It’s late afternoon in the Mediterranean, where it’s been a dramatic day along the sea’s eastern shore. Egypt’s parliament is voting on a hurried draft of a new constitution for the world’s largest Arab state; Syrian rebels are moving on the Damascus airport and a key military base, and communications have gone dark; the Palestinian legislature is voting in the next few hours on taking its next steps toward statehood to the United Nations. (Here’s an editorial, from Israeli daily Haaretz, in favor of the resolution; here’s video of U.S. representatives articulating opposition to a related initiative last year).
Predictably, reaction to these events has set some of the nerdier parts of the internet on fire in the past 12 hours, and the tendency amid all the tweets and posts and reactions is to apply 21st century rhythms to events that persist to move at the frustrating pace of normal human history. With that in mind, we submit below — from Yale University’s fantastic Avalon Project, which digitizes “documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government” — the following sausage-factory view of a previous nation-building effort, the 1787 Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia.
According to Avalon’s summary, these are personal notes from a single day of arguments from Rufus King, a Massachusetts delegate. King participated in the months-long deliberations and was a signer of the resulting Constitution. He was a lawyer.
House of Representatives to be elected by the People.
Gerry opposes. Appointment by the State Legislature preferable, because the People want information.
Mason, Virginia-in favor of popular choice, because the first Branch is to represent the People. We must not go too far. A portion of Democracy should be preserved; our own children in a short time will be among the general mass.
Wilson of Penn. agrees with Mason. We ought to adopt measures to secure the popular confidence, and to destroy the Rivalry between the Genl. and State Governments; in this way both will proceed immediately from the People.
Madison agrees with Wilson. The measure immediately introduces the People, and will naturally inspire the affection for the Genl. Govt. that exists toward our own offspring. A legislative appointment will remove the Govt. too far from the People. In Maryland the Senate is two Removes from the People, and a Deputy appointed by them would be three Removes off; and if the first Branch appoint the second, the Deputy wd. be four Removes-and if the Legislature of the U. S. appoint the President or Executive, the Executive wd. be five Removes from the People. If the Election be made by the People in large Districts, there will be no danger of Demagogues.
Measure carried. That first Br. be elected by People of the several States. Mass. N. Y. Penn. Virginia. N. Car. & Georgia-aye. Con. & Del. divided N. Jersey & S. Carolina,-No.
Friday June 1. Com. of the whole.
Executive power to be in one person.
Motion by Wilson Penn. Seconded by Chs. Pinckney So. Car.
Rutledge in favor of the motion.
Sherman preferred leaving the number to the Legislature.
Wilson. An Executive should possess the Power of secresy, vigour & Dispatch, and so constituted as to be responsible. Executive powers are intended for the execution of the Laws, and the appointment of officers not otherwise appointed: a single Executive may be responsible, but a numerous one cannot be responsible.
Madison agreed with Wilson in the Definition of Executive power. Ex vi termini. Executive power does not include the Power of War and Peace. Executive Power shd. be limited and defined. If large, we shall have the Evils of Elective Monarchies. Perhaps the best plan will be a single Executive of long duration, with a Council and with Liberty to dissent on his personal Responsibility.
Gerry. I am in favor of a Council to advise the Executive: they will be organs of information respecting Persons qualified for the various offices. Their opinions may be recorded, so as to be liable to be called to account & impeached-in this way, their Responsibility will be certain, and for misconduct their Punishment sure.
Dickinson. A limited yet vigorous Executive is not republican, but peculiar to monarchy-the royal Executive has vigour, not only by power, but by popular Attachment & Report-an Equivalent to popular attachment may be derived from the Veto on the Legislative acts. We cannot have a limited monarchy-our condition does not permit it. Republics are in the beginning and for a time industrious, but they finally destroy themselves because they are badly constituted. I dread the consolidation of the States, & hope for a good national Govt. from the present Division of the States with a feeble Executive.
We are to have a Legislature of two branches, or two Legislatures, as the sovereign of the nation-this will work a change unless you provide that the judiciary shall aid and correct the Executive. The first Branch of the Legislature, the H. of Representatives, must be on another plan. The second Branch or Senate may be on the present scheme of representing the States-the Representatives to be apportioned according to the Quotas of the States paid into the general Treasury. The Executive to be removed from office by the national Legislature, on the Petition of seven States.
Randolph-by a single Executive, there will be danger of Monarchy or Tyranny. If the Executive consist of three persons, they may act without danger. If of one, he will be dependent on the Legislatures & cannot be impeached till the Expiration of his Office. A single Executive against the Genius of America.
Wilson-There are two important Points to be considered, the extent of the Country & the Manners of the People of the U. S.-the former requires the Vigour of Monarchy, the latter, are against a Kingly Executive, our manners are purely republican.
Montesquieu is favorable to confederated Republics-I also am in favor of this Scheme, if we can take for its Basis, Liberty, and are able to ensure a vigourous execution of the Laws. A single executive is not so likely so soon to introduce Monarchy or Despotism, as a complex one. The People of America did not oppose the King, but the Parliament-Our opposition was not against a Unity, but a corrupt Multitude.
Williamson-There is no true difference between an Executive composed of a single person, with a Council, and an Executive composed of three or more persons.
The Question postponed.
After debating the Powers, the Committee proceeded to discuss the Duration of the Executive Power.
Wilson proposed three years, without rotation or exclusion
Madison proposed good behaviour, or Seven years with exclusion for ever afterward.
Mason-In favor of Seven years, and future ineligibility-by this Provision the executive is made independent of the Legislature, who may be his Electors-if re-elected, he will be complaisant to the Legislature to obtain their favor & his own Re-election.
On the Question for Seven years-Mass. Gerry & Strong, no. Gorham & King aye- divided.
This could, that is, still take awhile.