The Birth of the House

Image of Washington's inauguration at Philadelphia by J.L.G. Fer
Painting of the Inauguration of President George Washington. By: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

For many of the Founding Fathers, the biggest threat to the stability and success of the United States was tyranny. Tyranny was a force that could bring down the most free and just societies. Underlying much of the creation of the institutions that now define the American government, the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive, are precautionary and prophylactic measures to prevent tyranny.

John Adams had a belief that throughout history, there was “irrefutable proof that the people, unrestrained, ‘have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous, and cruel, as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power.'” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 188 quoting Adams, ed., Works, 6: 10, 89, 10; 4: 289. See also Adams, ed., Works, 4: 290, 480; 6: 109-10.

The best restraint, to prevent that unjust tyranny from emerging, Adams believed, was to ensure that the people’s voice was always present in government. Id. He believed that “a separate legislative chamber not only to curb their passions but also to counter the wiles and greed of the aristocracy.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 188.

Adams’ beliefs would ultimately be manifested in the creation of the United States House of Representatives.

Naturally, Adams also believed that a strong, assertive executive was necessary to balance the passions of the common people, manifested in the House of Representatives, and the aristocracy, presumably permeating the remainder of the new government. Id.

Adams’ political theory on the purpose and role of the House of Representatives reveals the delicate balance necessary for all voices to be heard but none to dominate. This was especially crucial at a time when each state’s legislatures selected two senators for the United States Senate. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution would change that to the current system, where the people directly elect their United States Senators.

The Founders’ concerns about tyranny prompted the creation of the House of Representatives, which was destined to be a legislature responsive to the people’s passions. To date, that responsiveness has remained, and since the 17th Amendment, that responsiveness has been expanded to the Senate as well.

These developments have presumably empowered the common people to have their voices heard, but the aristocracy that Adams and other Founders feared would dominate the government certainly still has a strong, persuasive voice in government. To what extent that segment of society should dictate the actions of the government is up for debate. Further, to what extent broader public opinion displaces that aristocracy is also up for debate.

Regardless, the institution of the House of Representatives has ensured that the people have a medium to broadcast their voices to their government.

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