A Senate of the States: July 2nd, 1787

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Gouverneur Morris

Subtitle: Gouverneur Morris Warns of a Uniparty. The convention slogged on as the large/small state standoff continued over the question of representation in the senate. I will follow a different course today and let a little-known Framer, Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris, take center stage.

We can thank Morris for the precise text and prose of our Constitution. As chairman of the Committee of Style, he not only smoothed and connected resolutions, he occasionally inserted clauses on his own initiative, which the convention typically accepted as written. Where history tagged James Madison as the father of the Constitution, Morris was its acknowledged penman. Like Alexander Hamilton, he believed the US needed an aristocratic senate distinct in interest from the house. Without independence, if the rich do not have their own house, they will mix with the less-well-off in the House of Representatives and form an oligarchy, what we recognize today as the Uniparty.

Morris asked, “What is the object of the senate?” It is to check the precipitation, changeableness, and excesses of the first branch. Every man of observation had seen in the democratic branches of the state legislatures, in every department of congress, the excesses against personal liberty, private property, and personal safety. What qualities are necessary to constitute a check in this case? Abilities and virtue are equally necessary in both branches, yet the second branch needs something more.

1. The checking branch must have a personal interest in checking the other branch, one interest must stand in opposition to the other. Turn vices, as they exist, against each other.

2. It must have great personal property, it must have the aristocratic spirit; it must love to lord it through pride; pride is the great principle that actuates both the poor and the rich. It is this principle which in the former resists, in the latter abuses authority.

3. It should be independent. In religion, the creature is apt to forget its creator. That it is otherwise in political affairs, the late debates here are an unhappy proof. The aristocratic body, should be as independent and as firm as the democratic. If the members of it are to revert to a dependence on the democratic choice, the democratic scale will preponderate.

All the guards contrived by America do not restrain the senatorial branches of the legislatures from a servile complaisance to the democratic. If the second branch is to be dependent, we are better off without it. To make it independent, it should be for life. It will then do wrong, it will be said. He believed so: He hoped so. Rich men will strive to establish their dominion & enslave the rest. They always did. They always will. The proper security against them is to form them into a separate interest. The two forces will then control each other. Let the rich mix with the poor in a commercial country, and they will establish an oligarchy. Take away commerce, and the democracy will triumph. Thus it has been all the world over. So it will be among us.

Reason tells us we are but men, and we are not to expect any particular interference of Heaven in our favor. By thus combining and setting apart, the aristocratic interest, the popular interest will be combined against it. There will be a mutual check and mutual security.

4. An independence for life involves this necessary permanency. If we change our measures, nobody will trust us: and how avoid a change of measures, but by avoiding a change of men.

Ask any man if he confides in congress, if he confides in the state of Pennsylvania, if he will lend his money or enter into contract? He will tell you no. He sees no stability. He can repose no confidence. The same reasoning explains Great Britain’s refusal to treat with us. Morris disapproved of prohibiting senators from executive branch offices. It is dangerous. It is like the imprudent exclusion of military officers during the war, from civil appointments. It deprives the executive branch of the principal source of influence. If danger be apprehended from the executive branch, what a left-handed way is this of obviating it? If the son, the brother or the friend can be appointed, the danger may be even increased, as the disqualified father can then boast of a disinterestedness which he does not possess.

Besides, shall the best, the most able, the most virtuous citizens not be permitted to hold offices? Who then are to hold them? He was also against paying the senators. They will pay themselves if they can. If they cannot they will be rich and can do without it. Of such the second branch ought to consist; and none but such can compose it if they are not to be paid. He contended that the executive should appoint the senate and fill up vacancies. This gets rid of the difficulty in the present question. You may begin with any ratio you please; it will come to the same thing. The members being independent and for life, may be taken as well from one place as from another. – It should be considered too how the scheme could be carried through the states for ratification.

Morris hoped there was enough strength of mind in the convention to look truth in the face. He did not hesitate therefore to say that loaves & fishes must bribe the demagogues. They must be made to expect higher offices under the general than the state governments. A senate-for-life will be a noble bait. Without such captivating prospects, the popular leaders will oppose and defeat the Constitution.

He perceived that the first branch was to be chosen by the people of the states, and the second by those chosen by the people (state legislators). Is not here a government by the states, (another) government-by-compact between Virginia in the first and second branch, Massachusetts in the first and second branch, (and so on among the other states?) Like the Articles of Confederation, this is going back to mere treaty. It is no government at all. It is altogether dependent on the states, who will act over again the part which congress has acted. A firm government alone can protect our liberties. Morris warned of the influence of the rich. They will have the same effect here as elsewhere if we do not by such a government keep them within their proper sphere. Morris:

We should remember that the people never act from reason alone. The rich will take advantage of their passions and make these the instruments for oppressing them. The result of the contest will be a violent aristocracy, or a more violent despotism.

Through their schemes and connections, the rich will use the wide extent of the country to exploit the people. The people in such distant parts cannot communicate and act in concert. They will be the dupes of those who have more knowledge and intercourse. The only security against encroachments will be a select and sagacious body of men, instituted to watch against them on all sides.

Gouverneur Morris had recently returned from New York. He advocated an aristocratic senate, members for life, appointed by the president, to counteract the mob he expected in the house. The only way to keep either the poor or the rich from dominating the other was to collect each in separate chambers. All convention delegates had seen the effect of too much democracy and changeableness in both the states and congress that amounted to assaults on personal liberty, private property and personal safety.

While senators-for-life probably didn’t stand a chance at state ratification conventions, America ignored Gouverneur Morris’ warning to keep the rich and poor apart. The 17th Amendment foolishly destroyed the independence of the senate, and set the stage for an oligarchy, a Uniparty of increasingly despotic rulers disconnected from the greater interests of the nation.

Before adjourning for the next two days to celebrate Independence, the convention formed a grand committee (one member per state) to thrash out a compromise to the seemingly intractable standoff between large and small states over representation in the senate.

Reference: Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.