CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES
§ 545. THE first article of the constitution contains the structure, organization, and powers, of the legislature of the Union. Each section of that article, and indeed, of every other article, will require a careful analysis, and distinct examination. It is proposed, therefore, to bring each separately under review, in the present commentaries, and to unfold the reasons, on which each is founded, the objections, which have been urged against it, and the interpretation, so far as it can satisfactorily be ascertained, of the terms, in which each is expressed.
§ 546. The first section, of the first article is in the following words: "All legislative powers herein granted "shall be vested in a congress of the United States, which "shall consist of a senate and house of representatives."
§ 547. This section involves, as a fundamental rule, the exercise of the legislative power by two distinct and independent branches. Under the confederation, the whole legislative power of the Union was vested in a single branch. Limited as was that power, the concentration of it in a single body was deemed a prominent defect of the confederation. But if a single assembly could properly be deemed a fit receptacle of the slender and fettered authorities, confided to the federal government by that instrument, it could scarcely be consistent with the principles of a good government to entrust it with the more enlarged and vigorous powers delegated in the constitution.
§ 548. The utility of a subdivision of the legislative power into different branches, having a negative upon each other, is, perhaps, at the present time admitted by most persons of sound reflection. But it has not always found general approbation; and is, even now, sometimes disputed by men of speculative ingenuity, and recluse habits. It has been justly observed, that there is scarcely in the whole science of politics a more important maxim, and one, which bears with greater influence upon the practical operations of government. It has been already stated, that Pennsylvania, in her first constitution, adopted the scheme of a single body, as the depositary of the legislative power, under the influence, as is understood, of a mind of a very high philosophical character. Georgia, also, is said in her first constitution, (since changed,) to have confided the whole legislative power to a single body. Vermont adopted the same course, giving, however, to the executive council a power of revision; and of proposing amendments, to which she yet adheres. We are also told by a distinguished statesman of great accuracy and learning, that at the first formation of our state constitutions, it was made a question of transcendent importance, and divided the opinions of our most eminent men. Legislation, being merely the expression of the will of the community, was thought to be an operation so simple in its nature, that inexperienced reason could not readily perceive the necessity of committing it to two bodies of men, each having a decisive check upon the action of the other. All the arguments derived from the analogy between the movements of political bodies, and the operations of physical nature; all the impulses of political parsimony; all the prejudices against a second co-ordinate legislative assembly stimulated by the exemplification of it in the British parliament, were against a division of the legislative power.
§ 549. It is also certain, that the notion, that the legislative power ought to be confided to a single body, has been, at various times, adopted by men eminent for their talents and virtues. Milton, Turgot, Franklin, are but a few among, those, who have professedly entertained, and discussed the question. Sir James Mackintosh, in a work of a controversial character, written with the zeal and eloquence of youth, advocated the doctrine of a single legislative body. Perhaps his maturer life may have changed this early opinion. At all events, he can, in our day, count few followers. Against his opinion, thus uttered, there is the sad example of France itself, whose first constitution, in 1791, was formed on this basis, and whose proceedings the genius of this great man was employed to vindicate. She stands a monument of the folly and mischiefs of the scheme; and by her subsequent adoption of a division of the legislative power, she has secured to herself (as it is hoped) the permanent blessings of liberty. Against all visionary reasoning of this sort, Mr. Chancellor Kent has, in a few pages of pregnant sense and brevity, condensed a decisive argument. There is danger, however, that it may hereafter be revived; and indeed it is occasionally hinted by gifted minds, as a problem yet worthy of a fuller trial.
§ 550. It may not, therefore, be uninstructive to review some of the principal arguments, by which this division is vindicated. The first and most important ground is, that it forms a great check upon undue, hasty, and oppressive legislation. Public bodies, like private persons, are occasionally under the dominion of strong passions and excitements; impatient, irritable, and impetuous. The habit of acting together produces a strong tendency to what, for want of a better word, may be called the corporation spirit, or what is so happily expressed in a foreign phrase, ‘esprit de corps.’ Certain popular leaders often acquire an extraordinary ascendency over the body, by their talents, their eloquence, their intrigues, or their cunning. Measures are often introduced in a hurry, and debated with little care, and examined with less caution. The very restlessness of many minds produces an utter impossibility of debating with much deliberation, when a measure has a plausible aspect, and enjoys a momentary favour. Nor is it infrequent, especially in cases of this sort, to overlook well-founded objections to a measure, not only because the advocates of it have little desire to bring them in review, but because the opponents are often seduced into a credulous silence. A legislative body is not ordinarily apt to mistrust its own powers, and far less the temperate exercise of those powers. As it prescribes its own rules for its own deliberations, it easily relaxes them, whenever any pressure is made for an immediate decision. If it feels no check 'out its own will, it rarely has the firmness to insist upon holding a question long enough under its own view, to see and mark it in all its bearings and relations on society.
