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The Idea of the Senate

A Place of “Sober Second Thought”
George Frisbee Hoar, 1897
Image of George Hoar

George Frisbee Hoar was born with the Constitution and the United States Senate in his genes. The Massachusetts senator’s maternal grandfather was Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a delegate from Connecticut to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the coauthor of the Great Compromise that established the Senate as a forum for the equal representation of all states, and a U.S. senator in the early 1790s. As a senator in the 1890s, Hoar resolutely opposed growing pressures to amend the Constitution to provide for direct popular election of senators. He expressed his views on senatorial elections in an 1897 article entitled, “Has the Senate Degenerated?”

Of Puritan ancestry, Hoar began his life in 1826 in a town intimately associated with the American Revolution—Concord, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, entering the Massachusetts state legislature at age 25. In the state senate, he chaired the judiciary committee and developed a report that carefully defined barriers between the state’s executive and legislative branches. An active Republican from the time of that party’s founding in the mid-1850s, Hoar won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1868. He moved to the Senate in 1877 and served there until his death in 1904. Hoar held a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee for 20 years, chairing that influential panel for all but two of his final 13 years in the Senate. In that capacity, he engineered enactment of the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 and an 1887 statute that repealed the Tenure of Office Act, which had asserted a role for the Senate in removing federal officials whose appointments it had originally confirmed.

Although an aggressively partisan senator, Hoar instinctively placed the Senate and its constitutional prerogatives above party matters. He served for 25 years on the chamber’s Committee on Privileges and Elections, skillfully managing the increasing number of contested Senate elections. Hoar used his prestige as a guardian of proper Senate practices to secure enactment of rules enforcing decorum in floor debate. Following a 1902 fistfight in the Senate Chamber between the two South Carolina senators, Hoar proposed and gained adoption of today’s Rule 19, which prohibits senators from suggesting that any other senator has engaged in conduct unworthy of a senator or from referring offensively to any other state in the Union.

He predicted that a direct election amendment would invite electoral corruption, lower the quality of senators, and destroy the uniqueness of the Senate as the special forum for “sober second thought” in a carefully devised constitutional system of checks and balances. Four years before publication of his “Has the Senate Degenerated?” article, Hoar delivered a major speech considered so powerful and persuasive that it postponed serious Senate debate on the proposal for at least a decade. In those April 1893 remarks to the Senate, he explained that the proposed amendment would substitute the choices of political party conventions for those of state legislatures. Unlike the firmly established legislatures, party conventions have no permanence—gathering “in the morning, and dispers[ing] when the mists of evening rise.”1 He described the conventions as “having no other responsibilities, whose election can not be regulated by law, whose members act by proxy, whose tenure of office is for a single day, whose votes and proceedings are not recorded, who act under no personal responsibility, whose mistakes, ordinarily, can only be corrected by the choice of Senators who do not represent the opinions concerning public measures and policies of the people who choose them.”2

Hoar took special responsibility as Roger Sherman’s grandson for preserving the Senate as the Constitution’s framers had originally designed it. Alterations of that charter to allow popular election would, he feared, open the door to amendments abolishing the Electoral College and providing for popular election of federal judges. He explained his views in his 1897 article, “Has the Senate Degenerated?”

Has the Senate Degenerated?

The Senate contributes as large a part to the legislation of the country to-day as it has done at any period of our history. This legislation I believe is better done than ever before. As many good and wholesome laws are enacted to-day as have been at any other period of our history. This is true, although we must now legislate for seventy millions instead of for three millions; although the doctrines of State rights and strict construction are overthrown; although the subtleties of the question of currency and finance present themselves for solution as never before; although we have been brought so much nearer to foreign countries by steam and electricity, and our domestic commerce has multiplied many thousandfold. I believe the people, as a whole, are better, happier, more prosperous, than they ever were before; and I believe the two Houses of Congress represent what is best in the character of the people now as much as they ever did.

We must put a stop in some way to the obstruction by minorities of the will of the people and of the will of majorities. It must be done, if it can be done, without sacrificing the right of reasonable debate and unlimited amendment. We have also to devise some way of securing the honest election of Representatives and Senators. If these two things can be accomplished, the legislation of the country will reflect the will and character of the people. . . .

The Senate . . . was created that the deliberate will, the sober second thought of the people might find expression. It was intended that it should resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people. This hasty passion and intemperance is frequently found in the best men as in the worst. But so long as the political management of the country excites eager interest, so long these feelings will be excited; and when they are excited the body whose function it is to resist them will be, for the time being, an object of dislike and attack. It has, therefore, always been true, is true now, and always will be true, that the Senate is an object of bitter denunciation by those persons whose purposes are thwarted or delayed. That will be especially true when the House and Executive, the popular majority, are of one way of thinking and the Senate, representing the will of the majority of the States, is of another way. It is fair, therefore, that the Senate should be judged not by considering its conduct or its composition at the time when the judgment is to be expressed, but by a review of a whole century of its history.

. . . The President represents the majority of the whole people; the House of Representatives, the present and immediate popular desire of the constituencies. But the Senate stands also for the will of the American people. It stands for its deliberate, permanent, settled desire,—its sober, second thought. 3

With an abiding love of historical study, Hoar served as a Smithsonian regent and as president of the American Historical Association and the American Antiquarian Society. As a hobby, he translated from the original Greek Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian Wars. Shortly before his death, Hoar published an insightful two-volume memoir, Autobiography of Seventy Years (1903).

Further Reading:

U.S. Congress. Congressional Record. 53rd Congress, special sess., pp. 67, 97, 101-110.

Hoar, George F. Autobiography of Seventy Years. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1903.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. George Frisbee Hoar and the Half-Breed Republicans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

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1. Congressional Record, 53rd Congress, April 7, 1893, special sess., p. 104.
2. Congressional Record, 53rd Congress, April 3, 1893, special sess., p. 67.
3. George Frisbee Hoar, “Has the Senate Degenerated?” Forum 23 (April 1897): 140-42.