Federalist No. 62: Reflections on the “stability” of the Senate

On this day in 1788, The Federalist No. 62 was published, detailing the character and role of the Senate as outlined in Article I of the Constitution. Here’s an overview of what the essay said—and why it matters today.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Senate in session

Qualification of senators

Many of the Founders viewed the Senate as a check on the “instability” of the House. Senators were expected to be older and wiser, so one important qualification was that they be at least 30 years old. They were expected to have greater life experience, to have dealt with foreign governments, and to have the “stability of character” worthy of the trust placed in the Senate.

Election of senators

The proposed Constitution  provided that senators be elected by state legislatures. (Later, with the 17th Amendment, senators were elected directly by the people.) This process would involve state governments in the structure and functioning of the new central government. In addition, it was intended to be an impediment to improper actions of the House.

Representation in the Senate

Representation in Congress was one of the most hard-fought issues during the Convention. The Federalist No. 62—which was authored by James Madison or Alexander Hamilton—notes that the structure of the proposed government is both federal and national in nature and therefore, representation should also be mixed.  Therefore, it is asserted that proportional representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate are appropriate. Finally, equal representation in the Senate was a “constitutional recognition” of the powers and individual sovereignty remaining with the states.

Number of senators and term length

The Senate is portrayed as a check on government power, because legislation would require concurrence of two distinct bodies and reduce the possibility of “sinister combinations”

The author speaks of the “blunders” made earlier by the government. He ascribes those actions to be motivated by the head rather than the heart. This was the basis for his endorsing a higher age requirement for senators.

The stability of the Senate, he argues, would be further assured by one-third of the senators being elected every two years, thus reducing the “mutability” of the government. This “mutability” has both external and internal implications.

Stability and mutability today

The author argues that governmental “mutability” damages the nation’s relationships with foreign governments because those governments will not be able to anticipate the positions and policies our government might adopt. Additionally, mutability will be particularly applicable to the repayment of our foreign debts. Will foreign governments be able to rely on our government’s stability, particularly with an executive elected every four years?

The author notes:

“The effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people. … What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plan may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed?”

Isn’t that exactly what the business community has been saying for the past few years? They are hesitant to make plans, invest in equipment, or hire employees because of the uncertainty of what the government might do—or not do.

Today, perhaps, it would be well for us to reflect on insights from The Federalist No. 62 on the balance between “mutability” and “stability” in government, and the consequences of our government failing to function.

Donald Applestein is a retired attorney and an experience guide in the National Constitution Center’s Public Programs Department.

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