Guest Essayist: Professor Will Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

Publius turns to an explanation and defense of the Senate, and therefore to the importance of a bicameral legislature, replacing the unicameral legislature of the Articles of Confederation government. With the Senate the Framers solved two crucial problems, one of them regarding the American regime, the other regarding the modern state.

The regime problem: Can a republican regime, a regime in which the people rule themselves through their chosen representatives, muster the prudence necessary to avoid devolution into foolish and unjust rule by mere majority will?  If not, then a regime of one or a few rulers, men and women bred to rule, a regime identical to those everywhere else on earth at that time, must finally come back to America.

The state problem: can a centralized modern state—indispensable in a world full of such states—nonetheless provide `political space’ for local and regional self-government?  Or must centralization in the national capital or in the capitals of the constituent states of the federation necessarily dry up the springs of citizenship—active participation by the body of citizens in their own communities?

To keep track of Publius’ argument, it’s useful to outline it.  He announces five topics for consideration with respect to the Senate, but quickly disposes of the first three.  His treatment of topics IV and V—predictably, Publius exhibits a fondness for Roman numerals—takes up more than 90% of his attention.

The qualifications of senators (#62, paragraph 2).

The appointment of senators by the state legislatures (#62, paragraph 3).

The equality of representation of the states in the Senate (#62, paragraphs 4-6).

The number of senators from each state and their term in office (#62, paragraphs 5-16; #63, entire); this topic divided into the “six inconveniences” American suffers in not having such a body.

The powers invested in the Senate (#64, #65, #66).

With this outline in hand, consider Federalist #62.

An American qualifies for election to the Senate upon reaching his thirtieth birthday, having been a citizen here for the last nine years of his life, at least.  Because the senate exercises power over foreign policy—particularly, ratification of treaties and declaration of war—a senator should know more and exhibit greater “stability of character” than a House member.  This means that Publius regards the foreign-policy powers of the Senate as weightier than the House’s power of the purse.  We might think the opposite, but of course we live under a system that has consolidated much more domestic power at the national level than the Founders judged wise.

To prevent such consolidation, the Framers had the senators appointed by the state legislatures.  This assured the state governments a means of defending themselves from within the federal government itself.  In the early decades of the republic, legislatures often sent their appointees to Washington with a list of policy instructions, which the appointee ignored at risk of his re-election.  The Progressive-era abolition of this method of electing senators outflanked the states by giving individual senators a power base independent of the legislatures.  This change in institutional design contributed to the centralization of domestic powers, as senators could begin to collaborate with representatives in the House, effectively transferring the old `spoils system’ to their own hands—all without the messy charges of corruption attendant upon the antics of party bosses.  Eventually, the roads to re-election became: first, bringing home the bacon legally and, second, providing constituent services to voters needing a guide through the bureaucratic maze.  This corrupted the intention of the Framers and led to civic indifference—`consumerism’ in politics instead of self-government.

An aspect of the Framers’ design that remains unchanged is the equal representation of each state in the Senate.  Writing first of all for a New York audience, Publius has every reason to apologize for this feature and move on quickly, as the provision amounts to a major concession by the big states to the small states.  But he also fits the Senate into his larger conception of the regime.  As he has already explained, the new regime is an extended republic (Federalist 10); it controls the effects of faction by multiplying factions over a large territory.  American is also a commercial republic, unlike the military republics of antiquity—most notably, Rome.  With the Senate, the United States becomes a balanced, compound republic, “partaking both of the national and federal character,” avoiding “an improper consolidation of the States into one simple republic.”  Hence the bicameralism of the U. S. Congress, an institutional design feature elaborately defended by John Adams in his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States. Given the Senate’s power to block laws enacted by the House, the states can defend themselves against such consolidation—against excessive statism—while nonetheless forming part of a national state sufficiently centralized to defend itself against the statist and typically monarchist war machines of Europe.

Can a republican regime avoid the fatal defect of previous republics—their lack of fidelity of purpose and of deliberation in debate?  Can republics think?  Can they act faithfully, steadily?  Can they be wise husbands, not silly gigolos?

The small number of senators will promote real discussion instead of “the sudden and violent passions” displayed by large, unicameral legislatures.  Longer terms in office will afford senators a real chance to learn their craft and to stick with long-term policies.  Fickle governments bring upon themselves the contempt of foreigners and the confusion of citizens.  “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws by so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood,” undergoing “incessant changes” that prevent citizens from knowing how to plan their own lives, from education to investment.  Such laws subvert popular government by leaving effectual rule in the hands of “the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few” who alone can exploit these protean convolutions that undermine the rule of law itself.  “Anything goes,” indeed.

If anything goes, then respect for the regime will go, too.  Finally, the failure of the rule of law means the failure of rule, simply—in America’s case, self-government through our elected representatives.

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College.  His most recent books are Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War, The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government, and Regime Change: What It Is, Why It Matters.


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