§ 551. But it is not merely inconsiderate and rash legislation, which is to be guarded against, in the ordinary course of things. There is a strong, propensity in public bodies to accumulate power in their own hands, to widen the extent of their own influence, and to absorb within their own circle the means, and the motives of patronage. If the whole legislative power is vested in a single body, there can be, practically, no restraint upon the fullest exercise of that power; and of any usurpation, which it may seek to excuse or justify, either from necessity or a superior regard to the public good. It has been often said, that necessity is the plea of tyrants; but it is equally true, that it is the plea of all public bodies invested with power, where no check exists upon its exercise. Mr. Hume has remarked with great sagacity, that men are generally more honest in their private, than in their public capacity; and will go greater lengths to serve a party, than when their own private interest is alone concerned. Honour is a great check upon mankind. But where a considerable body of men act together, this check is in a great measure removed, since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party, for what promotes the common interest; and he soon learns to despise the clamours of adversaries. This is by no means an opinion peculiar to Mr. Hume. It will be found lying at the foundation of the political reasonings of many of the greatest men in all ages, as the result of a close survey of the passions, and infirmities, of the history, and experience of mankind. With a, view, therefore, to preserve the rights and liberties of the people against unjust encroachments, and to secure the equal benefits of a free constitution, it is of vital importance to interpose some check against the undue exercise of the legislative power, which in every government is the predominating, and almost irresistible power?
§ 552. This subject is put in a very strong light by an eminent writer, whose mode of reasoning can be best conveyed in his own words. "If," says he, "we should extend our candour so far, as to own, that the majority of mankind are generally under the dominion of benevolence and good intentions; yet it must be confessed, that a vast majority frequently transgress; and what is more decidedly in point, not only a majority, but almost all, confine their benevolence to their families, relations, personal friends, parish, village, city, county, province; and that very few indeed extend it impartially to the whole community. Now, grant but this truth, and the question is decided. If a majority are capable of preferring their own private interests, or that of their families, counties, and party, to that of the nation collectively, some provision must be made in the constitution in favour of justice, to compel all to respect the common right, the public good, the universal law in preference to all private and partial considerations." Again: "Of all possible forms of government, a sovereignty in one assembly, successively chosen by the people, is, perhaps, the best calculated to facilitate the gratification of self-love, and the pursuit of the private interests of a few individuals. A few eminent, conspicuous characters will be continued in their seats in the sovereign assembly from one election to another, whatever changes are made in the seats around them. By superior art, address, and opulence, by more splendid birth, reputations, and connexions, they will be able to intrigue with the people, and their leaders out of doors, until they worm out most of their opposers, and introduce their friends. To this end they will bestow all offices, contracts, privileges in commerce, and other emoluments on the latter, and their connexions, and throw every vexation and disappointment in the way of the former, until they establish such a system of hopes and fears throughout the whole state, as shall enable them to carry a majority in every fresh election of the house. The judges will be appointed by them and their party, and of consequence will be obsequious enough to their inclinations. The whole judicial authority, as well as the executive, will be employed, perverted, and prostituted, to the purposes of electioneering. No justice will be attainable; nor will innocence or virtue be safe in the judicial courts, but for the friends of the prevailing leaders. Legal prosecutions will be instituted, and carried on against opposers to their vexation and ruin. And as they have the public purse at command, as well as the executive and judicial power, the public money will be expended in the same way. No favours will be attainable, but by those, who will court the ruling demagogues of the house, by voting for their friends, and instruments; and pensions, and pecuniary rewards and gratifications, as well as honours, and offices of every kind, voted to friends and partisans. The press, that great barrier and bulwark of the rights of mankind, when it is protected by law, can no longer be free. If the authors, writers, and printers, will not accept of the hire, that will be offered them, they must submit to the ruin, that will be denounced against them. The presses, with much secrecy and concealment, will be made the vehicles of calumny against the minority, and of panegyric, and empirical applauses of the leaders of the majority, and no remedy can possibly be obtained. In one word, the whole system of affairs, and every conceivable motive of hope or fear, will be employed to promote the private interests of a few, and their obsequious majority; and there is no remedy but in arms. Accordingly we find in all the Italian republics, the minority always were driven to arms in despair.
