One morning in August of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention awoke to see reports in the Philadelphia press that they were on the verge of installing a monarchy in America.

Even the name of the new king was reported: the multititled Bishop of Osnabruck, or Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, the second son of George III.

British diplomats in America took the story dead seriously, dispatching a communique to Whitehall: "The report of an intention on the part of America to apply for a sovereign of the house of Hanover has been circulated here, and should an application of that nature be made, it will require a very nice consideration in what manner so important a subject should be treated."

The convention was so alarmed by the rumor, however, that for the first time it issued what amounted to a press release on its otherwise secret activities, saying: "Tho' we cannot affirmatively tell you what we are doing, we can, negatively, tell you what we are not doing -- we {have} never once thought of a king."

That much was true: The convention never once thought of a king. But nine weeks into the convention, although they had hashed and rehashed the subject of the executive branch, delegates had not come up with an alternative to a king, either. Every delegate, it seemed, had a scheme to propose. Among them:

Three executives, each from a different part of the country.

A president with a life term.

A president, without a life term, chosen by the people.

A president chosen by the Congress.

A president chosen by the governors of the states.

A president chosen by a group of members of Congress to be determined by lot.

A president chosen by the Congress for the first term and by electors for the second.

And so on.

The debate in July on the length of the presidential term sounded like bidding at an auction: three years; four years; six years; 11 years; eight years; 15 years.

"Twenty years," cracked Rufus King of Massachusetts. "This is the medium life of princes."

In a single week of July, the convention changed its mind three times on how the president should be elected. As James Wilson of Pennsylvania said, the subject of the executive branch was "in truth the most difficult of all we have had to decide."

There was never any doubt that there would be an executive branch of government. All the states had them in one form or another. The consequences of not having an executive had been amply demonstrated in the Continental Congress and the Congress of the Confederation that succeeded it, when virtually all of the nation's business -- including management of the war effort -- had been run by committee, with bad results.

But as it tried to come up with a design, the convention was caught in a powerful crosscurrent. On the one hand, an executive branch that was too powerful, or that resembled a monarchy in any way, shape or form, would never be accepted in America.

On the other hand, experience in the states, where the legislatures had run amok and where the governors were too weak to do anything about it, had convinced them that the executive had to be powerful enough to be a solid and independent counterweight in the scale of government.

The first and largest problem -- which had to be resolved before the convention was willing to confront the powers of the presidency -- was determining a mode of election for the executive.

Direct election of the president by the people was out of the question for most of the delegates, liable to "the most obvious and striking objections," as Charles Pinckney of South Carolina said.

The people "will never be sufficiently informed of characters," agreed Roger Sherman of Connecticut, "and besides will never give a majority of votes to any one man. They will generally vote for some man in their own state," he said, and thus the most populous state will always fill the presidency.

It would "be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief magistrate to the people as it would to refer a trial of colors to a blind man," said George Mason of Virginia. "The extent of the country renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity" to judge the qualifications of the candidates, he said.

The most obvious method, familiar from the states, was to have Congress elect the president. This method, proposed by James Madison in his Virginia Plan, appeared to be the favorite of the convention, particularly the large states, as long as both houses of the Congress were based on proportional representation and thus controlled by the large states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

On July 16, however, the convention approved the "Great Compromise," which created a House of Representatives based on proportional representation and a Senate with an equal vote for each state. With the proposed Congress now much less subject to the control of the large states, Madison and his allies no longer wanted Congress to elect the president.

Suddenly, Madison, who had originally proposed this idea, pronounced it a gross violation of all sound principles of government. "If it be essential to the preservation of liberty that the legislative, executive and judiciary powers be separate," Madison said solemnly on July 17, "it is essential to a maintenance of the separation that they should be independent of each other. The executive could not be independent of the legislature if dependent on the pleasure of that branch for a reappointment."

Madison and the rest of the southern delegates could not support direct popular elections, however, and not only because the notion was too democratic. The more "serious" problem, as Madison said July 19, was "on the score of the Negroes."

Because a huge percentage of the South's population were slaves who could not vote, the North would always dominate any direct popular election for the presidency, he said. To "obviate this difficulty," Madison and many of the other southerners began to champion the notion of an electoral college -- with each state given the same number of electoral votes as it has seats in the Congress. The advantage to the South was that under a previous agreement in the convention, the slaves (three-fifths of them at least) were to be counted when determining the number of seats due the South in the House of Representatives.

Thus, under the electoral college scheme, the South would have the best of both worlds: It could keep the blacks totally powerless while exploiting them to increase southern clout in choosing the president.

By late July, the convention was still unable to make up its mind which of these methods it preferred. Every time it thought it had settled on one method, someone would point out the disadvantages and convince the others to change their minds.

The convention would vote to let the Congress choose the president, for example. Then, someone would point out that if the Congress elected the president, the president should not be eligible for reelection, since he would spend all of his time wheeling and dealing with the Congress to obtain a second term.

This made sense to many delegates, so they would vote to deny the president reelection. That action, in turn, offended delegates who felt strongly that to make the president more responsive, he should indeed be eligible for reelection. These delegates then switched their votes and swung the convention back toward the electoral college method.

Where the convention stood on the presidency thus depended on which day you asked. On July 17, Congress would choose the president. On July 19, an electoral college would have that power. On July 24, the Congress once again would have it.

James Wilson of Pennsylvania viewed this chaos "with pleasure," as he said, for he was the one man who was certain about what he wanted for the presidency and believed that given enough time, and enough confusion, he could swing the others his way.

Wilson believed in a strong chief executive, whose primary missions should be to execute the laws with "energy, dispatch and responsibility," on the one hand, and to protect the people from the excesses of the Congress on the other, to "stand the mediator between the intrigues and sinister views of the representatives and the general liberties and interests of the people."

The only certain means of obtaining the independence necessary to carry out these missions, he said, was to give the president his own base of strength in the people.

As Maryland was a model for the Senate, New York was Wilson's model for the presidency. Wilson and his nationalist allies didn't much like New York Gov. George Clinton, an archenemy of nationalism. But Clinton was powerful -- perhaps more powerful than any governor in the nation -- and they respected that. They attributed his power, in part, to the fact that he had a base indepedent of the legislature -- he was popularly elected to a three-year term.

Many delegates thought Wilson's idea dangerous -- the "fetus of monarchy," as Edmund Randolph had said. Some thought it mobbish because it involved the people in the choice of the presidency.

Wilson was ready with an answer to each objection. Dangerous? Not if the president was given a short term, say three years, he said. Not if he was impeachable. Mobbish? Wilson did not insist on direct election of the president by the people. Instead, the people would choose electors who would in turn choose the president. The voting districts, he said, would be so large as to screen out the worst candidates.

Throughout the debates, perhaps the best thing going for Wilson was the presence of George Washington. He was the only man in America who fit the bill; the only man to whom the delegates would contemplate entrusting such responsibility.

Indeed, as Delegate Pierce Butler of South Carolina later recalled, "many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington . . . and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president by their opinions of his virtue."

By late July, neither Wilson's hammering away at his idea nor Washington's virtue had been convincing enough.

On July 26, the delegates handed all the resolutions they had approved so far -- including an executive elected by the Congress -- to a committee of five delegates. Their assignment was to fill in the detail and provide coherence to the draft constitution; and to return the document to the full convention on Aug. 6.

The committee members -- John Rutledge of South Carolina; Randolph of Virginia; Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut and James Wilson of Pennsylvania -- now went behind closed doors to begin their work.

The other delegates went home, or fishing, or sightseeing. Washington returned to Valley Forge.NEXT MONDAY: The First Draft of the Constitution