former, the election of the Head of the Empire, till it became in a manner hereditary, interested all Europe, and was much influenced by foreign interference. In the latter, although the elective magistrate has very little real power, his election has at all times produced the most eager interference of foreign princes, and has in fact at length slid entirely into foreign hands.
Also in support of an election by the people, Gouverneur Morris rose to the rhetorical occasion with three creative devices — two religious and one from Greek mythology.
Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was against a rotation in every case. It formed a political school, in which we were always governed by the scholars, and not by the masters. The evils to be guarded against in this case are, — first, the undue influence of the Legislature; secondly, instability of councils; thirdly, misconduct in office. To guard against the first, we run into the second evil. We adopt a rotation which produces instability of councils. To avoid Scylla we fall into Charybdis. A change of men is ever followed by a change of measures. We see this fully exemplified in the vicissitudes among ourselves, particularly in the State of Pennsylvania. The self-sufficiency of a victorious party scorns to tread in the paths of their predecessors. Rehoboam will not imitate Solomon. Secondly, the rotation in office will not prevent intrigue and dependence on the legislature. The man in office will look forward to the period at which he will become re-eligible. The distance of the period, the improbability of such a protraction of his life, will be no obstacle. Such is the nature of man — formed by his benevolent Author, no doubt, for wise ends — that although he knows his existence to be limited to a span, he takes his measures as if he were to live forever.
Because Morris invoked an image of Greek mythology, does this mean he wishes to institute a Constitution founded on mythological principles? Clearly, Morris used the idiom to communicate his meaning. Much in the same way, Morris referred to Rehoboam who became a more difficult taskmaster than Solomon. Although the accuracy of this figure of speech is questionable (Rehoboam’s changes were arguably a continuation of trends initiated by Solomon), his hearers would have understood his meaning. However, they would not be moved to even consider crafting a theocratic monarchy.
Morris’ next reference to his Christian views is a little closer to his politics. He laments the trait in humans to seek power and be shortsighted and then credits God for making human nature to be what it is.
The man in office will look forward to the period at which he will become re-eligible. The distance of the period, the improbability of such a protraction of his life, will be no obstacle. Such is the nature of man — formed by his benevolent Author, no doubt, for wise ends — that although he knows his existence to be limited to a span, he takes his measures as if he were to live forever.
Morris and Madison are notable in their repeated references to the weaknesses and depravity of human nature. It seems likely that their religious training inculcated this view and influenced their support for republican government. Given that Madison likely believed in the doctrine of human depravity, it important to see what he wanted government to do about it. In short, Madison wanted government out of religion and religion out of government. In other words, human nature could not be fixed or accommodated by joining church to state. Rather, those institutions were to be as far apart as possible. Government had to adjust to human nature but not join the church to do so.
1787 Constitutional Convention Series
To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here. In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
To follow on social media, click the following links:
Facebook (blog posts and news)
Facebook (Getting Jefferson Right – history news)