Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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SENATE (IN U. S. HISTORY). This name is given to the smaller of the two branches of the state legislatures, but, when used without distinctive description, usually refers to the smaller of the two houses of congress. (See CONGRESS, HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.)


—In the congress of the confederation there was but one house, and each state had an equal vote in it. (See CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF.) There was some effort in the convention of 1787 to continue the arrangement of a single house, but it found no influential support, except from Franklin and the "Jersey plan," and was abandoned. The greatest difficulty, which seems very slight now, but was almost insuperable in the beginning of the convention's work, was to find a different basis of existence for the two houses. It was comparatively easy to fix the membership of the house of representatives by fair proportions of the whole population of the country. (See APPORTIONMENT.) But it was then very difficult to hit on any radically different basis for the senate, which should be satisfactory to all concerned. There was no different class, as in Great Britain, from which to select a house of lords (see that title); and the formation of a smaller house, on the same basis as the other, would have ended in the establishment of two houses, both controlled by precisely the same ideas, and the loss of all the advantages of two houses.


—The same difficulty has attended the formation of state senates, and has been met there by the division of the state into different territorial units for the two houses. (See ASSEMBLY.) The convention of 1787 hit upon a simple and natural basis for the senate, and formed a body as efficient in practice as it is apt to strike the imagination of an observer favorably. The senate is certainly the most dignified and impressive part of the American constitutional system, unless we except the supreme court. But this brilliant success of the convention must not blind us to the fact that the convention itself gained it blindly, or was forced into it; that it was the product of no single clear design or desire; and that it was due to the gradual and unwilling compromise of conflicting purposes. (See CONVENTION OF 1787; COMPROMISES, I.) If the scheme of the senate, as we admire it in its final form, had been offered to the convention in the first place, it would almost certainly not have received a single vote.


—The Virginia plan, when first introduced, provided that the senate, without as yet giving it a name or defining its powers or term of office, should be chosen by the house of representatives out of a proper number of persons nominated by the state legislatures. Pinckney's plan proposed that it should be chosen by the house from residents of the various states to serve for three years; that the senators from New England, the middle and the southern states, should constitute three classes, to go out of office on successive years; and that the senate should have sole power to declare war, make treaties, appoint foreign ministers and judges of the supreme court, and decide territorial disputes between the states. Hamilton's plan proposed that senators should be chosen by electors chosen by the people of each state in election districts; that they should serve during good behavior; and that the senate should have the power to declare war and approve treaties and appointments. The New Jersey plan provided for no senate. In the debate three other plans of selection were brought up: 1, by the national executive, out of nominations by state legislatures; 2, by the people; and 3, by the state legislatures; and the last was adopted unanimously, June 7. As yet it was not settled whether the states were to be equally or proportionately represented in the senate, the small states urging the former plan, and the large states the latter. This question, on which, said Sherman, of Connecticut, "everything depended," came up June 11. A motion that each state have one vote was lost, and another for proportionate representation in both branches was carried, the six "large states" in both cases voting against the five "small states." On the next day the term of senators was fixed at seven years. June 13, the committee of the whole reported that the "second branch" was to be chosen for seven years by the state legislatures, according to the population of each state, and to be paid out of the national treasury; its members to be at least thirty years old, and to be ineligible to office under the United States for a year after the end of their term of office. The constitution of the senate, in its first form, was thus completed; and though it still lacked a name, the words "senate" and "senatorial" were frequently used in debate.


—The report of the committee of the whole as to the composition of the senate was adopted by the convention, June 24-25, except that the term of seven years was changed to six. The convention was then brought face to face with the all-important question, the rule of representation in the senate. For days the debate went on. The five small states, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, knew that they would be outvoted by the six large states in the end; and a motion was made, June 30, that the president of the convention write to the executive of New Hampshire, asking for the attendance of that state's delegates; but it was voted down. Dr. Franklin proposed that each state have an equal representation in the senate, with a vote on money bills proportionate to its share of taxation; but this was not considered. The large states were determined to have a proportional share of the senate; the small states were equally determined to have an equal share. The debates grew unusually warm, for this convention; and one of the Delaware delegates went so far as to declare, that, if the large states should push the matter to an unjust issue, they would dissolve the confederation, and then "the small ones will find some foreign ally, of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice." The temper of the small states rose so high that the matter was not pushed to an issue. It was settled by compromise, and the equal representation of the states in the senate was the result. (See COMPROMISES, I.)


—July 14, the large states made a fresh effort to apportion senators among the states in numbers varying from one for Rhode Island and Delaware to five for Virginia, or thirty-six in all, but it was voted down. During the debate, Elbridge Gerry threw out the idea, which was afterward adopted, of allowing the senators to vote per capita, instead of by states. From this time the large states yielded, and the equal state representation in the senate was secure. The line of division still existed: the small states usually endeavored to throw as much power as possible into the senate, while the large states did the same in regard to the house of representatives. But the struggle was now most temperate and amicable: "the little states had gained their point." In the report of the committee of detail, Aug. 6, the name "senate" was formally given to "the second branch." Its composition and voting per capita were just as in the final constitution, except that there was as yet no vice-president to preside over it. (See ELECTORS, I.) Its powers were very different: it was to make treaties, appoint ambassadors, judges of the supreme court, and commissioners to give final and conclusive judgment in territorial disputes between the states (see TERRITORIES, I.); but it had not yet the power to try impeachments, confirm the president's appointments, or alter or amend money bills. The introduction of the electoral system, Sept. 4, brought with it, as part of the plan, the power of the senate to try impeachments, and the functions of the vice-president as presiding officer of the senate; but, in case of a failure of choice by the electors, the senate was to choose the president, leaving the vice-presidency to the other person having the highest number of electoral votes. The next day another report from the committee of detail gave the senate power to alter or amend money bills. All these new provisions were adopted in the next three days, except that the election of the president was transferred to the house. The constitution of the senate was not further altered, except that the provision was unanimously added, Sept. 15, that no state should be deprived, without its consent, of its equal suffrage in the senate. As a rough summary, we may say that the fundamental idea of the senate was brought in by the compromise of July 5, and that it took almost complete shape, as it now stands, Sept. 4. Alterations at other periods of the convention were comparatively unimportant; and, since the adoption of the constitution, its provisions with regard to the senate have never been altered, except by giving to that body, in 1804, the choice of the vice-president when the electors failed to choose.