§ 553. Another learned writer has ventured on the bold declaration, that "a single legislature is calculated to unite in it all the pernicious qualities of the different extremes of bad government. It produces general weakness, inactivity, and confusion; and these are intermixed with sudden and violent fits of despotism, injustice and cruelty."
§ 554. Without conceding, that this language exhibits an unexaggerated picture of the results of the legislative power being vested in a single assembly, there is enough in it to satisfy the minds of considerate men, that there is great danger in such an exclusive deposit of it. Some check ought to be provided, to maintain the real balance intended by the constitution; and this check will be most effectually obtained by a co-ordinate branch of equal authority, and different organization, which shall have the same legislative power, and possess an independent negative upon the doings of the other branch. The value of the check will, indeed, in a great measure depend upon this difference of organization. If the term of office, the qualifications, the mode of election, the persons and interests represented by each branch, are exactly the same, the check will be less powerful, and the guard less perfect, than if some, or all of these ingredients differ, so as to bring into play all the various interests and influences, which belong to a free, honest, and enlightened society.
§ 555. The value, then, of a distribution of the legislative power, between two branches, each possessing a negative upon the other, may be summed up under the following, heads. First: It operates directly as a security against hasty, rash, and dangerous legislation; and allows errors and mistakes to be corrected, before they have produced any public mischiefs. It interposes delay between the introduction, and final adoption of a measure; and thus furnishes time for reflection; and for the successive deliberations of different bodies, actuated by different motives, and organized upon different principles.
§ 556. In the next place, it operates indirectly as a preventive to attempts to carry private, personal, or party objects, not connected with the common good. The very circumstance, that there exists another body clothed with equal power, and jealous or its own rights, and independent of the influence of the leaders, who favour a particular measure, by whom it must be scanned, and to whom it must be recommended upon its own merits, will have a silent tendency to discourage the efforts to carry it by surprise, or by intrigue, or by corrupt party combinations. It is far less easy to deceive, or corrupt, or persuade two bodies into a course, subversive of the general good, than it is one; especially if the elements, of which they are composed, are essentially different.
§ 557. In the next place, as legislation necessarily acts, or may act, upon the whole community, and involves interests of vast difficulty and complexity, and requires nice adjustments, and comprehensive enactments, it is of the greatest consequence to secure an independent review of it by different minds, acting under different, and sometimes opposite opinions and feelings; so, that it may be as perfect, as human wisdom can devise. An appellate jurisdiction, therefore, that acts, and is acted upon alternatively, in the exercise of an independent revisory authority, must have the means, and can scarely fail to possess, the will, to give it a full and satisfactory review. Every one knows, notwithstanding all the guards interposed to secure due deliberation, how imperfect all human legislation is; how much it embraces of doubtful principle, and of still more doubtful utility; how various, and yet how defective, are its provisions to protect rights, and to redress wrongs. Whatever, therefore, naturally and necessarily awakens doubt, solicits caution, attracts inquiry, or stimulates vigilance and industry, is of value to aid us against precipitancy in framing, or altering laws, as well as against yielding to the suggestions of indolence, the selfish projects of ambition, or the cunning devices of corrupt and hollow demagogues.1 For this purpose, no better expedient has, as yet, been found, than the creation of an independent branch of censors to revise the legislative enactments of others, and to alter, amend, or reject them at its pleasure, which, in return, its own are to pass through a like ordeal.
