Controlling the Governor

William Hooper.

By 1776, the states were debating their respective constitutions and the Declaration of Independence was becoming a reality, all of which was fostering an environment of great debate. One part of that debate was what the role of governor should be for each state, and many of the conclusions and decisions made during that debate carry forth to modern America.

The major concern for most Americans was “lodging too much power in the hands of one person, or suffering an interest in government to exist separate from that of the people, or any man to hold an office, for the execution of which he is not in some way or other answerable to that people to whom he owes his political existence.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 136 quoting Sullivan to Weare, Dec. 11, 1775, Force, ed., American Archives, 4th Ser., IV, 24-43.

William Hooper, of North Carolina, sought for a governor who would not have a voice in legislating and “without any control over the meeting of the Assembly, without the authority to declare war or make peace, to raise armies, to coin money, to erect courts, offices, corporations, ports, or navigation aids, to lay lengthy embargoes, to retain or recall members of the state arbitrarily, to make denizens, to pardon crimes, to grant dignities or rights of precedence.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 136-37 citing Hooper to N.C. Congress, Oct. 26, 1776, Saunders, ed., Col. Recs. of N.C., I, 867.

Hooper’s vision of a governor was similar to what John Adams envisioned. He wished for the governor to be a ruler who was “stripped of most of those badges of domination, called prerogatives.” Adams, Thoughts on Government, Adams, ed., Works of John Adams, IV, 196. Thomas Jefferson had a similar view, preferring to think of the governor not as a “magisterial ruler” but more as an “Administrator.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 137 citing Jefferson’s Third Draft, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, I, 360.

As further explained in Laboratories of Democracy, these fears propelled Americans to adopt measures to prevent any potential of tyranny permeating government. As just one example, some state constitutions included the “ancient English procedure” of impeachment, which “had not been used since the early years of the eighteenth century.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 141.

The context in which these actions took place are also crucial. At the time of the drafting of these state constitutions, there was hardly an idea that the states were united. Most saw themselves as independent countries. Nonetheless, states were concerned, paranoid even, of tyranny ruining the society they had created and were determined to prevent a governor or any other government figure from holding too much power.

While the result of these actions would lead to a weak government and a government where the division of duties and responsibilities was not clear, the early Americans’ efforts to prevent tyranny set a precedent. Americans would not tolerate any semblance of a system that could lead to tyranny. In carving out the rights of what a governor could do in North Carolina, Americans were forced to define what precise responsibilities could be reliably vested with a governor.

This definition of what a governor would be for a state would frame the debate for the United States Constitution nearly ten years later. In that way, each of the states’ debates and arguments about government may have entrenched sides, but also, these debates and arguments advanced the diversity of theories and principles that would be vetted throughout the debate on the United States Constitution. That inevitably had the effect of creating a more perfect document.

Leave a Reply