A Senate of the States: August 7th – 9th, 1787

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This last stretch, from August 7th onward, was an endurance test. The summer dragged on and so did most of the delegates. Long hours in convention plus committee work for many delegates six days a week, combined in a punishing routine. Through it all, James Madison managed to keep daily notes, although less detailed than before the two-week recess. Most delegates had heavy personal and state business responsibilities that went neglected. The nation’s business suffered as well since fourteen of the convention members were also delegates to the confederation congress. In contrast to the first half of the convention, the committee work was extra heavy as the delegates continued to hash out details. When a contentious issue threatened progress, members assigned it to a committee while the convention moved on. In this way, these smaller groups often found acceptable compromises to seemingly unrelated issues like taxes and slavery.

On August 8th, three small states reneged on a critical portion of the Connecticut Compromise of July 16th when they voted to strike the provision that money-bills must originate in the house and remain unamendable by the senate. What could have caused a walkout only a few weeks before was met with anger, and fortunately anger alone, from the large states. The familiar origination clause of Constitution, highly modified, would reappear near the end of the convention in exchange for the electoral college.1

August 9th. A displeased and animated Governor Edmund Randolph (VA) & Hugh Williamson (NC) signaled their intent to reconsider the vote regarding money-bills, which was the flip-side to the compromise in Article V Section 1:

The Senate of the United States shall be chosen by the Legislatures of the several States. Each Legislature shall choose two members. Vacancies may be supplied by the Executive until the next meeting of the Legislature. Each member shall have one vote.

Randolph once again illustrated the inter-related nature of our emerging Constitutional structure when he motioned to separate out the last sentence, “Each member shall have one vote,” from consideration until they revisited the money-bill issue.

In a contentious back-and-forth between the large and small states, Benjamin Franklin once again attempted to cool tempers; he appealed to the honor of the small state delegates, and calmly reminded them that the handling of money-bills and parity of the states in the senate were the sides to a compromise previously agreed upon.

The sole responsibility for originating unamendable money-bills in the house was just as important to some large state delegates as parity in the senate was to the small states. Indeed, Virginia’s Governor Randolph and George Mason blamed the small state’s double-cross of the Connecticut Compromise as their fundamental reason for not signing the Constitution. At the close of the convention, George Mason led the opposition, the Anti-Federalists, against ratification.

While the day ended on a positive note in which Article V Section 1 passed, including per-capita voting, Madison’s notes provided without discussion that a state’s senators could split their votes. That action, along with staggered six-year terms during which the states could not recall senators, was contrary to the idea of senators as state ambassadors under the Articles of Confederation. When lawmaking, states no longer had to vote with one voice. The Framers had a great deal of experience with divided caucuses, and even with caucuses that went unrepresented because of evenly divided votes. Per capita voting better ensured that states would be represented, and that divided delegations would not abstain and frustrate action by the entire senate. A pair of senators can represent different moods and political sentiments even if they split their votes. 2

The Framers’ senate of legislatively appointed members was not anti-democratic, but rather than imitate the raw emotions of people from smaller districts, they embodied a filtered view of the people-at-large, one degree removed from rambunctious democratic assemblies not known for careful and calm reflection.

General Reference: Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.
1. McDonald, F. (1985). Novus Ordo Seclorum – The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 252.
2. Bybee, J. (1997). Ulysses at the Mast Democracy, Federalism, and the Sirens’ Song of the Seventeenth Amendment 514.