The Virginia Plan had left blank the section that was meant to prescribe the length of terms for each of the two houses of the legislature, and for good reason. The state constitutions had generally instituted extremely short terms for both houses of their legislatures, usually in reaction against the “aristocratic” character of the British constitution. Most states had lower houses in which members served for only one year; Rhode Island’s charter prescribed that their representatives were subject to elections every six months. Such frequent elections (and the mutable laws that resulted) had convinced many Americans that it was possible for representatives to be too responsive to the changing wishes of their constituents. Many of the Framers wished to correct these errors in the state constitutions, yet they were no less committed than their forebears to avoiding offices that were too aristocratic. They therefore knew what they wished to avoid, but they had no clear notion of what the best balance might be. The only point on which there was widespread though tacit agreement was that an upper house should have a longer tenure than a lower house.
When the Committee of the Whole first debated what the proper term for the representatives of the Lower House should be, three proposals followed in quick succession: one, two, or three years. Madison was in favor of the last, on the grounds that “instability is one of the great vices of our republics to be remedied.” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts objected to so long a term, however, assuring the assembly that “the people of New England will never give up the point of annual elections…He considered annual elections as the only defence of the people against tyranny. He was as much against a triennial house, as against an hereditary executive.” Gerry may have misread the feelings of his compatriots when he spoke on behalf of the feelings of the whole “people of New England”; in any event, seven of the non-New England states voted for triennial elections, and even a couple of members from Massachusetts were inclined toward this length of term.
Nevertheless, the Convention later thought better of such a radical departure from the states’ practice, and on June 21 they reconsidered the three-year proposal adopted by the Committee. Edmund Randolph suggested they replace triennial elections with biannual ones. “He was sensible that annual elections were a source of great mischiefs in the states,” but their main problem was not the popular branch itself; rather, what they needed were firmer checks from the other branches. Any radical changes in the length of terms should be concentrated in the Upper House. Besides, “the people were attached to frequency of elections.” With very little debate and even less dissent, therefore, they replaced the three year term with two years.
The ideal length of time for the Upper House caused a little more debate and considerably more disagreement. The first suggestion was offered in the Committee of the Whole by Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina: senators should serve for seven years. William Pierce of Georgia feared that such a long term “would raise an alarm.” Edmund Randolph, however, believed that such a long term in the upper branch was necessary: “The democratic licentiousness of the state legislatures proved the necessity of a firm Senate. The object of this second branch is to control the democratic branch of the national legislature. If it be not a firm body, the other branch, being more numerous, and coming immediately from the people, will overwhelm it.”
When the Convention considered the question again, the only objection to the seven-year term for senators was that it would still be too short. Those who advanced a pessimistic role for the Senate (that it needed to represent the rich against the poor) generally argued on behalf of life-terms for senators. Hamilton argued that every society is divided into the few and the many: “Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both, therefore, ought to have the power, that each may defend itself against the other.” He later clarified that it was the “inequality of property [that] constituted the great and fundamental distinction in society.” And since “one branch of the proposed government was so formed as to render it particularly the guardians of the poorer orders of citizens,” the other should be formed to safeguard the interests of the rich. Hamilton therefore argued on behalf of senators who would serve for life or during good behavior, just as the House of Lords did in Britain. The pessimistic reasoning of Gouverneur Morris was exactly the same as Hamilton’s assessment. In order to keep the rich and the poor from oppressing each other, “vices, as they exist, must be turned against each other.” The Upper House “must have great personal property; it must have the aristocratic spirit; it must love to lord it through pride.”
Hamilton and Morris argued with great spirit, but there were very few who adopted the reasoning of these two or, at least, who were willing to follow them to their conclusions. The more general opposition that developed against the seven-year term was that it was a prime number, and the Framers began to see the advantages of rotating the elections of the senators in order to maintain greater stability in that branch. Gorham suggested that they replace the seven-year term with “‘six years,’ one third of the members to go out every second year.” Another faction emerged that preferred nine years, with a rotation every three years. Madison favored the longer term, but others, including a convincing Roger Sherman, thought that four or six years was sufficient for providing “steadiness and wisdom” in the Senate, and the others must have agreed. A six-year term, with a rotation every two years, was agreed to by a vote of seven-to-four on June 26.