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For decades, James Wilson has been something of a “forgotten founder.” The area where commentators generally recognize Wilson’s influence at the Convention is with respect to Article II, which establishes the executive and defines its powers. Most scholars characterize him as a resolute advocate of an independent, energetic, and unitary presidency, and a particularly successful one at that. In this regard, some scholars have generally characterized Wilson’s thinking as overly rigid. Yet a close examination of the Convention reveals Wilson to be more flexible than sometimes characterized. With respect to many aspects of the presidency, including the appointment power, the use of an advisory council, the veto power, and presidential selection, he adopted a more pragmatic approach than generally recognized. The most dramatic example of this is an event that is almost entirely overlooked in the historical record: Wilson’s break late in the Convention from his consistent support for a unitary executive by proposing an advisory council to advise the president on appointments. While initially seeming like something of a puzzle, the reasons for Wilson’s change of heart become clearer when debates over presidential power are placed in the context of the larger controversies that dominated the Convention, such as the Great Compromise and presidential re-eligibility and selection. This broader frame suggests that Wilson held a more pragmatic, less doctrinaire vision of executive power than is commonly recognized.


Constitutional law, legal & political history, 1787 convention, founders, Article II, unitary & plural presidency, executive branch, pragmatism, appointments, advisory council, veto power, presidential selection, separation of powers

Publication Title

Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy

Publication Citation

Geo. J. L. & Pub. Pol'y, forthcoming