The Selection of Senators

Benjamin Lincoln. By: Charles Willson Peale.

As explained in The Birth of the Senate, the states’ creation of an upper house of Congress set the precedent for a fully functioning, bicameral legislature in most states and the federal government. However, the selection process of who should be a senator was another subject for debate.

William Hooper in 1776 said that senators should be “selected for their Wisdom, remarkable Integrity, or that Weight which arises from property and gives Independence and Impartiality to the human mind.” Hooper to N.C. Congress, Oct. 26, 1776, Saunders, ed., Col. Recs. of N.C., X, 867. Hooper argued that property ownership was a criterion that could easily distinguish those of a senatorial stature and all others. See id.

Benjamin Lincoln took matters further than Hooper. In a series of ten articles published in the Boston Magazine in 1784 and then in the Independent Chronicle the following years, he stressed that there were inherently differing interests in government which threatened to pull apart society. Benjamin Lincoln, American Gazette, Feb. 4, 1779; Independent Chronicle, Jan. 26, Feb. 9, 1786, Dec. 22, 1785; see also Boston Magazine, I (1784), 138-40, 192-95, 271-74, 375-78, 420-23, 546-49. Lincoln firmly believed that to prevent the ripping apart of society,  “the rich must be specially protected in the constitution.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 220. He continued: “[M]en possessed of property are entitled to a greater share in political authority than those who are destitute of it.” Independent Chronicle, Jan. 26, Feb. 9, 1786, Dec. 22, 1785. Therefore, he argued, equal power cannot exist amongst all Americans, as inevitably there will always be differing property interests held by individuals. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 220.

Hooper and Lincoln put forth these theories into the political discourse, much to the concern of others. While traditionally, mixed government “placed honor and wisdom, not wealth and property, in the middle branch of the legislature,” Hooper and Lincoln advocated for a system that appeared to be inherently anti-republican. See id. at 221-22.

Some Americans questioned whether republicanism could even coexist with an upper house, as James Madison said, it tended to “offend the sense of equality which reigns in a free Country.” Id. at 222 quoting Madison’s Observations on Jefferson’s Draft of a Constitution for Virginia (1788), Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, VI, 310; see also Madison to Wallace, Aug. 23, 1785, Hunt, ed., Writings of Madison, II, 172.

Undoubtedly, these early discussions and debates about the composition of senators was at the heart of forming the new American system of government. Complete and total equality seemed impossible, given the fact that many foretold failure of society so long as differing interests were not represented in government. On the other hand, giving individuals the presumption that they were capable of being senators merely because of the fact that they were wealthy and owned property defied logic.

Some may question whether these debates led to the creation of a system where the merits of an individual, wealthy or not, are most properly considered for the election of senators. The United States Senate is one of the premier chambers for influence and prestige in the world, without question. But should the fortunate few who sit in that chamber be thought of any differently than the representatives in their chamber? Should we have and should we still attach such an aura to our senators?

These questions have no clear answers, but they can be asked today largely because of the actions of individuals like Hooper and Lincoln, who sought to elevate the states’ senates and ultimately the United States Senate to a higher level. As with many actions in the years of the American Revolution and the Early Republic, sometimes the reverberations are louder than the original actions. When that happens, perhaps it is best to re-evaluate those principles.

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