A History of the United States Senate

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the US Congress was divided into two chambers. How did the upper chamber, the Senate, grow and develop?

Nov 24, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
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At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the House of Representatives was a new innovation: representation for states based on state population. Previously, Congress had simply allotted one seat per state, regardless of population. Small states did not want to lose all of their power, and so a compromise was reached. A Senate was created, with bills having to pass through both the House of Representatives and the Senate to become law. Each state received two senators, allowing for equal representation per state. This made the Senate a controversial body from the outset, with critics decrying its undemocratic representation giving more weight to less-populous states. How has this upper chamber of Congress evolved and helped shape the America we have today?

 

Setting the Stage: Fear of Populism

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An image of citizens fighting during Shays’ Rebellions (1786-87), which made many wealthy Americans suspicious of direct democracy, via National Public Radio (NPR)

 

Although we like to think of the Founding Fathers as magnanimous and kind figures, they did not always hold generous views of their fellow Americans. Unlike today, the right to vote was not widespread among adults in the early years of the United States. After the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), states had different requirements for voting, with some only allowing white men who owned property to cast ballots. During this period, a weak economy put many farmers in debt, sparking Shays’ Rebellion (1786-87). Under the nation’s original governing document, the Articles of Confederation, little government power existed to put down this growing rebellion.

 

Led by fellow farmer and Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, many indebted farmers engaged in violent resistance against tax collectors. Supported by locals, including local militias, mob rule resulted in the closing of courts. Subsequent local and state elections saw the election of pro-debtor candidates who might support the suspension of tax collections and overturning of debt laws. Elites feared this possibility, which could lead to the collapse of the economy as merchants took their wealth elsewhere. Despite the populist fervor, protection of private property rights was needed to maintain stability and encourage lending and investment. Therefore, a convention was called for the summer of 1787 to reform the Articles.

 

Setting the Stage: The New Jersey Plan

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A painting of the Constitutional Convention debates, where the New Jersey Plan was proposed by William Paterson on June 15, 1787, via Ashland University

 

The Senate was not a new innovation in the US Constitution, as the concept of equal representation per state existed in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation. States with fewer residents enjoyed this type of legislature, as it gave them more power. William Paterson of New Jersey proposed that the new Congress remain largely as it had been under the Articles, with equal representation per state. This New Jersey Plan was a simple concept and ended up being combined with James Madison’s Virginia Plan to create the bicameral legislature we know today as the US Congress.

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Paterson’s New Jersey Plan became the upper chamber of Congress, meaning it had greater prestige. The Senate would give each state two seats, and senators would serve six-year terms. Longer term this made being a senator considerably more prestigious than being a representative in the House of Representatives, where terms were only two years. The Senate was seen as a body that was wiser and more worldly than the House of Representatives, where a greater number of representatives were elected directly by common voters.

 

Unique Duties: Advice and Consent Power

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A photograph of US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asking questions during a confirmation hearing for a federal judge, via Courtroom News Service

 

The Senate was given two powers not shared with the House: ratifying treaties and confirming executives and federal judges who had been appointed by the President. This advice and consent power has grown over time as both the executive and judicial branches have expanded. Today, the president appoints thousands of people at the beginning of each term, giving Senate confirmation votes lots of power to help influence public policy. In addition to the 4,000 or so presidential appointments, the Senate also must confirm the promotion of military officers to general officer or flag officer ranks.

 

The ratification of treaties has also become more commonplace in the modern era, especially after World War II. After World War II, the United States became firmly embedded in global affairs, ranging from international trade to military alliances to scientific and research cooperation with allies. The expansion of foreign affairs in American trade and culture has increased the power of the Senate compared to the House, as the House of Representatives has no direct role in foreign affairs. Additionally, the smaller number of senators gives foreign interests more incentive to lobby them as opposed to representatives, who have less individual power to shape legislation.

