Article 1, Section 7, Clauses 2 and 3
James Iredell, North Carolina Ratifying Convention26 July 1788Elliot 4:73--75
Mr. Chairman, this is a novelty in the Constitution, and is a regulation of considerable importance. Permit me to state the reasons for which I imagine this regulation was made. They are such as, in my opinion, fully justify it.
One great alteration proposed by the Constitution--and which is a capital improvement on the Articles of Confederation--is, that the executive, legislative, and judicial powers should be separate and distinct. The best writers, and all the most enlightened part of mankind, agree that it is essential to the preservation of liberty, that such distinction and separation of powers should be made. But this distinction would have very little efficacy if each power had no means to defend itself against the encroachment of the others.
The British constitution, the theory of which is much admired, but which, however, is in fact liable to many objections, has divided the government into three branches. The king, who is hereditary, forms one branch, the Lords and Commons the two others; and no bill passes into a law without the king's consent. This is a great constitutional support of his authority. By the proposed Constitution, the President is of a very different nature from a monarch. He is to be chosen by electors appointed by the people; to be taken from among the people; to hold his office only for the short period of four years; and to be personally responsible for any abuse of the great trust reposed in him.
In a republican government, it would be extremely dangerous to place it in the power of one man to put an absolute negative on a bill proposed by two houses, one of which represented the people, and the other the states of America. It therefore became an object of consideration, how the executive could defend itself without being a competent part of the legislature. This difficulty was happily remedied by the clause now under our consideration. The executive is not entirely at the mercy of the legislature; nor is it put in the power of the executive entirely to defeat the acts of those two important branches. As it is provided in this clause, if a bare majority of both houses should pass a bill which the President thought injurious to his country, it is in his power--to do what? Not to say, in an arbitrary, haughty manner, that he does not approve of it--but, if he thinks it a bad bill, respectfully to offer his reasons to both houses; by whom, in that case, it is to be reconsidered, and not to become a law unless two thirds of both houses shall concur; which they still may, notwithstanding the President's objection. It cannot be presumed that he would venture to oppose a bill, under such circumstances, without very strong reasons. Unless he was sure of a powerful support in the legislature, his opposition would be of no effect; and as his reasons are to be put on record, his fame is committed both to the present times and to posterity.
The exercise of this power, in a time of violent factions, might be possibly hazardous to himself; but he can have no ill motive to exert himself in the face of a violent opposition. Regard to his duty alone could induce him to oppose, when it was probable two thirds would at all events overrule him. This power may be usefully exercised, even when no ill intention prevails in the legislature. It might frequently happen that, where a bare majority had carried a pernicious bill, if there was an authority to suspend it, upon a cool statement of reasons, many of that majority, on a reconsideration, might be convinced, and vote differently. I therefore think the method proposed is a happy medium between the possession of an absolute negative, and the executive having no control whatever on acts of legislation; and at the same time that it serves to protect the executive from ill designs in the legislature, it may also answer the purposes of preventing many laws passing which would be immediately injurious to the people at large. It is a strong guard against abuses in all, that the President's reasons are to be entered at large on the Journals, and, if the bill passes notwithstanding, that the yeas and nays are also to be entered. The public, therefore, can judge fairly between them.
Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.
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