James Madison Called the Senate’s Future Dysfunction in 1787

I’m finishing up The Glorious Cause, a rather gauzy and sentimental entry in the Oxford History of the United States series covering the American Revolution. But it’s not terrible, and there’s a good breakdown of the controversies around the Constitutional Convention. Perhaps the most important one was whether or not the upper house (the Senate) would have proportional representation. Large states wanted it, because of self-interest and democratic principles, small states wanted equal votes, for baldly hypocritical self-interest alone.

While finishing the section I speculated idly that had I a time machine, I would go back and argue that America at the time had a whole continent to possibly divvy up, and they might lard up the Senate with senators from huge, sparsely populated states and thus trod on their own hats, so to speak. Turns out James Madison thought of that at the time:

Madison, who spoke on June 18th…pointed out that New Jersey and the other like-minded states might someday rue their advocacy of the equality of states. The prospect of many new states formed out of the west should make New Jersey pause. These states would undoubtedly enter the Union when they contained but few inhabitants. If they should be entitled to vote according to their proportions of inhabitants all would be right and safe. But let them have an equal vote, and a more objectionable minority than ever might give law to the whole.

Needless to say, that’s basically exactly what happened.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.