The Birth of the Senate

City Hall of New York City in 1789, where Congress convened during the 1790s.

In the earliest years of the American Republic, theories were abound about the proper structure of government to best balance equality and wise decision-making. John Adams stated, in his Thoughts on Government, that “a people cannot be long free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one assembly.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 208-09 quoting John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Adams, ed., Works of John Adams, IV, 194, 196. These theories became tested throughout the young country, in each of the state’s constitutions.

Many of the Founding Fathers agreed with Adams. In the years surrounding the Revolution, “almost all of the new governments contained upper houses or senates, embodying the aristocratic elements of the mixed polity.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 209 citing “Loose Thoughts on Government” (1776), Force, ed., American Archives, 4th Ser., VI, 731; John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Adams, ed., Works of John Adams, IV, 196, 195.

Those who wanted a senate believed that it would be a repository “of classical republican honor and wisdom, where superior talent and devotion to the common good would be recognized and rewarded by the people.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 209. Another justification became clear, however: the aristocratic class needed guardians in government for their own class. Id. Indeed, some felt it was “indispensably necessary.” Id.

Alexander Hamilton, emphasizing the stability that a senate brings to a society, stated that “The senate was to the commonwealth what ballast is to a ship.” Id. at 210 quoting Hamilton, Pay Book of the State Company of Artillery (1777), Syrett and Cooke, eds., Hamilton Papers, I, 397.

Despite widespread agreement that a senate was necessary, there was disagreement about the details. While Adams wanted periodic elections for senators, the Whigs and others thought life terms were best suited for the upper house. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 213. Thomas Jefferson, in his proposed draft of the Virginia Constitution proposed that state’s senators were to be elected by the House of Delegates for nine-year unrenewable terms.

Ultimately, themes emerged in the states’ constitutions. “Nearly all of the states provided for special property qualifications for senatorial candidates exceeding those for candidates for the lower houses,” writes Gordon Wood. Id. at 214. Virginia and Delaware were the two exceptions from that general rule. Id. In all of the states, while there were differences between the systems, the senates were smaller than the “lower houses, and were generally granted a longer tenure of office, with staggered terms to lend more stability to this middle branch of the mixed polity.” Id.

These debates and theories were part of the larger discussion of what John Adams identified as the ideal balance for government, as explained in The One, the Few, and the Many. Perhaps more than anything, this is an example of where the states have been used as laboratories of democracy.

What became unequivocally clear from these debates, however, was the necessity of a upper house in the legislatures. While the lower house could become subjected to the passions, and perhaps even ignorance, of the common people, many saw the upper house as being the antidote to that problem.

While some may take issue with preserving the rights of the aristocratic class, for that is hardly a class that has difficulty preserving its rights, few can question Hamilton’s analogy. A senate, if nothing else, does lend stability to government.


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