The idea of concentrating power in one man for the purpose of crystallizing accountability was by no means an exclusively Hamiltonian one. In debates over the structure of the executive branch and particular executive functions, too, the desire to maximize executive accountability remained at the forefront of the Founders’ minds and was frequently cited as a crucial reason to endow the president with more power, rather than less.
For instance, during the Constitutional Convention, the delegates considered various proposals for establishing a “council” to the president—something very different from the modern Cabinet, in that it would be a creature of legislative control. The one such proposal to actually get voted on, put forth by the presidential-powers skeptic George Mason, called for a council consisting of representatives from the various states selected by the Senate for staggered six-year terms. But the idea of a council was ultimately shot down by opponents concerned that the president “by persuading his Council to concur in his wrong measures, would acquire their protection for them.” In other words, the fear was that he would use the council to diffuse responsibility for his bad ideas and weasel out of the blame for bad outcomes.
The state ratifying conventions, where delegates worked to persuade the states to sign onto the final document, are another helpful resource for understanding the Founders’ perspective on constitutional-design choices. During the Pennsylvania convention, to support his argument that one of the Constitution’s central advantages was that “the executive authority is one,” James Wilson specifically described the various powers that had been granted to the president as a form of relief rather than a source of concern. He reasoned that vesting significant powers in a single man meant the country had “a responsibility in the person of our President; he cannot act improperly, and hide either his negligence or inattention; he cannot roll upon any other person the weight of his criminality; no appointment can take place without his nomination; and he is responsible for every nomination he makes.” Undivided power would ensure that “far from being above the laws, he is amenable to them in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment.”
David Frum: All the president’s crooks
This well-accepted relationship between power and accountability affected not just the drafting of the Constitution but also its interpretation by the drafters after ratification. The debates of the first Congress, in particular, provide an important model for how the Founders worked through constitutional puzzles in real time, once the work of governing had begun. During one such debate, the House tried to determine whether the president had the exclusive power to remove executive officers who had been appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate—in other words, whether this was his authority alone to exercise, or whether Congress should have a role to play in removal, given it had a role to play in appointment. James Madison argued that it was “absolutely necessary” for the president to be given unilateral removal authority, because “it will make him in a peculiar manner, responsible for [the] conduct” of executive officers. Put differently, exclusive removal authority meant that the buck would stop with the president when it came to badly behaving subordinates. Madison reasoned that the president could be impeached if he permitted them “to perpetrate with impunity high crimes or misdemeanors against the United States” or failed to exercise the oversight necessary to “check their excesses.”