Slavery And The Senate
February 21, 2008
The Senate was created to protect slavery.
Over the last few months, I have heard this assertion independently from people I consider knowledgeable progressives. It isn’t surprising that progressives aren’t happy with the Senate right now. There are, indeed, aspects of how the Senate is constituted and how it operates that currently act to impede achievement of progressive ends. Nevertheless, this claim is, at best, a gross oversimplification of the political context that led to the inclusion of a Senate with equal representation of the States as one of the two houses of our bicameral legislature.
A Senate with equal representation of each state was a compromise that was required at the Constitutional Convention in order to convince the delegates from the states with smaller populations to approve the Constitution. The first proposal for a bicameral legislature originated with the Virginia delegates–the “Virginia Plan”–and was based on representation in both houses proportional to population. Not surprisingly, the small states didn’t like this, as they correctly understood that their interests would be very poorly represented in the national government, being so easily overridden by the much larger numbers of representatives from larger states.
In response to this, the delegation from New Jersey proposed the “New Jersey Plan”, which would have established a unicameral legislature with equal representation of the states. Not surprisingly, the large states bristled at this plan, as it meant that the interests of small numbers of citizens in small states would be given undue weight in the national government relative to the interests of much larger numbers of citizens in the large states.
Debate in the Convention had reached an impasse on this issue, until the Connecticut delegation proposed–in the “Connecticut Compromise” (also called the “Great Compromise”)–creation of a bicameral legislature containing a Senate with equal representation of the States and a House of Representatives with proportional representation of the States. This compromise ultimately succeeded in gaining sufficient support from both small and large states to be incorporated in the Constitution as presented for ratification.
“PhysioProf”, you may be saying at this point, “Thanks for boring the shit out of me with this fucking history lesson, but what about slavery?”
Some of the small states were slave states, and considered equal representation essential for protecting their interest in slavery. But there were also small free states–such as New Jersey–that considered equal representation important and desirable for protecting numerous interests besides slavery.
Conversely, large slave states–such as Virgina–emphatically did not want equal representation, as this would diminish their ability to protect their interests, which included slavery. But large free states–such as New York–also did not want equal representation, to protect numerous interests other than slavery.
Equal representation and the procedural rules of the Senate currently impede progressive ends. But that doesn’t make it right to propagate the canard that the Senate was created to protect slavery.
A bicameral legislature with equal representation in one house and proportional representation in the other was created as a necessary compromise to satisfy both small and large states that their interests–which included slavery, but also many others–would be sufficiently represented in the new national government. Even if there was no slavery in any of the States at the time of the Convention, the fact that some States had much larger populations than others pretty much guaranteed a compromise involving some sort of hybrid equal/proportional system of representation.