Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College
Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5
“The House of Representatives shall chuse the Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
The Articles of Confederation had established a federal government in which all three powers—legislative, executive, and judicial—resided in one body, the Congress. This proved unwieldy and ineffectual. In principle, such an arrangement violated the Jeffersonian precept that any person or institution holding all of these powers constitutes a tyranny. The popular foundation of Congress under the Articles mitigated this danger but did not remove it, inasmuch as popular majorities might well tyrannize. The primary guard against Congressional tyranny thus consisted precisely in Congressional incompetence, an incompetence derived not from the incapacity of its members but from the structure of the institution itself. At Philadelphia, the Framers needed to remove the structural impediments to good government while simultaneously preventing governmental efficiency from malign use. Separated, balanced, but also interdependent branches of government, each exercising one of the three powers, could prevent tyrannical government without preventing firm government.
The House of Representatives chooses its own officers, including its chief officer, the Speaker of the House. This seems obvious to us now, but consider the other possibilities. The Framers might have empowered the President to choose these officers, selecting them from each newly-elected batch of Representatives. This quite obviously would have compromised the independence of the House from the Executive branch. In the most recent Congressional election (for example) it would have enabled President Obama to choose the officers of a House that had been elected in part as a popular rebuke to the president’s party and its policies. Alternatively, the Framers could have provided that the Speaker and perhaps some of the other officers might be elected by the Electoral College—i. e., by representatives of the people as a whole meeting prior to and independently of the first meeting of the newly-elected House. But this would elevate them to same status as the president and vice-president; separation and balance of powers requires that equal prestige be attached to the legislature as a branch of government and not to particular members within it. Choice of the House officers by the House members ensures that those officers will be well known and esteemed by the majority of their colleagues. Other methods of selection could not guarantee this.
The power of impeachment bespeaks the character of the American regime, of republican government itself. In his 1791 Lectures on Law, James Wilson writes, “The doctrine of impeachments is of high import in the constitutions of free states. On one hand, the most powerful magistrates should be amenable to the law; on the other hand, elevated characters should not be sacrificed merely on account of their elevation. No one should be secure while he violates the Constitution and the laws; every one should be secure while he observes them.” The laws are the considered judgments of the elected representatives of the American people; to violate them while entrusted with a Constitutional office must deserve the swiftest punishment consistent with a fair trial. However, only a violation of the law can deserve such punishment, or else no sensible person would undertake the responsibilities of public office. To keep impeachment and trial within the bounds of the rule of the people’s law, as distinguished from the envy, partisan rancor, or other passions of the hour must be a fundamental purpose of any just and reasonable constitution-maker.
The Framers assigned the power of impeachment to the House. That the House wields the sole power of impeachment speaks not only to the separation of powers but to their interdependence. The House alone can impeach an officer of the federal government. Impeachment means accusation or indictment, parallel to the power of a grand or petit jury. Under the British constitution the House of Commons was regarded as “the grand inquest of the nation”; as the most democratic branch, the one most frequently elected, the United States `house of commons’ indicts officers in the name of the sovereign—namely, the American people, unencumbered by any dynasty or aristocracy. This provides for the independence of the House from all other branches, including the other legislative branch.
But, once impeached, the accused officer then has his day in court, so to speak, not in the House but in the Senate; further, presiding over that trial will not be any senator but the Chief Justice of the United States. This illustrates and provides for the interdependence of the three branches. Without interdependence, the American government would feature branches not merely separated but isolated from one another. Each branch would go its own way, leading to governmental incoherence—to what Publius calls, in another connection, a hydra or many-headed monster. The incompetence of the Articles of Confederation Congress would reappear, albeit in a more complex, interesting, and elegant form.
As intended by the Framers, impeachment and conviction of wayward federal officers has proven rightly difficult but possible in cases of clear malfeasance. Removal from office has remained mostly in the best hands—namely, the people themselves, who elect, re-elect or dismiss their representatives in free elections.
Article 1, Section 3, Clause 1
“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”
Publius famously asserted that “the science of politics” had “received great improvement” in modern times. (Some fifty years later, Tocqueville rather more dramatically—he was French—called for “a new politics for a world altogether new”). The newness of American politics and of American political scientists consisted of two things: first, our freedom from rule by monarchic dynasties and titled aristocrats; second, our freedom from the already formidably centralized government of Europe. The “New World” that Europeans had `discovered’ was new to them; what they had discovered was of course a very old world populated by Amerindian nations and tribes. It was new to the Europeans. The real newness of the New World arose from the politics of the European settlers, governing themselves largely unsupervised by European ruling classes and institutions.
Freedom from monarchs and aristocrats meant that Americans could found a regime not seen since antiquity, a republic in which the people were sovereign, with no admixture of any families or classes that claimed a superior right to rule. For example, although most states required property ownership of voters and of office-holders, nothing but ill luck or incapacity barred today’s pauper from property ownership and full citizenship rights tomorrow. The socially egalitarian regime of the United States could better reflect the natural equality of human beings enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, vindicating in the revolutionary war for independence.
Political communities coalesce not only in the form of their regimes. They also form themselves as relatively large or small societies in terms of population and territory and as relatively centralized or decentralized with respect to their ruling structures. The polis of ancient Greece, small and centralized, contrasted sharply with the contemporary empires of Persia and of China—huge but decentralized entities which gave their provinces substantial latitude for self-government because it had to. In antiquity, no ruler commanded a ruling apparatus that could do much more than exact tribute from the peoples it conquered, quell uprisings, and defend imperial borders.
The modern state changed this. Envisioned in principle by the Italian Renaissance writer, Niccolò Machiavelli, and put into practice by the Tudor dynasty in England, the Bourbon dynasty in France, and many others, the state combined some of the size of an empire with the centralization of the polis or `city-state.’ With their standing, professional armies funded by revenues collected by state employees or `bureaucrats’ from societies whose energies were funneled into commercial acquisition, and industrial productivity spurred by the new, experimental science aiming at the conquest of nature—all guided by reformed financial institutions—states quickly became the most powerful polities ever seen.
The American founders needed to frame a modern state in order to defend American citizens from the statist empires of Europe that still bordered them to the north and south, and also from the still-powerful Amerindians in the west. As we know, they wanted a republican regime for this state. But could a centralized, modern state have a republican regime (and keep it, as Franklin pointedly remarked)? Did the centralized ruling apparatus of modern statism not lend itself to the rule of the one or of the few? European statesmen thought so; for the next century, they expected the new republic to implode. On occasion, it very nearly did.
The invention of statesmen devising a new political science for a new world, the United States Senate answers these questions, both with respect to the regime of republicanism and the polity of statist confederalism.
In the Philadelphia Convention, the framers eventually agreed that the unicameral legislature of the Articles of Confederation should be replaced by the bicameral legislature that had been most copiously advocated by John Adams in his treatise, Defence of the Constitutions of the United States. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania argued for bicameralism as a pillar of what Aristotle and other classical political philosophers had called a `mixed regime’—one that balanced the rule of the few who are rich with the rule of the many who are poor. The Senate, Morris said, ought to represent the interests of the commercial oligarchies consisting of urban merchants and financiers as well as country gentlemen. The House ought to represent everyone else—particularly the middling classes of small farmers and shopkeepers. “The two forces will controul each other,” providing “a mutual check and a mutual security,” Morris asserted. The British Constitution exemplified such a mixed regime, albeit with a House of Lords—titled aristocrats—not American-style commoners who happened to be wealthy. John Dickinson of Delaware hoped that the Senate would “bear as strong a resemblance to the British House of Lords as possible.”