 

An Exclusive Club (1789 – 1913)

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A political cartoon criticizing the selection of US senators by state legislatures, arguing that the process was easily corruptible, via the National Archives

 

As originally written, the Constitution declared that US senators were to be chosen by their states…not by individual voters. This meant that senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote. Thus, senators were seen as doubly elite – they were chosen by those who were already elite compared to common voters. The early Senate, especially, was considered an “exclusive club” due to its small size and the fact that senators had to be well-known to state legislators. Because senators were not popularly elected, those with deep political connections and “old money” were more likely to win senate seats than those who were considered celebrities or “new money.”

 

This tendency toward elitism had many critics, especially as the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era in the late 1800s. There was also criticism of the fact that state legislatures could be openly hostile to the needs of the nation as a whole, such as the South before the Civil War (1861-65). Even today, senators are unique in that they can be appointed – without confirmation or approval – by governors in several states if their predecessors fail to complete a term, generally through untimely death.

 

Direct Election of Senators (1914 – Present)

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A graphic representing direct elections and direct democracy, via the University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

The Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified on April 8, 1913, replaced the use of state legislatures with direct popular elections for determining US senators. This took effect with the federal election of 1914. Today, senatorial and gubernatorial (governor) elections are the most widely-known statewide elections, as US representatives, state legislators, and many city council and county commissioner positions are voted on within distinct legislative districts. As a result, candidates for US Senate seats must be able to achieve statewide popularity, often through previous political work.

 

The two senators from each state do not have to come from different parts of the state, so this provides an advantage to candidates from urban areas. This can affect the political ideologies of candidates, as they are likely to focus more on issues that appeal to more numerous urban voters of their party. Unlike the House of Representatives, where districts can be gerrymandered to advantage one specific demographic, the Senate has no districts and requires candidates to pursue votes across the entire state. Although this may seem beneficial, it has led to accusations that politicians from both major parties (Democratic Party and Republican Party) are ignoring rural issues.

 

Senate’s Equal Representation and Statehood

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A photograph of US Representative Darren Soto (D-FL) announcing the introduction of legislation to admit US territory Puerto Rico as a state, via the 9th House District of Florida

 

The fact that each US state receives two US senators has created a contentious political debate about the addition of new states to the union. This was a major issue in the decades leading up to the US Civil War (1861-65), where many hoped to achieve a political balance of power between “slave states” and “free states.” This led to several compromises where one slave state was added only when one free state was added. Although the more populous free states quickly gained more power in the House of Representatives, the less populous slave states retained roughly equal power in the Senate.

 

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A photograph of the chamber of the United States Senate, showing senators’ individual desks, via the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

 

In modern times, the issue of each state receiving two US senators regardless of population size has involved the potential addition of Washington DC and Puerto Rico as states. This has become a partisan issue, as both would likely elect two Democrats as their senators. Thus, Republicans in Congress tend to oppose the movements to add Washington DC and Puerto Rico as states, while Democrats tend to support them. Although the addition of new states is unlikely, it occurred as recently as 1959, when both Alaska and Hawaii were added as the 49th and 50th states, respectively.

 

One Man Makes a Difference: The Filibuster

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A picture of a 19th-century filibuster in the US Senate, where one senator holds the floor for as long as possible, via the League of Women Voters

 

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Senate in terms of the legislative process is its use of the filibuster. A filibuster occurs when an individual senator speaks for as long as possible while standing and refuses to “yield the floor” to anyone else. It is a controversial tactic used to delay a vote. Despite its controversy, with many Americans believing it is a tool leading to partisan gridlock, the filibuster is not protected by the US Constitution. Rather, it is a rule created by the Senate itself and has been adjusted over time. A simple majority of senators (51 of 100) can vote to change the Senate rules, such as not allowing a filibuster to be used before certain types of votes.

