The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789-1791

The Daily Advertiser

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The house then, according to the order of the day, went into a committee on the following bill for the establishment of an Executive Department, to be denominated the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. TRUMBULL in the Chair.
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Mr. WHITE moved to expunge from the first clause of the bill, the words, "to be removed from office by the President of the United States."
Mr. WHITE observed, that the constitution had made a specific provision only for the removal of the judges of the supreme court; but as it had associated the President with the Senate in the appointment of officers, it was proper that the power of removal so nearly allied to the former, should be jointly exercised.
Mr. SMITH (S.C.) said the gentleman had anticipated the motion which he himself had intended to make. The question had gone through some discussion when this subject came before the house, but he believed that many gentlemen then neglected to oppose the principle in the bill, under an idea that a further discussion would take place, and had reserved themselves accordingly. He had then his objections to the giving the proposed power to the President, and he still was opposed to it.
The power of removal was, he said, either given by the constitution, in which case it was nugatory to insert it here; or it was not, and the house had no right to confer it. He had examined the subject maturely. He had found it was the opinion of the most sensible writers on the subject of the constitution, who had laid it down, that the senate ought to be consulted in the removal as well as in the appointment of officers. One, in particular, under the signature of PUBLIUS,[1] who had commented with extensive learning, and the most profound sagacity, had expressed fully that opinion.
He was sure, he said, that the constitution had given no such power to the president. If one reads that instrument with attention, one would see that the powers of the different departments of the government were defined expressly— It declared what the different powers vested in the president should be. But no such power as this was given him. Mr. Smith, therefore concluded, that the design of the constitution was that he should not possess it. This he thought would further appear, by another part of the constitution, which has established a mode of removing principal officers on conviction, after impeachment, of treason, &c. If the constitution had provided a particular mode of removing from office, it was a reason from which to conclude that it was improper to adopt any other. He would be glad to know for what causes an officer was to be removed from his office, except for mal-practices or misdemeanors? Could they be removed for sickness or ignorance? But who was to judge of a man's ignorance or incapacity, unless by reason of that ignorance, something was done which would constitute an offence. But in that case the punishment would be not for the incapacity, but for the actual misdemeanor resulting from it.
He apprehended that the clause vested a power in the president which might be liable to great abuses, for we were not to expect always to have a chief magistrate in whom so entire a confidence could be placed, as in the present; the splendor of whose virtues was so dazzling, as to prevent gentlemen, he feared, from calculating with sufficient caution for futurity. When the constitution was formed, the convention did not presume that the presidential chair would always be filled with so much virtue and merit, they had therefore provided various checks and guards. It was certain, he said, that if the presidents possessed the power of displacing persons from high offices, they would all be rendered abject dependent and slaves to him, and would be obliged to submit to all his caprices and fancies. Men of integrity would be unwilling to make such sacrifices of their feelings and principles, and it would be difficult to find characters proper to fill the offices of government. When a man of virtue was assured that, if accused, he should have a fair trial, and be heard publicly in his defence, he would be willing to come forward and to hazard his reputation. But when a person was liable, according to the whim of the president, to be deprived of his office without trial, secretly, and without knowing the reason, when he was exposed to the loss of his property by wanton changes in office, (for an office, for which a man has relinquished his employments and his profession, was a real and sacred property), when this was the case, the tenure would be too dangerous or too humiliating for a virtuous man. The President might always have around him some, who, envious of the honors and emoluments of men in office, would be perpetually insinuating suspicions and intriguing against them.
Mr. SMITH made some other observations to shew the danger of abuses which would flow from the proposed investitures of so delicate and important a power.
Mr. HUNTINGTON was in favour of the motion; he observed that the argument which had been most urged, respecting the responsibility of the president, would be deprived of much of its weight, by reflecting that this responsibility, when a vicious man was placed at the head of government, would be of little avail as to all those small abuses, which were most to be guarded against; and if a virtuous man held the first post, responsibility would not be necessary, and would rarely come into view.
Mr. SEDGWICK was opposed to the motion. He was persuaded the remedy by impeachment for public offences, from the length of its process, and the difficulties attending it, could rarely be adopted and pursued with efficacy and decision. It was calculated only for the most important occasions. In most of the cases, for which the summary remedy entirely inadequate. When a man became odious from various causes without the commission of any positive offence, when experience had discovered a deficiency in his talents or industry, when his political principles were obnoxious to the people, and he had lost their confidence, when his powers instead of being exerted for the good of his country, were directed to his personal aggrandizement; in all these cases, and in many others of the like kind, it would be improper to wait the tedious process of a formal trial— something decisive was necessary.
In addition to this idea it would be requisite, he said, on the gentleman's principles, that the senate should be constantly assembled, which he hoped would not be the case— In the absence of this body, what was to be done? A crime was committed, or the popular dissatisfaction was excited to an alarming degree— must the senate be collected from the extremities of the union, and must justice be delayed?
Gentlemen, he said, had dwelt on the danger of abuses; it was true there was some possible danger, but surely the argument operated against the senators with equal force, and the power in their hands was as liable to abuse as in the possession of him whom the united voice of the people should call to the chief magistracy.
    [1.] Publius was the pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the three authors of the Federalist Papers. The quotation is from Federalist No. 77, authored by Hamilton.