A Check on Dangerous Usurpations

Samuel Chase. By: John Beale Bordley.

While an upper house of state legislatures was desirable to some, as explained in The Birth of the Senate, it also had its detractors. Those detractors argued that it was a mere redundancy, wholly irrelevant to the founding of a stable government. In taking that position, the detractors ignored many of the benefits of having a second house in the legislature.

Those who identified with the Whig belief system, such as James Wilson, however, believed that an upper house in the legislature would lead to both houses controlling each other. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 248. As applied to the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, the upper house was an absolute necessity as there was a “need for a check on the possible dangerous usurpations of a single legislature.” Id. at 249.

Samuel Chase weighed in on the subject, arguing that “[b]oth branches of our legislature derive all their power from the people, and equally hold their commissions to legislate, or make laws, from the grant of the people; and there is no different between them but only in the duration of their commission. Their authority proceeds from the same source, and is co-equal, and co-extensive.” Baltimore Maryland Journal, Feb. 13, 1787. He continued, stating that “[b]oth branches must be equally the representatives, trustees, and servants of the people, and the people are equally the constituents of both.” Id. Thus, the legislature was divided into “two distinct bodies of men [so that they] operate as checks upon each other.” Id.

While many were focused on creating an upper house in the legislative branch for the purpose of protecting more aristocratic interests, Samuel Chase and others were more concerned with putting a check on the lower house in their respective state constitutions. Naturally, this meant that the people would have double representation in that they would have a representative and a senator. To many, this was a foreign concept, and to the detractors of the creation of the upper houses, it was a needless redundancy.

In fact, these discussions about the state constitutions, such as the Pennsylvania Constitution that James Wilson identified and the Maryland Constitution that Samuel Chase identified, would inform the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution shortly thereafter. The creation of the Senate would not be a redundancy, but instead, it would serve as yet another check in the American government.

It would ensure that the passions of the people would not lead to hastily passed and hardly contemplated laws. It would also hopefully prevent the early Americans’ biggest fear: tyranny.

Modern Americans may not realize that this concept of double representation, of having a senator and a representative, was so hesitantly created. But it is a valuable component of the legislative branch of most states and the federal government, as it provides the people an additional avenue for having their voices heard. This, of course, has had the effect of allowing individuals to get more involved with their government, and that allowance should not be forgotten, particularly amongst those who complain but take little action.

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