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The Idea of the Senate

The Necessity of the Senate in the Federal Government
James Madison, Federalist 62, 1788
Painting of the signing of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention, with known figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Was a Senate really necessary? Since the American Revolution, the United States had operated under a single-body legislature, but the framers of the Constitution created both the Senate and the House of Representatives. On September 17, 1787, the 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, signed the new federal Constitution. They agreed that the new Constitution, intended to replace the Articles of Confederation, would take effect when it gained ratification by 9 of the 13 states. To overcome suspicion and outright opposition, supporters of the Constitution needed to convince Americans of the wisdom of the new plan.

In the weeks and months that followed, newspapers throughout the states printed opinion pieces that both praised and condemned the proposed federal structure. Most prominent among these propaganda pieces was a series of letters written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Signed “Publius,” and published in 1788 as The Federalist, these essays explained how the new Constitution—dividing the government into three equal branches—would preserve the Union, reconcile differences among states and political factions, and promote a common welfare, while carefully controlling power through a system of checks and balances. Of the 85 essays the trio authored, seven dealt specifically with the Senate (Nos. 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 75, and 76), while others (such as 51) discussed the Senate as part of the broader definition of a federal government that included a bicameral legislature.

Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison explained the unique nature of the Senate and the cautious, deliberative role it would play in American government. In Number 62, James Madison eloquently stated...

Federalist 62

The qualifications proposed for senators, as distinguished from those of representatives, consist in a more advanced age and a longer period of citizenship. . . . The propriety of these distinctions, is explained by the nature of the senatorial trust; which, requiring greater extent of information and stability of character, requires, at the same time, that the senator should have reached a period of life most likely to supply these advantages. . . .

It is equally unnecessary to dilate on the appointment of senators by the state legislatures. . . . It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the state governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government. . . .

The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise between the opposite pretensions of the large and the small States, does not call for much discussion. . . .

In this spirit it may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each state, is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual states, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty. . . .

Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states. It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may, in some instances, be injurious as well as beneficial; and that the peculiar defence which it involves in favour of the smaller states, would be more rational, if any interests common to them, and distinct from those of the other states, would otherwise be exposed to peculiar danger. But as the larger states will always be able, by their power over the supplies, to defeat unreasonable exertions of this prerogative of the lesser states; and as the facility and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable, it is not impossible that this part of the constitution may be more convenient in practice, than it appears to many in contemplation. . . .

. . . The necessity of a senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies, to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions. . . . All that need be remarked is, that a body which is to correct this infirmity, ought itself to be free from it, and consequently ought to be less numerous. It ought moreover to possess great firmness, and consequently ought to hold its authority by a tenure of considerable duration. . . .

. . . The mutability in the public councils, arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government. . . .1

Madison clearly recognized the need for a smaller, more deliberative body in the legislative branch to cool the passions and control the urges of democratic masses. By requiring senators to be at least 30 years old, five years greater than the minimum age for their House counterparts, and to be elected by state legislatures rather than through direct popular election, the framers created an institution designed to provide experience and stability. Such qualifications would be vital in a body to which the Constitution assigned such constitutional duties as providing advice and consent to treaties and presidential appointments. Senators also would serve six-year, overlapping terms, creating continuity by allowing two-thirds of its members to remain from congress to congress. Longer terms, combined with a system of indirect election, would allow senators to resist the whims of public opinion.

The framers also established equality of states in the Senate, assigning each state two senators. The “Great Compromise of 1787” reconciled the demands of the large states with those of the small states by establishing proportional representation of states in the House of Representatives based on population, and equal representation in the Senate. This compromise guaranteed that the Senate would remain a smaller body than the House, where members could enjoy more freedom in debate and create the necessary compromises to bring about successful legislation.

Of all the qualities established by the framers, only the system of indirect election has changed significantly over time. Election by state legislatures ultimately proved vulnerable to corruption. Following the Civil War, newspaper reporters accused state legislatures of accepting bribes to elect senators favorable to special interests or remaining willfully “deadlocked,” depriving some states of their full Senate representation for months, and even years. Reformers reacted to these allegations by advocating a constitutional amendment that would allow the people to vote directly for U.S. senators. This correction to the framers’ handiwork for the Senate went into effect in 1913 as the Seventeenth Amendment.

The Senate has remained a smaller body where states have an equal voice. It has served continuously since 1789, never requiring the biennial reorganization necessary in the House. Senators have tended to be somewhat older and more experienced than representatives, and the Senate has remained a deliberative institution that has brought caution and stability to the legislative process. As James Madison commented at the Constitutional Convention, the “use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch” of the Congress.

Further Reading:

Carey, George W., and James McClellan, eds. The Federalist by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.

Banning, Lance. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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1. James Madison, "Federalist No. 62"