Why Was a Bicameral Legislature Established?

This post was originally submitted for an American Government class at Regent University. It has been modified for publication.

Before the start of the American Revolution, the British levied numerous taxes on the colonists that they considered unfair. During this time, the colonists did not have representation in Parliament. Writers like Thomas Paine and James Otis made the case why the lack of representation was a violation of the colonists’ rights. This mindset that developed during the American Revolution was of the most defining factors during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Convention largely centered on the legislature and its power. The Founders realized that representation was the most important aspect of republicanism. Therefore, the United States established a bicameral legislature for two reasons. First, two chambers of Congress ensure that the states are equally and adequately represented. Second, a bicameral legislature acts as a primary function of separation of powers.

The American Revolution, and the years preceding, established the mindset of the Founders. The British government took actions that greatly upset the American colonists. One of the primary events that increased British activity in American life was the French and Indian War. Britain accrued a massive debt due to French and Indian War. The British government had to pay the war debt, so they began to levy taxes on the colonies. Before the war, colonists only paid about one shilling per year in taxes, but these new taxes greatly increased that burden.[1] The British enacted the Stamp Act, Tea Act, and Townshend Acts to pay off the war debt through tax revenues from colonial commerce.

One of the early influential writers in America was James Otis. In Otis’ writing, he stated that one of the major bounds through which the government was to rule was that “taxes are not to be laid on the people, but by their consent in person, or by deputation.”[2] Otis wrote in reaction to the taxes levied on the colonists after the French and Indian War. His writing greatly influenced the American mindset about representation. Concurring with Otis in 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense proclaimed to the colonists the following:

I have heretofore likewise mentioned the necessity of a large and equal representation; and there is no political matter which more deserves our attention. A small number of electors, or a small number of representatives, are equally dangerous. But if the number of the representatives be not only small, but unequal, the danger is increased.[3]

This literature was widely distributed throughout the colonies. The mindset stayed with the Americans through the Revolution and into the Founding era. In pursuance of a new government based on equal representation, the Founders established Articles of Confederation in 1777. However, it was not until 1781 that all the states ratified this constitution.[4] The Articles established a unicameral Congress.  Under the Articles, the United States was a confederation of sovereign states.[5] For fear of larger states tyrannizing smaller states, each held one vote in the Confederation Congress. Votes from nine of thirteen states were required to pass any act in the national Congress.[6]

There were many governmental problems under the Articles of Confederation. For example, the Articles gave the power of taxation to the federal government, but there was no authority to carry out that power. States also held unequal representation in the national legislature. The state of New York held the same representative status as Rhode Island; this was a fundamental imbalance of representation. By 1787, many people in the United States realized that the government was unable to carry out its authority, and that something had to change. The issue of taxation and representation became a central part of the Constitutional Convention. The power and structure of the legislature was at the center of debate.[7]

During the Constitutional Convention, there were two primary options for the structure of the national legislature. The first was the Virginia Plan. This plan laid out a completely new Constitution and form of government by which power derived from the people. The new proposal consisted of two houses in the legislature. The lower house created representation according to the population of each state. The people would directly elect members of the lower house. The upper house established two representatives from each state. The lower house would elect representatives in the upper house.[8] The scope of the powers was much greater under the Virginia Plan than under the Articles of Confederation. The national legislature could override state laws, and if necessary, enforce federal law by force.[9] The Federalists were the primary supporters of the Virginia Plan.

The second proposal was the New Jersey Plan, introduced by William Patterson of New Jersey.[10] Under this proposal, power was delegated to a unicameral legislature to raise revenue and regulate commerce. The states would maintain equal representation in the national Congress. Power was derived from the states rather than the people. Similarly, the states would ratify the new Constitution rather than the people.[11] The Anti-Federalists were the primary supporters of the New Jersey Plan. This plan was simply a revision of the Articles of Confederation, and did not change the national government enough for the Federalists.

Ultimately, the Convention adopted the Virginia Plan as the model for the new Constitution. However, the actual plan was far from the original that James Madison had created.[12] This adoption did not come without conflict. The Anti-Federalists published many documents objecting to the new Constitution. In Robert Yates and John Lansing’s Objections to the Federal Constitution, they argued that representation could not be adequately or equally obtained. Either the number of representatives would become too burdensome, or too few men would be elected, under-representing their constituents.[13] Yates and Lansing also argued that the House of Representatives created only “a shadow” of representation, and that the Senate’s connection with the executive destroyed the separation of power.[14]

A major issue for all states was how to adequately and equally distribute representation. Under the unicameral system, each state held one vote in the legislature. Larger states like New York viewed this as unfair because its population would be under-represented. Small states like Rhode Island wanted to keep this system because their population had better representation. In Federalist 55, Madison wrote that “[a]nother general remark to be made is, that the ratio between the representatives and the people ought not to be the same where the latter are very numerous as where they are very few.” In essence, areas with larger populations would have more representatives while areas with smaller populations would have fewer representatives.

After extensive debate, the Founders reached what was called the Great Compromise through the Connecticut delegation.[15] The upper house, the Senate, would comprise of two senators from each state. The lower house, House of Representatives, based representation on the population of each individual state. This established equal say in matters for both large and small states. While this did establish the best equality of representation between states, the Anti-Federalists still had major objections to this new plan. One was that the federal government would be too powerful, and that the federal government, specifically the legislature, would usurp liberty. In the Objections to the Federal Constitution, Yates and Lansing wrote:

Exclusive of our objections originating from the want of power, we entertained an opinion that a general government, however guarded by declarations of rights, or cautionary provisions, must unavoidably, in a short time, be productive of the destruction of the civil liberty of such citizens who could be effectually coerced by it…[16]

Richard Henry Lee also expressed deep concern about the new Constitution. In his letter to the governor of Virginia, Lee wrote that the legislature would be able to pass any law if two-thirds voted in favor.[17] For Lee, the legislature could not be a check on itself.

The usurpation of liberty was a major concern at the Constitutional Convention. Many state legislatures had enacted near tyrannical authority in recent decades, and the concern lingered. Madison argued in Federalist 51 that ambition would be able to counteract ambition in the form of separation of powers. Establishment of a bicameral legislature separated the powers of Congress. Madison wrote the following in Federalist 51:

But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.

This bicameral legislature would also be “dependent on the people alone” as Madison contended in Federalist 52. He wrote that the national Congress would not be moldable by state governments; therefore the rights of the people guaranteed to them by the federal Constitution could not be abolished by state legislatures. Madison’s argument of separation of powers within the legislature was one of the main reasons why the new Constitution was eventually ratified. By dividing the power of the legislature,

In conclusion, the establishment of a bicameral legislature ensured that all states would have equal and adequate representation, and that the separation of powers would still be maintained in the new federal Congress. The issue of representation was a major concern for both Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The mentality of taxation only by consent was a central theme during the Constitutional Convention. The states wanted to maintain equality in the national legislature while keeping proportionate representation. This created a difficult situation for the Founders; but through proposed plans, constant debate, and supporting documents, the Great Compromise created a balance of representation and separation of powers in the form of a bicameral legislature.

[1] George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, America: a Narrative History (ninth Edition) (vol. 1), Ninth ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 178.

[2] James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764.

[3] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776.

[4] “Policies and Problems of the Confederation Government,” Library of Congress, November 7, 2013, accessed November 7, 2013, http://loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/newnatn/confed/.

[5] John Charles Bradbury and W. Mark Crain, 2002, “Bicameral Legislatures and Fiscal Policy,” Southern Economic Journal 68, no. 3: 646, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 7, 2013), 647.

[6] “Policies and Problems of the Confederation Government,” Library of Congress.

[7] Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey M. Berry, and Jerry Goldman, The Challenge of Democracy: American Government in Global Politics, 11th ed. (Canada: Cengage Learning, 2012), 352.

[8] The Challenge of Democracy, 74

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Ibid., 75.

[11] Ibid., 75.

[12] The Challenge of Democracy, 74.

[13] “Objections to the Federal Constitution: Letter of Robert Yates and John Lansing to the Governor of New York,” Constitution.org, November 20, 2013, accessed November 20, 2013, http://www.constitution.org/afp/yatesltr.htm.

[14] “Objections to the Federal Constitution.”

[15] The Challenge of Democracy, 76.

[16] “Objections to the Federal Constitution: Letter of Robert Yates and John Lansing to the Governor of New York,” Constitution.org, November 20, 2013, accessed November 20, 2013, http://www.constitution.org/afp/yatesltr.htm.

[17] “Lee’s Objections to the Constitution,” TeachingAmericanHistory.org, November 19, 2013, accessed November 19, 2013, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/richard-henry-lees-objections-to-the-constitution/.


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