As the newly established Senate defined its constitutional role, it continually tested its authority against that of the president and House of Representatives, seeking the proper balance. Senators irritated President George Washington by rejecting several of his nominations and by refusing to consent immediately to Indian treaties he supported. Though many had expected the Senate simply to refine the work of the House, it took the lead in many areas, including legislation dealing with courts, foreign affairs, and banking.
A Place for Debate and Decision
In this period, the Senate operated with a membership ranging from 22 to 36. Unlike the much larger House of Representatives, where opportunities for debate were necessarily limited, the Senate developed a tradition of leisurely and extended debate.
For Congress’s first 125 years, state legislatures elected senators and often sent them instructions on how to vote. Most senators, however, preferred to make up their own minds. They met in secret before 1795, after which popular pressure forced them to admit the public. By the time the War of 1812 ended, the Senate stood ready to meet the challenges of an uncertain new era.