Throughout the three-plus months of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates disagreed about a bunch of stuff. It had started almost immediately with a debate over semantics. Was the government national or federal? Both words were nuanced depending on which ears heard them, and the delegates argued for (and against) each. And that was the very beginning. The delegates argued over slavery. They argued over the number of executives (can you imagine two Presidents?!?). They debated checks and balances. They debated the judiciary. And at the end, when the Constitution had been written and submitted for approval, it was back to semantics and language.
But one of the things on which nearly all the delegates agreed was the issue of democracy. And they were mostly against it.
Yep. Much like innovation (which we discussed last year when talking about the Convention), well, I’ll let Catherine Bowen explain. She writes, “…to members of the Federal Convention the word democracy carried another meaning than it does today. Democracy signified anarchy; demos was not the people but the mob. When Paterson of New Jersey said ‘the democratic spirit beats high,’ it was meant in derogation, not in praise. Again and again we meet these phrases: if aristocracy was ‘baleful’ and ‘baneful,’ unchecked democracy was equally to be shunned.”
But the delegates knew from whence they came, and unchecked aristocracy led to, if I may call it such, “tyranny of the few.” The just-ended War of Independence had been fought over this issue. Virginia’s George Mason, a wealthy landowner much like his neighbor George Washington, spoke for many when he said, “We ought to attend to the rights of every class of the people . . . provide no less carefully for the . . . happiensess of the lowest than of the highest orders of citizens.”
There had to be balance.
So I suppose that it only made sense to the delegates that there be a divided legislature, on the order of their British counterparts. And on May 31, 1787, they made it official. The Committee of the Whole voted in favor of Edmund Randolph’s Resolve 3: “That the national legislature ought to consist of two branches.”
Of the existing state legislatures, only Pennsylvania and Georgia had one-chambered legislatures. And the greatly-respected Dr. Benjamin Franklin (representing Pennsylvania at the Convention) was a staunch advocate of a one-chamber house (he would be so until the day he died). So when the votes were tallied, James Madison noted that the measure passed “without debate or dissent, except that of Pennsylvania, given probably out of complaisance of Docr. Franklin.”
Of course, there would still be a bundle of debate concerning terms of service, checks on the legislative branch, and most importantly, the issue of representation. But one of the foundational elements of our system was settled on this day…the bi-cameral legislature.
Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia