Federalist No.63

The Senate Continued

Saturday, March 1, 1788

James Madison


Madison’s second paper on the Senate is really a continuation and expansion upon the final argument of the first:

No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.

Madison begins by giving this a name, national character, which he argues can never be sufficiently possessed by a numerous and changeable body. In short, Madison does not believe that the House of Representatives, alone, can fulfil this need. He uses several examples from antiquity to make his point throughout this paper, both to relate the need for stability as well as to assure that a Senate does not realistically pose the danger of aristocratic government.


First, however, he turns to the half-yearly representatives of Rhode Island and the iniquitous measures of that State which he judges to have had a disregard for its perceived character, led by misguided people. Madison is referring to the State’s refusal to support the new Constitution and possibly its lax measures in checking the slave trade. Rhode Island refused to participate in the Constitutional Convention and voted against ratifying the constitution. It did not join the Union until 1790. Madison’s argument is that the short tenure of the Legislative council of the State reduced the sense of responsibility that its members felt, and therefore has therefore damaged the reputation of the State.


This leads Madison to address a paradox, that responsibility of a government to its people can be reduced through too brief a period of tenure, just as too long. This is the purpose of two branches in Congress. The Senate’s role is to ensure some continuity and long-term perspective within government, and hence responsibility for the long-term goals of the nation and its character. The shorter tenure of House representatives makes them more immediately responsible to the people, but their perspective is necessarily shorter.


Madison argues that the Senate also plays a role in ameliorating the worst impulses of populism. That is, the Senate has a potential to act as a brake against the worst collective impulses of the people. A popular law that might pass quickly in the House of Representatives which reflects the first impulses of the populace, might be held up by the Senate, a decision which may later to be shown to have been a more considered position. He argues that Athens would have been a better democracy had it also had a similar safeguard against the passions of the collective will.


This leads to a counterargument from which contemporary comparisons can be made. Madison acknowledges that some would suggest that America’s extensive area would make it difficult for people of different regions to be infected by violent passions or engage in the pursuit of unjust measures. He acknowledges this to be true, but points out that it would be just as difficult to disabuse people of wrong notions once they had been accepted, for the same reason. Of course, in the modern world, this argument is irrelevant, since modern communications make distance a nothing, and violent passions are inflamed daily while misleading information is often hard to identify. Yet one might argue that the Senate failed to hold Donald Trump accountable in two impeachments. Mitch McConnell voted to acquit Trump in the second impeachment even though he blamed Trump for the attack on the Capitol building on January 6 2021. Populism, it seems is not a single headed creature, but of many heads in the modern world, and Senators are subject to the same populist impulses as anyone else; more so, if one takes into account the partisanship now ruling American democracy. That a Republican controlled Senate continued to support President Trump, despite evidence not only of a poor character but of corruption, as outlined in the second impeachment hearing, is disturbing, given the idealistic and hopeful expectations of the Founding Fathers.


This brings me to Madison’s real point in this paper, which is to characterise the American Senate as a blend of stability with liberty. The origins of a Senate lie in aristocratic examples, like that of Rome, but the American Constitution prevents its Senate from evolving into an aristocratic institution by limiting the tenure of Senators to six years, and renewing a third of the Senate every two years. It is an institution that is subject to change, but with a long enough tenure to allow for experience, stability and a sense of responsibility for the government’s direction to weigh upon its members. Madison argues that the possibility of a lawless Senate is checked by its set tenure, the House of Representatives and finally, the People. All would have to be corrupted for the corruption of the Senatorial body to have any permanent effect. He does not consider the possibility that the Senate might be used to absolve corruption in the executive, however.


Madison reinforces his view of the incorruptibility of the Senate by referring to the Senate of Maryland which is similar to the proposed federal model, which has never exhibited the problems that the constitution’s detractors fear. Added to that is the example of the British Parliament, where the House of Lords is a hereditary body and the House of Representatives is elected every seven years. Despite this, the House of Lords has not been able to defend itself against the continual encroachments of the House of Representatives. For these reasons, Madison is confident that the American Senate cannot transform into an independent aristocratic body, and that the House of Representatives would have the power to curb any drift in that direction.

24 November 2019

Revised and updated 27 June 2022