The Senate: More Warnings Ignored?

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A permanent aristocracy of sorts – despite federalist assurances to the contrary – with senators mostly serving for life – that’s what many anti-federalists warned we’d get with the structure of the federal Senate. 

Mercy Otis Warren, for example, put it this way:

“A senate chosen for six years, will in most instances, be an appointment for life”

Whether it’s John or Dianne or Mitch – or so many others over the years – it sure seems like Mercy called it. But she was far from alone.

In the New York Ratifying Convention Melanction Smith agreed:

“As the clause now stands, there is no doubt that the senators will hold their office perpetually; and in this situation, they must of necessity lose their dependence and attachment to the people.”

Warren took the same position – that such a long time in office would result in Senators having different attachments and loyalties than what they should be, to their states:

“They will not only forget, but be forgotten by their constituents; a branch of the supreme legislature thus set beyond all responsibility, is totally repugnant to every principle of a free government.”

Because of this tendency towards perpetual office-holding in the Senate – in large part due to a lack of a recall power as was the case under the Articles of Confederation – along with an improper mixture of various powers, many warned the institution would perpetuate horrible attacks on liberty. 

In his tenth letter, the Federal Farmer warned that the Senate would, “in a very few years, become the source of the greatest evils.”

In general, the anti-federalists agreed with Centinel, who in his first essay warned that the government would become, “in practice a permanent ARISTOCRACY.”

George Mason had a similar warning and prediction:

“This government will set out a moderate aristocracy: it is at present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a monarchy, or a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy; it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other”

And this was more than a century before the 17th Amendment.

On the Federalist side, James Wilson vehemently disagreed:

“Perhaps there never was a charge made with less reason, than that which predicts the institution of a baneful aristocracy in the fœderal senate.”

Just weeks later, Centinel responded directly to Wilson:

“That these fears are not imaginary, a knowledge of the history of other nations, where the powers of government have been injudiciously placed, will fully demonstrate.”

Despite Wilson’s powerful influence, there was certainly skepticism about the structure of the Senate on the federalist side.

In early 1788, John Adams wrote that he was “Mortified at the Mixture of Legislative and Executive Powers in the Senate”

Even James Madison, who went to great lengths to show that the Constitution would not lead to the kind of consolidation that the “celebrated Montesquieu” warned would totally destroy liberty, acknowledged that it was the mode of choosing the senate which would prevent that from happening.

“Had the government been completely consolidated, the senate would have been chosen by the people in their individual capacity, in the same manner as the members of the other house.”

What Madison warned would give us a “completely consolidated” government – and thus a total tyranny – is exactly what we got with the 17th Amendment.

Possibly due to the consistent opposition, even Wilson himself appeared to walk back his views on the Senate.

“I am not a blind admirer of this system. Some of the powers of the senators are not, with me, the favorite parts of it; but as they stand connected with other parts, there is still security against the efforts of that body. It was with great difficulty that security was obtained, and I may risk the conjecture that, if it is not now accepted, it never will be obtained again from the same states. Though the Senate was not a favorite of mine, as to some of its powers, yet it was a favorite with a majority in the Union; and we must submit to that majority, or we must break up the Union”

The anti-federalists were not convinced that this was a good trade off.

In his fourth essay, which was written specifically as a response to Wilson, Cincinnatus called the Senate “the most exceptionable part of the Constitution.”

“By this time I hope it is evident from reason and authority, that in the constitution of the senate there is much cunning and little wisdom; that we have much to fear from it, and little to hope, and then it must necessarily produce a baneful aristocracy, by which the democratic rights of the people will be overwhelmed.”

Ultimately, Patrick Henry may have summed it up best:

“Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed by what may be a small minority; and a very small minority may continue forever unchangeably this government.”

Michael Boldin
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Las Vegas News Magazine

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