A Senate of the States: June 26th, 1787

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Subtitle: Swamp-Creatures.

Meeting in Convention, delegates once again considered the Fourth Resolution, which dealt with senatorial elections, term length, age qualification, salary, and eligibility to additional offices.

The answers to these issues will frame the senators’ dual-loyalty to the general government and their states. Under the Articles of Confederation, allegiance to the states was so strong that state interests typically superseded the interests of the nation. In turn, this led in part to the deteriorating social and economic conditions which pushed reluctant states to convene in Philadelphia. On the other hand, too strong an attachment to the capital city was just as dangerous. The Framers sought balance; find the median between senators-as-ambassadors and senators-as-oligarchs.

While no one argued against terms long enough to promote stability, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (SC) cautioned against any period beyond four years. He feared that even state appointed senators would eventually succumb to the interests of the state which will host the new seat of government.

Other delegates chimed-in, in another desultory ‘round and ‘round stream of opinions on the matter. The convention needed focus at this important juncture. Enter James Madison.

He urged members to consider the purpose of the senate. It was to protect the people from their government and themselves. The experienced men at the convention were well aware of legislative corruption. Two houses, each a check on the other, were necessary, one of short terms, the other of longer terms from a source other than direct election by the people, by which to achieve deeper understanding of public interests.

Madison outlined again the purpose of the federal convention. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states veered into wild democracy in which majority interests trampled the minority. The revolutionary republican spirit placed too much power into the hands of the people. Among the dangers fostered by the Articles were paper money, tax holidays, and suspension of debts. Frustration with government at all levels was such that fragmentation of the union into three or more confederacies, or (shudder), an appeal to a limited monarchy were not out of the question. Madison:

In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in in this Country, but symptoms of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in certain quarters to give notice of the future danger. How is this danger to be guarded against on republican principles? How is the danger in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority to be guarded against?

His answer: “Among other means, is by the establishment of a body in the government sufficiently respectable for its wisdom & virtue, to aid on such emergences, the preponderance of justice by throwing its weight into that scale.”

To these ends, Madison preferred a single, long, senatorial term of nine years. It was long enough to ensure independence, but when limited to one term, senators were less likely to become permanent creatures of the general government.

More back and forth ensued between advocates of shorter terms.

James Wilson (PA) remarked that since the senate would likely have treaty and war-making powers, it ought to be respectable in the eyes of other nations. Great Britain didn’t bother to negotiate a commercial treaty with the US because our government was unstable. Nine-year terms would therefore placate fears of an eventual hereditary institution, yet render the body respectable to foreign nations.

Six-year terms with one-third rotation every two years passed 7-4.

Next up, “To receive fixed stipends by which they may be compensated for their services.”

As in any line of work, the employee is naturally loyal to the employer, the guy who signs his paycheck. This was a matter of no small importance to the institutional character of the senate. The states paid their confederation delegates, and delegates were naturally attached to state interests. Madison and Johnathan Dayton (NJ) recognized this shortcoming as “fatal to the independence” of the senate.

General Pinckney (SC) moved to strike the clause and prevent salaries altogether. If the senate was to represent the wealth of the country, a body of independently wealthy individuals would be more inclined to resist populist notions from the House of Representatives. Ben Franklin (PA) seconded Pinckney’s motion; many members of the convention would likely end up in the Senate. It would be improper for them to feather their own nests. George Mason (VA) did not make a motion, but stated that a qualification of property of some sort should attach to senatorial appointments. It they were to protect the wealth of the country, they should possess a certain amount themselves.

In a confusing and seemingly contradictory series of identical 6-5 votes, the denial of senatorial salaries failed, yet neither the states nor the new government would pay senatorial salaries. Another day awaited settlement of the issue of compensation.

A subject given little thought in modern times is the prohibition of senators’ holding simultaneous national and state offices. While Madison’s notes are thin, the answer affected the fundamental nature of the senate. Serving in a state office would tilt the senator’s interest toward his home state. While perhaps not contrary to the purpose of the senate, such an attachment resembled the existing firm connection between confederation delegates and the states.

Take a moment to reflect on today’s senate. The Framers created a resilient institution strong enough to resist the popular tide and perform its Constitutional duties, and not a swamp of demagogic politicians with no purpose beyond reelection.

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