§ 558. In the nest place, there can scarcely be any other adequate security against encroachments upon the constitutional rights and liberties of the people. Algernon Sidney has said with great force, that the legislative power is always arbitrary, and not to be trusted in the hands of any, who are not bound to obey the laws they make.1 But it is not less true, that it has a constant tendency to overleap its proper boundaries, from passion, from ambition, from inadvertence, from the prevalence of faction, or from the overwhelming influence of private interests. Under such circumstances, the only effectual barrier against oppression, accidental or intentional, is to separate its operations, to balance interest against interest, ambition against ambition, the combinations and spirit of dominion of one body against the like combinations and spirit of another. And it is obvious, that the more various the elements, which enter into the actual composition of each body, the greater the security will be. Mr. Justice Wilson has truly remarked, that, "when a single legislature is determined to depart from the principles of the constitution, and its uncontrollable power may prompt the determination, there is no constitutional authority to check its progress. It may proceed by long and hasty strides in violating the constitution, till nothing but a revolution can check its career. Far different will the case be, when the legislature consists of two branches. If one of them should depart, or attempt to depart, from the principles of the constitution, it will be drawn back by the other. The very apprehension of the event will prevent the departure, or the attempt.
§ 559. Such is an outline of the general reasoning, by which the system of a separation of the legislative power into two branches has been maintained experience has shown, that if in all cases it has not been found a complete check to inconsiderate or unconstitutional legislation; yet, that it has, upon many occasions, been round sufficient for the purpose. There is not probably at this moment a single state in the Union, which would consent to unite the two branches into one assembly; though there have not been wanting at all times minds of a high order, which have been led by enthusiasm, or a love of simplicity, or a devotion to theory, to vindicate such a union with arguments, striking and plausible, if not convincing.
§ 560. In the convention, which formed the constitution, upon the resolution moved, "that the national legislature ought to consist of two branches," all the states present, except. Pennsylvania, voted in the affirmative. At a subsequent period, however, seven only, of eleven states present, voted in the affirmative; three in the negative, and one was divided. But, although in the convention this diversity of opinion appears, it seems probable, that ultimately, when a national government was decided on, which should exert great controlling authority over the states, all opposition was withdrawn, as the existence of two branches furnished a greater security to the lesser states. It does not appear; that this division or the legislative power became with the people any subject of ardent discussion, or of real controversy. If it had been so, deep traces of it would have been found in the public debates, instead of a general silence. The Federalist touches the subject in but few places, and then principally with reference to the articles of confederation, and the structure of the senate. In fact, the opponents of the constitution felt, that there was additional security given to the states, as such, by their representation in the senate; and as the large states must have a commanding influence upon the actual basis in the house, the lesser states could not but unite in a desire to maintain their own equality in a co-ordinate branch.
§ 561. Having considered the general reasoning, by which the division of the legislative power has been justified, it may be proper, in conclusion, to give a summary of those grounds, which were deemed most important, and which had most influence in settling the actual structure of the constitution of the United States. The question of course had reference altogether to the establishment of the senate; for no one doubted the propriety of establishing a house of representatives, as a depositary of the legislative power, however much any might differ, as to the nature of its composition.
§ 562. In order to justify the existence of a senate with co-ordinate powers, it was said, first, that it was a misfortune incident to republican governments, though in a less degree than to other governments, that those, who administer it, may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust. In this point of view, a senate, as a second branch of the legislative assembly, distinct from, and dividing the power with a first, must be in all cases a salutary check on the government. It doubles the security to the people by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies, in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, whereas the ambition or corruption of one would otherwise be sufficient. This precaution, it was added, was founded on such clear principles, and so well understood in the United States, that it was superfluous to enlarge on it. As the improbability of sinister combinations would be in proportion to the dissimilarity in the genius of the two bodies, it must be politic to distinguish them from each other by every circumstance, which would consist with a due harmony in all proper measures, and with the genuine principles of republican government.
§ 563. Secondly. The necessity of a senate was not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions. Examples of this sort might be cited without number, and from proceedings in the United States, as well as from the history of other nations. A body, which is to correct this infirmity, ought to be free from it, and consequently ought to be less numerous, and to possess a due degree of firmness, and a proper tenure of office.