—In the form which it finally took and has since retained, the senate is a body composed of two members from each state, voting per capita. In 1803, Tucker said, of the number of senators, that "it is not probable that it will ever exceed fifty." The number is now (1883) seventy-six, from thirty-eight states. How far this may be increased in the future can not even be guessed. It is true that there are but eight available territories remaining (see TERRITORIES); but there are many indications that the process of forming new states may be turned to the division of old states. (See State Rights, under STATE SOVEREIGNTY.) Senators are to be at least thirty years old, nine years citizens of the United States, and inhabitants of the states for which they are chosen. They are chosen by the state legislatures for six years; and congress may at any time, by law, make regulations, or alter state regulations, as to the manner and time of their election, but not as to the place. For many years there was hardly any field for political manœuvre more fertile than this of the choice of senators by the legislatures. In some states senators were elected by concurrent vote of the two branches of the legislature; in others, by joint convention; in others, a concurrent vote was first to be tried, and then, if necessary, a joint convention. In all the states there were chances for intrigue which were not neglected. A party majority in one house would refuse to go into a joint convention in which it was certain to be beaten; or would resign or absent themselves. (See, for example, INDIANA.) One of the most curious of these manœuvres took place in New York, in 1825. (See that state.) Finally, the act of July 25, 1866, regulated the manner of election. Each house of the legislature is to vote viva voce for senator, on the Tuesday following its organization. On the following day the houses are to hold a joint meeting. If it appears that the same person has received a majority in each house, he is elected. If not, the joint meeting is to take at least one viva voce vote a day during the session of the legislature, until some person shall receive a majority of all the votes of the meeting, a majority of each house being present. In the case of a vacancy occurring during the session of the legislature, the same course of procedure is to begin on the Tuesday after the notice of the vacancy is received. If a vacancy occurs when the legislature is not in session, the constitution empowers the governor to fill it by appointment until the legislature meets.


—When the first senate was organized, ten states were represented. May 14, 1789, they were divided into three classes: one of six members, the other two of seven each. One member of each class then drew lots, the class drawing number one to serve two years, number two to serve four years, and number three six years. The classes were so arranged that no two senators from one state fell in the same class. As the other three states sent senators they were assigned by lot in the same way, a blank being so used as to keep the classes even. As the terms of the classes expired, their successors were elected for six full years. Senators from new states are so assigned as to keep the three classes nearly even. Thus one-third of the senate goes out of office every two years; but there is never any complete alteration of its membership at one time. Theoretically, it has been the same body since 1789, in spite of the periodical changes in its constituent elements. This permanence seems, from the debates of the convention, to have been intended mainly to give foreign nations a sense of security as to the treaty power of the United States, but it has had important influences in every direction.


—In legislative matters the senate holds an equal rank with the house of representatives (see, in general, CONGRESS); it may not originate bills for raising revenue, but it may propose or concur with amendments, as on other bills. Its officers are much the same as those of the house (see HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES); but it has no such binding code of rules of order and debate. In place of them it relies on the "courtesy of the senate." which the older senators of all parties unite in maintaining; and vivacious graduates from the house of representatives are rapidly chilled down to the orthodox temperature of debate in the senate. The vice-president presides, but has no vote, except in case of a tie. In presiding, he is but the spokesman of the senate, and is expected merely to express its will, or in doubtful matters to call upon it for an expression of its will. He addresses the members only as "senators"—a brief and impressive mode introduced by vice-president Calhoun, instead of the form previously in use, "gentlemen of the senate." (For the succession to the presidency, see EXECUTIVE, V.)


—In addition to its legislative functions the senate has peculiar executive and judicial characteristics, which greatly increase its dignity and importance. Its power to confirm the president's nominations is fully treated elsewhere. (See CONFIRMATION BY THE SENATE, TENURE OF OFFICE.) It sits as a court to try impeachments preferred by the house of representatives. (See IMPEACHMENTS.) It has the power to advise and consent to treaties made by the president, and they are not valid until so ratified. (See JAY'S TREATY.) It is even held, on good authority (see Curtis, as cited below), that the senate may propose a treaty to the president; and this interpretation is certainly rather unusual than strained. In transacting its executive business, the confirmation of nominations and treaties, the senate acts in secret. Many unsuccessful efforts have been made to make these debates public.


—The senate chamber is in the centre of the north wing of the capitol at Washington, and its simplicity of appearance harmonizes well with the proceedings of the senate. The senate committees are forty-two in number, the most important being, as a general rule, the committee on foreign relations.


—See 5 Elliot's Debates (index under Senate); The Federalist, lii.-lxvi.; 2 Curtis' History of the Constitution, 417 (and also index under Senate); Story's Commentaries, §§688, 1499 foll.; Poore's Manual of the Senate; the act of July 25, 1866, is in 14 Stat. at Large.


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