Why should sparsely populated Wyoming have as many senators as densely populated California? This question was also asked when the Constitution was being written. It was not at all obvious to the Virginia or Pennsylvania delegates at the Constitutional Convention why they should have the same number of senators as Rhode Island. But all states under the Articles of Confederation, regardless of size, had enjoyed an equal vote in Congress. When framing the new Constitution, the less populous states refused to agree to any plan that would deprive them of an equality of votes in both houses. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut said he “was not sorry” to see representation in the Lower House proportioned to population, especially since he “hoped it would become a ground of compromise with regard to the second branch.” He didn’t think that any Northeastern state other than Massachusetts “would listen to a proposition for excluding the states… from an equal voice in both branches” (June 29).
The small states were not simply stubborn; they also gave principled arguments defending this equality. First, the large states had already agreed to an entirely equal voice in Congress under the old Confederation. Now that they were assembled to revise the Articles, Ellsworth asked if the large states “meant to pay no regard to this antecedent plighted faith” (June 29). Second, the defenders of the small states insisted that all states would still retain part of their sovereignty – the compact they were forming was “partly federal” – and therefore the states should be given protection for their interests they retained as states. William Paterson of New Jersey argued that the large states’ wishes of having proportional representation in both houses would be proper only:
“when state distinctions are done away; but those to certain purposes still exist. Will the government of Pennsylvania admit a participation of their common stock of land to the citizens of New Jersey? I fancy not. It therefore follows, that a national government, upon the present plan [of proportional representation in both houses], is unjust, and destructive of the common principles of reciprocity. (June 16, in Yates’ notes)”
So long as individual states had interests distinct from the other states, they should be given power to protect those interests.
The original Virginia Plan, devised by James Madison, provided that both houses would be proportional. Madison sided with many of the other members from the large states on this issue. He proclaimed that departing from the doctrine of proportional representation for either house of the legislature “is inadmissible, being evidently unjust” (June 7). He was destined to meet with more than one disappointment in the formation of the Senate.
The Virginia Plan also proposed that senators be nominated by the individual state legislatures and then elected by the House of Representatives. Madison was especially anxious to free all political actors at the federal level from the control of state legislatures. For that reason he also wanted to give them long terms, in order to provide additional stability and independence to that body. He thought a seven-year term for the Senate “by no means too long” (June 12), and, indeed, “did not conceive that the term of nine years could threaten any real danger” (June 26). The six-year term the Convention finally settled on, while shorter than Madison’s ideal, was a longer term than any state legislator held.