“[B]y making the power of the Senate a sort of ballast for the ship of state and putting her on a steady keel, it achieve[s] the safest and the most orderly arrangement…”
– Plutarch, Greco-Roman historian, first-century A.D.
Celebrating the U.S. Senate
“The use of the Senate is to consist in proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch,” wrote James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.” In many regards, the U.S. Senate is the essential institution under the republican form of government.
The Founding Fathers designed the Senate to be a deliberative body that serves as a balancing force between the executive powers of the presidency and the more popular passions of the U.S. House of Representatives. In our federal government, the role of the Senate is to fully represent the often neglected rights and interests of the states.
The Roman republic provided the template for the Senate. In fact, the word “Senate” is derived from the Latin “senatus,” which means “council of elders.” That is what our Framers had in mind. Each state – regardless of population – has two senators who serve six-year terms. It wasn’t until passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 that senators were popularly elected. Before then, they were chosen by state legislatures.
The Senate’s Golden Age was the 1830s and ‘40s when the body was dominated by three senators who came to be known as the “Great Triumvirate.” Henry Clay of Kentucky the “Great Compromiser;” Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the “Great Orator” and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the “Cast-Iron Man,” were all distinguished orators and parliamentarians. Each was also appointed U.S. secretary of state, but in the Senate they battled over historic issues like slavery, protective tariffs for industries, and states’ rights.
As the elder statesmen of the American republic, senators have a number of powers that House members don’t. These include approving foreign treaties before ratification, as well as confirming the executive appointments of Cabinet secretaries, military officers, ambassadors, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and other federal judges.
Even still, it’s been decades since anyone can recall a memorable speech delivered by a U.S. senator. The U.S. Senate’s vital, though sometimes dormant, authority in the face of the Imperial Presidency means few Americans and schoolchildren truly understand its constitutional role and inner workings. To remedy this, we’re offering a variety of resources to help parents, teachers, and high schoolers: