In January 1788, Luther Martin of Maryland wrote, “And it was further argued, even if he [the President] was allowed a negative, it ought not to be of so great extent as that given by the system, since his single voice is to countervail the whole of either branch, and any number less than two-thirds of the other… .”
Luther was speaking of the debate over the presidential veto at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Fear of executive power saturated the debates at both the Philadelphia Convention and the various state ratifying conventions held to give the Constitution its “vitality,” as James Madison later wrote. No one in that generation (publicly) wanted an elected king.
Luther consistently railed against it, and it may be surprising to most Americans in the modern age that the president was never intended to be the chief legislator. It would be news to Bloomberg, some liberal bloggers, and even President Barack Obama himself, given his refusal to negotiate with his “bomb-throwing” opponents in this fabricated budget “crisis.” According to the Constitution as ratified by the founding generation, this isn’t his job. Nor would members of the founding generation agree with the use of the veto as a legislative hammer.
James Wilson of Pennsylvania proposed at the Philadelphia Convention that the president have “an absolute negative” over proposed legislation. He was alone in this fight. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts thought this was unnecessary because “the best men in the community would be comprised in the two branches” of Congress. Benjamin Franklin, in one of his rare speeches at the convention, thought that such a power would reduce the legislature into “compleat [sic] subjection to the will of the Executive.” And Gunning Bedford of Delaware said that, “The Representatives of the People (the House of Representatives) were the best judges of what was for their interest, and ought to be under no external controul [sic] whatever.” George Mason of Virginia was more direct. Such a power, he said, would lead to a dangerous place, an “elective” monarchy.
The fight continued in the state ratifying conventions and in the press. William Findley of Pennsylvania, speaking at the state ratifying convention, argued that the veto power as written dangerously blended the legislative and executive branch because no law could be passed without the president’s “revision.” “The Impartial Examiner” of Virginia wrote in 1788 that the veto power would be one step toward an absolute monarchy. “If the system proposed had been calculated to extend his authority a little farther, he would preponderate against all — he alone would possess the sovereignty of America.”