The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Should the Senate Resemble the House of Lords or Roman Tribunals?

June 7, 1787
Summary: The delegates focused on how to elect the Senate today. Eventually, they decided that state legislatures should do it.
As has been the pattern thus far, delegates relied on Britain and the ancient republics as inspiration.

Mr. DICKINSON had two reasons for his motion — first, because the sense of the States would be better collected through their Governments, than immediately from the people at large; secondly, because he wished the Senate to consist of the most distinguished characters, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property, and bearing as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as possible; and he thought such characters more likely to be selected by the State Legislatures, than in any other mode. The greatness of the number was no objection with him. He hoped there would be eighty, and twice eighty of them. If their number should be small, the popular branch could not be balanced by them. The Legislature of a numerous people ought to be a numerous body.

Dickinson wanted the Senate to resemble the British House of Lords. Madison was informed by the example of Rome.

Mr. MADISON. If the motion (of Mr. DICKINSON) should be agreed to, we must either depart from the doctrine of proportional representation, or admit into the Senate a very large number of members. The first is inadmissible, being evidently unjust. The second is inexpedient. The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch. Enlarge their number, and you communicate to them the vices which they are meant to correct. He differed from Mr. DICKINSON, who thought that the additional number would give additional weight to the body. On the contrary, it appeared to him that their weight would be in an inverse ratio to their numbers. The example of the Roman tribunes was applicable. They lost their influence and power, in proportion as their number was augmented. The reason seemed to be obvious: they were appointed to take care of the popular interests and pretensions at Rome; because the people by reason of their numbers could not act in concert, and were liable to fall into factions among themselves, and to become a prey to their aristocratic adversaries. The more the representatives of the people, therefore, were multiplied, the more they partook of the infirmities of their constituents, the more liable they became to be divided among themselves, either from their own indiscretions or the artifices of the opposite faction, and of course the less capable of fulfilling their trust. When the weight of a set of men depends merely on their personal characters, the greater the number, the greater the weight. When it depends on the degree of political authority lodged in them, the smaller the number, the greater the weight. These considerations might perhaps be combined in the intended Senate; but the latter was the material one.

Dickinson also compared the proposed system to the solar system.\

He compared the proposed national system to the solar system, in which the States were the planets, and ought to be left to move freely in their proper orbits.

Delegate Wilson used the British government as a negative example.

Mr. WILSON. The subject, it must be owned, is surrounded with doubts and difficulties. But we must surmount them. The British Government cannot be our model. We have no materials for a similar one. Our manners, our laws, the abolition of entails and of primogeniture, the whole genius of the people, are opposed to it. He did not see the danger of the States being devoured by the National Government. On the contrary, he wished to keep them from devouring the National Government. He was not, however, for extinguishing these planets, as was supposed by Mr. DICKINSON; neither did he, on the other hand, believe that they would warm or enlighten the sun. Within their proper orbits they must still be suffered to act, for subordinate purposes, for which their existence is made essential by the great extent of our country. He could not comprehend in what manner the landed interest would be rendered less predominant in the Senate by an election through the medium of the Legislatures, than by the people themselves. If the Legislatures, as was now complained, sacrificed the commercial to the landed interest, what reason was there to expect such a choice from them as would defeat their own views? He was for an election by the people, in large districts, which would be most likely to obtain men of intelligence and uprightness; subdividing the districts only for the accommodation of voters.

A trend is apparent. The framers did not begin or end with prayer, they did not debate the theological or biblical basis for any of their decisions. Thus far, most examples, both positive and negative, have been from Britain, the states, and Rome/Greece.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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