 

The continued allowance of the filibuster for normal bills means bills rarely go for a floor vote in the Senate without 60 senators in support. This is because 60 votes are needed for cloture, or ending debate, on a bill. Unlike the House, where representatives can be given only a minute or two to speak on a bill, the Senate allows for unlimited debate. This allows any senator to filibuster a bill. If a bill has less than 60 senators in support, therefore, a filibuster can be launched. To avoid the threat of a filibuster, only bills that have enough supporters to invoke cloture will be sent to the floor. Statistically, this makes a bill more difficult to pass in the Senate (60 of 100) than in the House (218 of 435), which has nothing resembling the filibuster.

 

Leadership in the Senate

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (right), via Voice of America

 

Another unique feature of the Senate is its leadership. On an official organization chart, the US vice president is the President of the Senate. However, this power is largely ceremonial, and the vice president can only cast a vote in the Senate to break a 50-50 tie. This is a rare occurrence.  When the vice president is not in attendance in the Senate, which is most of the time, the President Pro Tempore is supposed to be the leading figure. This elected position tends to go to the senator from the majority party with the longest tenure in the chamber. Again, however, President Pro Tem’s power is largely ceremonial. This position does have one real authority: they are third in line of presidential succession, after the Speaker of the House.

 

The real power in the US Senate goes to the individual who is third-in-charge on the org chart: the Majority Leader. They are expected to work with the Minority Leader to help craft legislation and decide when bills go to the floor for a vote. These two floor leaders are aided in their partisan duties by whips, just like in the House of Representatives. Although the House has a Majority Leader as well, the fact that the Majority Leader and Speaker of the House always come from the same party means that the Majority Leader is a largely redundant figure. In the Senate, however, the Majority Leader is similar in power to the Speaker of the House.

 

Carpetbaggers and Parachute Candidates

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A photograph of a Census Bureau form for the 2020 United States Census, illustrating the politically contentious issue of residency, via Oregon Public Broadcasting

 

The prestige of being a US senator means lots of drama in elections. After the US Civil War (1861-65), the term “carpetbaggerarose as an insult for Northerners who came to the defeated South to allegedly take political office and/or gain economic advantage. Because many former Confederates were barred from holding political office during Reconstruction (1865-76), there were open seats for Northerners to run for. Despite intense criticism from many Southerners, these “carpetbaggers” did not seize power but were elected fairly, often with the help of African American men who were finally granted the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment (1870).

 

Seeking to move to a state for political office is still common today. It is not uncommon for candidates to be accused of being “parachute candidates,” or arriving suddenly in a state with an open US Senate seat. Allegedly, these candidates actually live in another state. This has resulted in heated disputes about residency requirements for political office, especially since many US Senate candidates are wealthy enough to own multiple homes in different states.  Recent prominent US Senate candidates accused of being “parachute candidates” include Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Herschel Walker, and Mehmet Oz.

 

Senators vs. Governors: Stepping Stone to the Presidency

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A map showing partisan differences in voters’ choices for US senator versus state governor in both New Hampshire (NH) and Vermont (VT), via the University of Virginia

 

Senators often receive considerable media attention, especially compared to US representatives, because they may achieve higher office – the presidency. In the modern era, House members have not been considered competitive in presidential campaigns. In fact, the last incumbent US representative to become president was James Garfield in the election of 1880! Today, only US senators and state governors are considered presidential material due to highly expensive, nation-spanning campaigns. Thus, when political analysts look at who might run for president, they tend to focus only on high-profile US senators in Congress, potentially influencing their actions as legislators.

 

This may impact senators’ behavior, as they may be more prone to seek the spotlight as individuals rather than engage in teamwork. Critics may decry this as political brinkmanship, where senators seek attention by making bold statements and threats instead of doing their best to craft meaningful legislation. With an eye on a future presidential campaign, a senator may choose to grandstand instead of compromise, thrilling supporters but exasperating everyone else. Modern-era senators like Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are possible examples; they have run for president in recent elections and been accused of grandstanding.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.