A Senate of the States: June 7th – June 11th, 1787

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On June 7th, John Dickinson (DE) motioned “that the members of the second branch ought to be chosen by the individual Legislatures.” The separate question of proportional or federal (equal) representation in the senate carried over into July and nearly wrecked the convention.

Senatorial election by the states solved two unacceptable aspects of the Virginia Plan. First, the Lower House elected the VA Plan’s Upper House. Nearly all the convention delegates had served in their respective state houses or congress and were aware of the out-of-doors deal making and corruption certain to occur under the VA Plan. An Upper House dependent on the lower could hardly exercise independence. Second, as Roger Sherman of Connecticut observed, with some agency in the senate, the states “would thus become interested in supporting the national government, and that a due harmony between the two Governments would be maintained.” He admitted that the two should have separate and distinct jurisdictions, but that they ought to have a mutual interest in supporting each other.

But, as logical as this mode appears to us today, other delegates learned different lessons from America’s brief period of independence and peace. James Wilson (PA) scoffed at the notion of too much democracy. He preferred the people elect the House, Senate, and President. Rather than fear majoritarian abuses, he reasoned that popular elections served the purpose of smoothing dissensions in government. George Read (DE) proposed a limited state agency in a senate that resembled the English monarch’s influence over Parliament. He motioned “that the senate should be appointed by the Executive Magistrate out of a proper number of persons to be nominated by the individual legislatures.” His proposition was not seconded nor supported. Charles Pinckney (SC) sought a truly independent, aristocratic senate and suggested life-long appointments by the states.

In words that foretold the consequences of the 17th Amendment, Dickinson warned, “If the State Governments were excluded from all agency in the national one, and all power drawn from the people at large, the consequence would be that the national Govt would move in the same direction as the State Govts now do and would run into all the same mischiefs.”

Partly from a process of elimination, and partly through the realization that despite the proclivities of the states in the Confederation Congress, some agency of the state governments best-ensured continuance of the United States.

To George Mason (VA) the states must retain a certain portion of power if justice is “to pervade the extreme parts of the US,” and there was no better means than by retaining some share in the national government. Yes, this risked the evils of the Articles of Confederation in which the states ran roughshod over congress, but he cautioned delegates to consider the alternative, how a national government without state agency would likely abuse the states.

Mr. Dickinson’s motion for state appointment of senators carried unanimously, 10-0.

9 June. Delegates from CN, NY, NJ, DE, and MD argued in favor of the confederation, to preserve a union of states possessed of equal political rights. These men, spooked by the Virginia Plan, were willing to grant coercive authority to the confederation, which would have been unthinkable just a year before. And not far from their consciousness was the fear that the larger states would devour the small. They weren’t against national features in an improved government, but were not disposed to surrender significant power to the large states in proportion to population or wealth.

Equality of state suffrage in the senate was a battle the small states could not afford to lose. Delaware’s commissions to her delegates read in part, “In determining Questions in the United States in Congress Assembled each State shall have one Vote.” Today, NJ delegate William Patterson reminded the convention that the small states would not accept disagreeable terms, and would never join the plan as constituted. In a game of political chicken, he said he’d rather submit to a monarch or a despot than give up equal representation in the second branch.

A 6-5 vote on June 11 allocated senate seats proportionally by wealth or population. Did the large states disbelieve the small state threat to abandon the convention? On this matter, the convention was at an impasse as each side waited for the other to blink.

We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Government is the playground of politicians, but the Constitution is ours. Be proactive. Restore the American Tradition. Join Convention of States.

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