The Debate Over the Senate

Because most states had bicameral legislatures, there was little debate at the Constitutional Convention over the establishment of a bicameral legislature that would replace the unicameral Confederation Congress. However, there was considerable debate over representation in each house.

During the debate over ratification, large-state Antifederalists attacked the equal state representation in the Senate as inequitable. If Delaware, with less than ten percent of Virginia’s population, had the same representation as the Old Dominion in the Senate, how could anyone imagine that Virginians were fairly represented? Antifederalists also denounced the aristocratic nature of the Senate. Senators were to be elected by their state legislatures to six-year terms. Because Senators did not face mandatory rotation in office and were not subject to recall (as was the case in the Confederation Congress), Antifederalists feared they would serve for life.

Additional concerns focused on the Senate’s blended functions with the executive branch in appointments and making treaties. For Antifederalists this was a lack of a separation of powers between the branches of government. Additional concerns centered on the placement of the Vice-President as the president of the Senate with voting powers in the event of a deadlock. Antifederalists were also critical of the Senate’s role in trying cases of impeachment. Because of the Senate’s power to confirm appointments, Antifederalists speculated that the Senate would not convict anyone who was impeached.

Large-state Federalists justified the equality of the states in the Senate largely on the basis of expediency. Without this concession to the small states at the Constitutional Convention, consensus would have been impossible. Furthermore, the different constituency of the Senate, coupled with the six-year term with one-third of the Senators being elected every two years, promised greater stability for Congress as a whole. The Senate’s role in advising the President was justified in several ways. It was argued that the Senate would be a repository of experience and wisdom, and as such, should be made available to the President. To counter the charge that the Senate was an aristocratic body, Federalists pointed out that it could do nothing by itself. In passing legislation, the Senate needed the agreement of the House. In treaty-making and appointments, the Senate acted in conjunction with, and most probably in response to, the actions of the President. If Senators violated their trust, they would not be re-elected by their state legislatures.

The following documents are taken from The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and have been grouped into sub-categories to better understand the nuances of the debate over the Senate during the ratification period.

(F) Federalist Essays/Speeches
(AF) Antifederalist Essays/Speeches

As An Aristocratic Body

Comparison to British System

General Criticism of Senate

General Praise of Senate

Treaty Making Power of Senate

Impeachment Power of Senate

Representation in Senate

Size of Senate

Term of Office of Senators