Saturday, August 5, 2017

The U.S. Senate as Protector of the Interests of the Rich

In the U.S. Constitutional Convention, Governeur Morris said on July 2, 1787, that the “Rich will strive to establish their dominion & enslave the rest. They always did. They always will. The proper security [against] them is to form them into a separate interest.” (Madison, p. 233) By this he meant the U.S. Senate. The democratic principle in the U.S. House and the aristocratic spirit in the U.S. Senate “will then controul each other.” (Madison, p. 233) Having the State Legislatures appoint their U.S. Senators—as was the case until 1913—would defeat the independence of the Senate, and hence its function as a check on the excesses of democracy in the U.S. House.  Such excesses had just been evinced in Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, wherein the legislature there had sided with the former soldiers who had not been paid for their service but were still to make payments on their debts.

In other words, one of the purposes of the U.S. Senate as originally envisioned was to protect property (including creditor interests). The assumption was that the representative democracy of the U.S. House would favor the lower classes.  Although the amounts spent on Senatorial campaigns in after the turn of the twenty-first century practically guarantee that the seats would defend the interests of the rich, that the Senators are elected by citizens rather than appointed by State governments must compromise the U.S. Senate as a check on the democratic excesses in the U.S. House. Even as this check has been enervated, the protection of wealth function endures. 

Indeed, given Shaws’ Rebellion the check on excess democracy is really just the protection of property, which is practially guaranteed anyway by the amounts needed to run for the U.S. Senate.  Not surprisingly, in 2010 the medium wealth of a U.S. Senator was roughly $2.8 million. It is worth quoting from Governeur Morris again—this time from July 19 in Convention. “Wealth tends to corrupt the mind & to nourish its lvoe of power, and to stimulate it to oppression.” (Madison, p. 323)  As the number of electors per member of the U.S. House has increased, even that body could be said to evince a moneyed aristocracy.  The question may thus be raised: Is there a sufficient check against the rich in the national legislature?

Governeur Morris claimed in convention that the U.S. President “should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes” on account of the wealth-interest in the U.S. Senate. (Madison, p. 322). However, if the wealth interest has gained a foothold in the U.S. House and even in the presidency itself, that check may well be insufficient and nugatory. A return of domestic functions of government to those of the respective States could perhaps evince a greater weight for what Morris calls “the Mass of the people.” (Madison, p. 323)  At the very least, the lower houses of the State governments are not dominated by the rich. This was precisely what the delegates of the convention wanted to check, and the creation of a general government was their solution. It is no wonder that it has become top-heavy both at the expense of federalism and the poor.


James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787 (New York: Norton, 1987).