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The Idea of the Senate

The Senate as Middle Ground
A Democratic Federalist [Tench Coxe], 1787
Image of Tench Coxe

Born in Philadelphia in 1755 to wealthy and aristocratic parents, Tench Coxe came of age with the American Revolution. He studied law at the College of Philadelphia (now The University of Pennsylvania) and joined his father’s company in 1776. Most likely motivated to protect his business prospects, Coxe remained neutral during the War for Independence, proclaiming himself to be “without party.” Historians still debate whether his neutrality was due to professional responsibilities or royalist sympathies, but it did raise suspicions among the patriot cause. One thing is certain, however. His lack of ardor for the revolution did not stop his fellow citizens from electing Coxe to the Continental Congress in 1788, where he supported the adoption of the newly signed federal Constitution.

Earlier, when delegates to the Constitutional Convention completed their task in September of 1787, the work to establish a national constitution had just begun. What followed was arguably the most important debate in our nation’s history—whether or not the states should ratify the Constitution and establish the new federal government. Many of the Constitution’s supporters—the Federalists—are well known to us, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, who penned the collection of articles known as The Federalist Papers. There were other Federalists, however, equally respected and influential, who brought the pro-federal argument to a national audience and countered attacks of the Antifederalists. Most eminent among these men were James Wilson of Pennsylvania, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, and Tench Coxe of Philadelphia. Within a week of the September 1787 signing of the Constitution, Coxe produced his first essay to promote that charter’s ratification. He continued with dozens more throughout 1788 and 1789. Coxe’s 1788 series of articles in Philadelphia’s Independent Gazetteer was separately published in October of that year as An Examination of the Constitution of the United States, one of the first printed pamphlets to support ratification. In those articles, he reassured his fellow citizens that just as “our President bears no resemblance to a king, so we shall see the Senate have no similitude to nobles.” Indeed, even hereditary wealth could not bring to the Senate an “ambitious, undeserving or unexperienced youth.” Rather, the framers designed a Senate built upon knowledge and experience, not aristocratic birth.

In one of his essays published in November 1787, under the pseudonym of “A Democratic Federalist,” Coxe explained how the framers’ creation of a senate provided a useful middle ground between the British House of Lords and a purely democratic legislature.

"A Democratic Federalist"
Independent Gazetter (Philadelphia), November 26, 1787

. . . The sincere and zealous friend of liberty is naturally in love with a refined democracy, beautiful and perfect as a theory . . . ; and he views with jealousy, apprehension and dislike not only real deviations from democratic principles, but the appearance of aristocracy. Hence the idea of an upper house (a term erroneously adopted from the British constitution) has been disagreeable and even alarming to many, who were equally friends to perfect and real liberty and to an effective government. Among the various regulations and arrangements of the new Federal Constitution the peculiar ground on which the Senate is placed is on this account the most striking and perhaps estimable. A careful comparison of our second branch, as proposed by the Convention, with the upper house in the British constitution, will show, I hope, that there is something like a middle ground on which the wise and good of both opinions may meet and unite.

The ancestors of the upper house in England originally derived all their power from the feudal system. . . . They claimed an absolute right to act in their proper persons, and not by representatives, in the formation of the laws. Being from their wealth, their hereditary power to legislate and judge, and their extraordinary learning in those times, perfectly independent of the rest of the nation, they have often been useful in checking the encroachments of the crown, and the precipitation and inadvertance of the people. In that country they have really held the balance between the king and the Commons. But though such a balance may be proper in a royal government, it does not appear necessary merely in that view in a genuine republic—which ought to be a government of laws. Yet there are striking and capital advantages resulting from a second, not an upper house, if they can be obtained without departing, in our practice, from the real principles of liberty. . . . Let us examine how far the peculiar constitution of our federal Senate will give us the advantages of a second legislative branch without subjecting us to the dangers usually apprehended from such bodies, . . .

The federal Senate, from the nature of our governments, will not be hereditary. . . . They will not necessarily have even an influential property, for they will have a greater number of fellow citizens, as rich as themselves; and no qualification of wealth exists in the Constitution at present, nor can it be introduced without the consent of three-fourths of the people of the Union. . . . The members of the Senate should certainly be men of very general information, but through the goodness of Providence, numbers will be found in every state, equally well qualified in that respect to execute a trust for which two persons only will be necessary. . . . The federal Senate are the representatives of the sovereignties of their respective states. A second branch, thus constituted, is a novelty in the history of the world. Instead of an hereditary upper house, the American Confederacy has created a body, the temporary representatives of their component sovereignties, dignified only by their being the immediate delegates and guardians of sovereign states selected from the body of the people for that purpose, and for no reasons, but their possessing the qualifications necessary for their station. We find then in this body, none of the evils of aristocracy apprehended by those who have drawn their reasonings from an erroneous comparison with the upper house of Britain, and all the benefits of a second branch, without hazarding the rights of the people in the smallest particular.

After showing strong support for the new Constitution, Tench Coxe became assistant secretary of the treasury under Alexander Hamilton in 1789 and was appointed commissioner of the revenue three years later. Aligning himself with the Jeffersonian Republicans in 1800, he became purveyor of public supplies under President Thomas Jefferson, a post he held until 1812. Throughout his career he recognized the importance of agriculture in the American economy, but he also promoted American manufacturing, particularly the cotton industry. He championed new technology to enhance production and served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures and the Useful Arts. He assisted Treasury Secretary Hamilton in writing the influential Report on Manufactures (1791) and continued to produce pro-industry articles and pamphlets under the Jeffersonian Republicans. His firm belief in the need for a strong, national economy prompted his ardent support for the new Constitution. “No American of his day more enthusiastically and uncritically endorsed the famous document that was signed on September 17 in Philadelphia’s Old State House than Coxe,” wrote one biographer, “and few of its many proponents wrote more tirelessly or more voluminously in its defense.”

After leaving government service, Coxe remained politically active and wrote many more articles and pamphlets on a variety of topics. In later years, he focused more of his attention on the issue of slavery. Although long an abolitionist, Coxe held views of emancipation and equal rights for African Americans that reflect the complexities of the slave-related arguments of the 1820s. Coxe remained in Philadelphia for the rest of his life, devoting much of his time to his surviving eight children and grandchildren. Upon his death on July 16, 1824, he bequeathed to his family vast land holdings in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, along with trunks full of political writing.

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