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Feb 21 2008

Slavery And The Senate

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.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymoustache

    Thanks indeed for the history lesson.
    Off-topic:
    I thought the senate was created so that overgrown frat boys would have a taxpayer-funded joint to have toga parties (TOGA, TOGA)…..and come up with foreign policy like
    “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part —-so lets attack I-rack!!” and
    “Now we could do it with conventional weapons that could take years and cost millions of lives—-great let’s get to it”.
    Forget it. We can’t get any evidence of WMDs….Its over—-”Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”
    “W’s right! Psychotic, but absolutely right!”
    I could go on, but know I shouldn’t.

  2. 2
    trog69

    Good evening, Physioprof.

    While I remain woefully ignorant of our congressional history, I did do my wife’s History 101 homework, so I knew this part of the deliberations and compromises involved in their creation. Beside the unconscionable obstruction by the Republicans, what must be done to make the senate worth a shit? Besides issuing subpoenas that are being used for terlit paper.

  3. 3
    Alex

    I learned all of this earlier this school year in my US History I course. Right now we’re on the attempts Calhoun and friends to give states the power to nullify federal laws. :)

  4. 4
    bikemonkey

    Why the hell is it that even though the leftie base is smarter than the rightie base, the talking heads are so much fucking stupider? Really. How the fuck, with reality on their side, do the leftie memes manage to step-on-dick enough to keep the ball game close.

    Who ARE these idiot “progressives” who you get this crap from and why are you not smacking them upside the head?

  5. 5
    PhysioProf

    I would rather not embarrass particular people who are staunch progressives. Better to just provide good information.

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