In the summer of 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve states met at a Federal Convention in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, the government charter that loosely bound the states together during and after the Revolutionary War. The Convention took a different course, however, and the delegates became the framers of an entirely new constitution, one that created a national government, including the United States Congress.
The Congress would be a unique institution, a national legislature with defined lawmaking powers composed of representatives from states spread across a large and diverse country. The framers worried that the legislative branch in a republican, or representative, form of government could become too powerful. So, they divided the Congress into two chambers, creating a bicameral structure consisting of a House of Representatives elected by the people and a Senate appointed by the state legislatures. They also established executive and judicial branches to perform their respective roles and balance the power of Congress. In addition, the framers gave each branch the means to check the power of the other the two.
The structure and powers of Congress, and its place in the separation of powers system, materialized from a combination of sources. Some of the delegates to the Convention reflected on their knowledge of political philosophy and historical examples of other republics, others drew upon their experiences in state legislatures and under the Articles of Confederation. Most of all, the delegates were politicians, who shared a national perspective, but brought to the Convention the interests of their respective states.
One of the leaders of the Convention was James Madison of Virginia. Madison had been a delegate to the Virginia state assembly and the Continental Congress. He was also a statesman and a scholar. In the years leading up to the Federal Convention, between his travels to Annapolis, New York, Philadelphia and Richmond, Madison spent time at his home of Montpelier, reading about and studying the histories of governments and constitutions. In the spring of 1787, he wrote a paper entitled “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” which described the problems with the state governments and the Articles of Confederation.
At the Convention, Madison was a catalyst for the debate over the legislative branch. He composed the Virginia Plan, the first major proposal put before the delegates. The Plan reflected principles of representation and advocated a strong national legislature. As we shall see, the Convention endorsed Madison’s idea of a large republic, but the Virginia Plan was amended to address the concerns and interests of delegates from several smaller states. Madison was also the chronicler of the Federal Convention. The delegates met behind closed doors, and most of our knowledge of the Convention is based on his account of debates, proceedings, and decisions.
In spite of some misgivings about the final product, Madison was an advocate of the Constitution during the ratification debates. Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of New York, wrote The Federalist Papers under the pen name Publius, The Federalist Papers described the various components of the Constitution, challenged opponents of the new charter, explained how the new government would work, and appealed to the state conventions, particularly New York, to ratify the document. The opponents of the Constitution came to be known as the Anti-Federalists, several of whom wrote papers that refuted the claims of the Federalists.
There is much more to the story, and this module will fill in the essential details of the development of the legislative branch and debates over representation. We begin with a discussion of philosophical ideas and historical examples of republicanism, bicameralism, and separation of powers. Next we review the American experience with republican government, including the problems with the state assemblies and the Articles government that led to the Convention. Then, we discuss the debate over the problem of representation and the compromises that led to the design of the House and Senate. Finally, we touch on the ratification debates.
Subsequent modules will describe and explain the powers of Congress and the concepts of lawmaking, representation, bicameralism, and separation of powers.