James Madison of Virginia saw the regime implications of the Senate more clearly. The Senators would represent no particular class or caste; they would represent the constituent states of the United States. Without titles of nobility (banned in the Constitution) or any set level of wealth, the Senators as such would have no interests separate from those of the people. The Senate therefore would fit easily into a pure or unmixed republic. At the same time, the six-year terms of office would lend the Senate some of the virtues of an aristocracy: steadiness of purpose, the tendency to take a longer view of things that that likely among the representatives in the more democratic House, with their biannual re-election worries.
The design of the Senate also addressed the dilemma of statism. Under the Articles of Confederation, the country had suffered from the inefficiencies, injustices, and dangerous of excessive decentralization. At the Convention, however, delegates from the smaller states in the Confederation feared relinquishing any more of their sovereignty, fearing domination by the large states. The Framers had already tied the House to the democratic principle of proportioning the number of representatives from each state to the size of its population. Large-state delegates advanced the Virginia Plan: a bicameral legislature, membership of both houses being determined by population. Small-state delegates countered with the New Jersey Plan, which would have retained the Articles of Confederation’s unicameral legislature, with one vote per state. All accounts of the Convention emphasize that the debate between small-state and large-state delegates consumed more time and energy than any other item. How could the small states defend themselves in the new legislature without sacrificing the just, republican claims of the large states?
The answer—called the Connecticut Compromise because advanced by Roger Sherman of that state but also propounded by Dickinson—stipulated bicameralism but with two different modes of election that satisfied both sides and also guaranteed the independence of one house from the other. If the Senators were selected by the House, the Senate would have no independence and bicameralism would be nominal; if Senators were selected by voters in each state they might prove better demagogues than statesmen. The Compromise established that state legislators choose the senators. The legislators would have every reason to send their ablest men to defend the interests of their state in the national capital—men of “distinguished characters,” as Dickinson put it. For his part, Sherman and George Mason of Virginia argued that confederal union must give each state—especially the small ones—the means of defending themselves within the national councils.
Setting the number of each state’s senators at two accomplished all of these purposes. As John Randolph of Virginia argued, a Senate smaller than the House would be “exempt from the passionate proceedings to which numerous assemblies are liable”; the more intimate chamber would conduce more to deliberation than to verbal pyrotechnics. This comported with the `aristocratic’ character of the Senate. At the same time, delegations of two senators instead of one reduced the risk of a state being disenfranchised by accident or illness; two senators voting individually and not as a bloc precluded the possibility of a deadlocked (1-1) vote, which also would effectively disenfranchise a state on those occasions when senators from the same state disagreed. Finally, giving every state an equal number of senators calmed the fears of the smaller states; confederalism would sustain them, not overwhelm them.
By designing the United States Senate, the Framers thus addressed both the `regime’ question and the `polity’ question. The Senate reinforces the republican regime by providing an institutional platform for deliberation and steadiness of purpose that a large, unicameral legislature might lack. The Senate also reinforced a confederal polity—a modern state sufficiently centralized and powerful to defend itself in a dangerous world, but sufficiently responsible to its constituent political parts to prevent that centralized power from usurping the right and duty of self-government.
Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.
Posted in Analyzing the Constitution Essay Archives | 7 Comments »
7 Responses to “February 28, 2011 – Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 and Section 3, Clause 1 – Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College”
- Ron Meier says:
February 27, 2011 at 10:31 pm
Thanks Professor Morrisey; I found the discussion on the Senate to be especially enlightening.
I wonder how different things might be today if the original intent of the method of choosing Senators were adhered to instead of changing that method to election by the same method as Representatives are elected? For example, would the extensive use of Federal mandates (education, highway construction, etc.) have passed the Senate if the states, rather than the people, were represented in the Senate?
- Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:
February 28, 2011 at 12:26 am
@Ron Meier, not to mention the all-around carrot and stick methods of regulation over areas Congress is not granted power to do by the states. Our statesmen go to Washington D.C. to have to endure a system of inducements, bribes, and compromise in order to get money that left their state to come back and fund what are local affairs within their state. If money leaves the state to only come back for municipal affairs then something is out of whack. All taxes used to be collected by the states themselves and then paid out of the state’s office to the US Treasury. We ought to go back to that to where people just file one income tax form with their state that pays the federal income tax in some percentage out of the state tax. That way the states pay the taxes to the federal like they used to and it will be the states the hold the purse strings. With such an arrangement then much of the current carrot and stick methods of the federal government would subside; that, and restoring the election of Senators by state legislatures.
Prof. Morrisey’s expository essay reminds me of how the terms “confederal” and “federal” were used so interchangeably. I sought to find a difference and picked up on two characterstics that differentiate the two:
1) A confederacy tended to not have delegated legislative powers in a central government,
2) and likewise tended to have a legislature convened on an as needed basis.
Otherwise the two terms were rather interchangeable in political science.
- Janine Turner says:
February 28, 2011 at 1:40 pm
I thank you Professor Morrisey, for your wonderful essay today! I personally feel so lucky to have the opportunity, as the co-chair of Constituting America, to not only be hosting this forum but to be learning from it, as well!! I never knew that in the Articles of the Confederation the legislative, executive and judicial branch all operated under one body – the congress. It is equally fascinating to concretely understand the amazing forethought of our founding fathers regarding the impeachment process – the independence of the people’s house yet the interdependence of the subsequent actions once an impeachment was initiated. The house initiates it, the senate holds the proceedings and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over it. Amazing! Once again, this process regarding impeachment reiterates the importance of three independent branches that must yet integrate to govern. Re: Article 1, Section 3, Clause 1 – I find the process of how they came to a compromise compelling. I’ve always known of the “great
compromise,” I now know it was the “Connecticut Compromise” due to Roger Sherman of Connecticut. It is interesting to understand the interpretations of Gouverneur Morris’ insights, then Madison’s and finally Sherman’s, not to mention John Adam’s inspiration of the bicameral
legislature! Divine providence, mixed with the talents of brilliant, learned men, both saved and lead the struggling country through it’s infancy. A republic was nurtured through it’s adolescence – now in adulthood – can we the people keep it? At this point, we can only keep it, through knowledge and sacrifice that parallels the passions of our founding fathers. Thank you Professor Morrisey and to all of you who are joining us! Spread the word about this forum!
No one should be secure while he violates the Constitution and the laws; every one should be secure while he observes them.”
- ThreeDogs says:
February 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm
I have to echo the sentiments of both Ralph and Ron in wondering what things would be like today without the 17th amendment. Looking forward to that discussion down the line.
Thanks Mr. Morrisey!
- Cutler says:
February 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm
The essay was interesting and enlightening, but I love the comments by Mr. Meier and Mr. Howarth. But no, that would be too close to the intentions of the Founding Fathers for the present Regime to tolerate. So for now we must use the present method to slowly take back the Senate with strong conservative leaders who, along with the public will take back America from those who would tear away its foundations.
- zac allen says:
February 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm
Well… The senators to this day should be sent there by our legistlature. Its what kept Federalism intact. That way they would be sent there representing the states an its best interest… if they didn’t they could be recalled. i.e… The bank bailout TARP resolution. Anyway…the 1930′s took a grat leap away from what our founders intended. As a side note…. Every time the media or politicians call us a democracy, they should be corrected, and remind them we are federal republic, with representive democracy….. Not mob rule
- Anglo says:
March 1, 2011 at 9:22 am
No one should be secure while he violates the Constitution and the laws; every one should be secure while he observes them.” in comparison to-Separated, balanced, but also interdependent branches of government, each exercising one of the three powers, could prevent tyrannical government without preventing firm government.
Such is the folly of the two party system when at any time it can hold dominance over any two of the three branches of government. Such as has and is being experienced today as there are sufficient grounds for impeachment to be exercised as concerning the executive branch.