Defining the Senate's Role - 1789
How would senators represent the citizens of their states? Under the Constitution, state legislatures (not voters) chose senators, who served longer terms than House members. The Senate gave each state an equal voice in Congress—regardless of its population. Critics of this system warned that the Senate might be too “aristocratic.” Would senators be accountable? they asked. Would they fairly reflect public opinion?
The opposite point of view was given by James Madison, one of the principal framers of the Constitution. He feared that the larger, popularly elected House might too easily “yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions.” Madison argued that senators, serving longer terms and chosen by state legislatures, would be more shielded from popular whims and better able to counter such political frenzy until “reason, justice, and truth” again prevailed.
Jay's Treaty: Sharing Power 1794-1795 - 1795
Winning independence from Britain did not end disputes between the two nations. Issues of trade and territory remained. To resolve these, President Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794. Even before Jay returned to America, angry rumors circulated speculating that the treaty he negotiated favored the British at the expense of American interests.
Following two months of bitter debate in 1795, the Senate approved Jay's Treaty with barely the required two-thirds majority. When a senator leaked the still-secret agreement to the press, angry mobs accused senators of signing a "death warrant to America’s liberties." Those who had voted against the treaty became heroes. This split helped define America’s first political parties—the Federalists, who approved the treaty, and the Jeffersonian Republicans. When the House made a bid to review the treaty, President Washington refused its request for documents, thereby reaffirming the Senate's exclusive role in approving treaties.
"A death warrant to America’s liberties ..."
—Cry of protesters against Jay’s Treaty, Summer 1795
Behind Closed Doors 1789–1795 - 1795
Why meet in closed session? The Constitution does not require Congress to meet in public. The House of Representatives, elected directly by voters, immediately opened its doors to the public and press. Senators, originally chosen by state legislators, decided to meet in private, believing they could work more efficiently without public scrutiny and interference.
The earliest Senate Chambers, in New York City and Philadelphia, did not have visitors’ galleries. The Senate decided to build a viewing area in 1794 after many state legislatures and newspapers demanded more openness. Beginning in 1795, the Senate debated legislative business (lawmaking) in open session but continued to discuss executive business (treaties and nominations) in closed sessions until 1929. Today, both houses of Congress conduct all debates in public sessions, except when discussing information that could risk national security.