Answers to Mason’s “Objections”: “Marcus” [James Iredell] I

Norfolk and Portsmouth Journal (Virginia), February 20, 1788

Following are excerpts from James Iredell’s responses to George Mason’s “Objections” to the Constitution:

IIId. [George Mason’s] Objection. ‘The Senate have the power of altering all money bills, and of originating appropriations of money, and the salaries of the officers of their own appointment, in conjunction with the President of the United States; although they are not the Representatives of the people, or amenable to them. These, with their other great powers (viz. their powers in the appointment of ambassadors and all public officers, in making treaties, and in trying all impeachments), their influence upon and connection with the Supreme Executive from these causes; their duration of officer, and their being a constant existent body almost continually sitting, joined with their being on complete branch of the Legislature, will destroy any balance in the government, and enable them to accomplish what usurpations they please upon the rights and liberties of the people.'”

“Answer. This objection respecting the dangerous power of the Senate, is of that kind which may give rise to a great deal of gloomy prediction, without any solid foundation. An imagination indulging itself in chimerical fears, upon the disappointment of a favourite plan may point out danger arising from any system of government whatever, even if Angels were to have the administration of it; since I presume, none but the Supreme Being himself is altogether perfect, and of course every other species of beings may abuse any delegated portion of power. This sort of visionary scepticism therefore will lead us to this alternative, either to have no government at all, or to form the best system we can, making allowance for human imperfection. In my opinion, the fears as to the power of the Senate are altogether groundless, as to any probability of their being either able or willing to do any important mischief.”

“1. Because tho’ they are not immediately to represent the people, yet they are to represent the Representatives of the people, who are annually chosen, and it is therefore probable, the most popular, or confidential persons in each state will be elected members of the Senate.”

“3. . . . Our Representatives therefore, being an adequate and fair representation of the people, and they being expressly excluded from the possession of any places, and not holding their existence upon any precarious tenure must have vast influence; and considering that in every popular government the danger of faction is often very serious and alarming, if such a danger could not be checked in its instant operation by some other power more independent of the immediate passions of the people, and capable therefore of thinking with more coolness, the government might be destroyed by a momentary impulse of passion, which the very members who indulged it might for ever afterwards in vain deplore. The institution of the Senate seems well calculated to answer this salutary purpose. Excluded as they are from places themselves, they appear to be as much above the danger of personal temptation as they can be. They have no permanent interest as a body to detach them from the general welfare, since six years is the utmost period of their existence, unless their respective legislatures are sufficiently pleased with their conduct to re-elect them. This power of re-election is itself a great check upon abuse, because if they have ambition to continue members of the Senate, they can only gratify this ambition by acting agreeably to the opinion of their constituents.”

Iredell’s response to Mason’s concerns regarding the Senate are worthy of attention because of the wide-ranging application of his words throughout American history. One of the virtues of the American system of government is its stability. Where other governments throughout the world have had to deal with political turmoil through coups, uprisings, and revolutions, the American system of government has not. At the root of any change in government is the passion of the people. Iredell, and the drafters of the Constitution, were keenly aware that the passion of the people can carry the country to the brink, and sometimes, the passion may be misplaced.

Recognizing this fact, the Senate is intended to slow the implementation of policy changes to the American system of government in response to the passions of the people to a pace that prevents institutional dissolution or upheaval. Mason, in his objections, was focused on the incentive that senators may have in making policy decisions, as they were disconnected from the people by two steps. Prior to the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, state legislatures elected senators to the United States Senate. Mason viewed this system as creating a disconnect between senators and the people of the country such that the Senate may become a chamber that erodes the rights and liberties of the people.

There is always a risk, in a representative democracy, that the representatives will do damage to the rights and liberties of the people. Six-year terms for senators and two-year terms for representatives are intended to mitigate any such risk, as if a member of Congress does damage during their term, the people have the ability to elect a different individual. There is no question that Mason’s concerns were well-intentioned, however, his concerns have proven unfounded. In fact, it should be noted that when a populist or demagogic politician comes into favor with the public-at-large, Congress, and the Senate in particular, stand in the way of preventing any such individual from being effective.

Those individuals who debated the Constitution knew populism and demagoguery would erupt in America, just as it has in every society. The safeguards that are in place to prevent institutional damage because of populism and demagoguery are admirable and should continue to be treasured. Erosion of the American system of government is a dangerous precedent to set. American institutions must continue to value “thinking with more coolness” within the government, so as to prevent hasty, misguided, poorly reasoned policy decisions that may endanger the country as a whole.