§ 564. Thirdly. Another defect to be supplied by a senate lay in the want of a due acquaintance with the objects and principles of legislation. A good government implies two things; fidelity to the objects of the government; secondly, a knowledge of the means, by which those objects can be best attained. It was suggested, that in the American governments too little attention had been paid to the last; and that the establishment of a senate upon a proper basis would greatly increase the chances of fidelity, and of wise and safe legislation. What (it was asked) are all the repealing, explaining, and amending laws, which fill and disgrace our voluminous codes, but so many monuments of deficient wisdom; so many impeachments exhibited by each succeeding, against each preceding session; so many admonitions to the people of the value of those aids, which may be expected from a well-constituted senate?
§ 565. Fourthly. Such a body would prevent too great a mutability in the public councils, arising from a rapid succession of new members; for from a change of men there must proceed a change of opinions, and from a change of opinions, a change of measures. Such instability in legislation has a tendency to diminish respect and confidence abroad, as well as safety and prosperity at home. It has a tendency to damp the ardour of industry and enterprise; to diminish the security of property; and to impair the reverence and attachment, which are indispensable to the permanence of every political institution.
§ 566. Fifthly. Another ground, illustrating the utility of a senate, was suggested to be the keeping alive of a due sense of national character. In respect to foreign nations, this was of vital importance; for in our intercourse with them, if a scrupulous and uniform adherence to just principles was not observed, it must subject us to many embarrassments and collisions. It is difficult to impress upon a single body, which is numerous and changeable, a deep sense of the value of national character. A small portion of the praise, or blame of any particular measure can fall to the lot of any particular person; and the period of office is so short, that little responsibility is felt, and little pride is indulged, as to the course of the government.
§ 567. Sixthly. It was urged, that paradoxical as it might seem, the want in some important cases of a due responsibility in the government arises from that very frequency of elections, which in other cases produces such responsibility. In order to he reasonable, responsibility must be limited to objects within the power of the responsible party; and in order to be effectual, it must relate to operations of that power, of which a ready and proper judgment can be formed by the constituents. Some measures have singly an immediate and sensible operation; others again depend on a succession of well connected schemes, and have a gradual, and perhaps unobserved operation. If, therefore, there be but one assembly, chosen for a short period, it will be difficult to keep up the train of proper measures, or to preserve the proper connexion between the past and the future. And the more numerous the body, and the more changeable its component parts, the more difficult it will be to preserve the personal responsibility, as well as the uniform action, of the successive members to the great objects of the public welfare.
§ 568. Lastly. A senate duly constituted would not only operate, as a salutary check upon the representatives, but occasionally upon the people themselves, against their own temporary delusions and errors. The cool, deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of their rulers. But there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures, which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of a body of respectable citizens, chosen without reference to the exciting, cause, to check the misguided career of public opinion, and to suspend the blow, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind. It was thought to add great weight to all these considerations, that history has informed us of no long lived republic, which had not a senate. Sparta, Rome, Carthage were, in fact, the only states, to whom that character can be applied.
§ 569. It will be observed, that some parts of the foregoing, reasoning apply to the fundamental importance or an actual division or the legislative power; and other parts to the true principle, upon which that division should be subsequently organized, in order to give full effect to the constitutional check. Some parts go to show the value of a senate; and others, what should be its structure, in order to ensure wisdom, experience, fidelity, and dignity in its members. All of it, however, instructs us, that, in order to give it fair play and influence, as a co-ordinate branch of government, it ought to be less numerous, more select, and more durable, than the other branch; and be chosen in a manner, which should combine, and represent different interests with a varied force. How far these objects are attained by the constitution will be better seen, when the details belonging to each department are successively examined.
§ 570. This discussion may be closed by the remark, that in the Roman republic the legislative authority, in the last resort, resided for ages in two distinct political bodies, not as branches of the same legislature, but as distinct and independent legislatures, in each of which an opposite interest prevailed. In one, the patrician; one representative assembly, annually elected. They afterwards voted themselves from annual to septennial; then for life; and finally exerted the power of filling up all vacancies, without application to their constituents. The government of Holland is now a tyranny, though a republic. The result of a single assembly will be hasty and indigested; and their judgments frequently absurd and inconsistent. There must be a second body to revise with coolness, and wisdom, and to control with firmness, independent upon the first, either for their creation, or existence. Yet the first must retain a right to a similar revision and control over the second."