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Idea of the Senate | The Senate as a Continuing Body

Henry Cabot Lodge, 1903
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

A scholar turned politician, Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., was immensely proud of his service in the United States Senate, from 1893 until 1924. As a senator from Massachusetts he held the seat previously occupied by Daniel Webster. Lodge also held one of the first doctorates in history offered by an American university, and as a senator he studied the constitutional origins of the Senate, publishing a number of articles on the subject.

Henry Cabot Lodge was a Boston Brahmin, born in that city in 1850 into a union of two prominent and wealthy families, the Cabots and Lodges. He graduated from Harvard, received a law degree from Harvard Law School, and earned Harvard’s first Ph.D. in history and government, writing a dissertation on Anglo-Saxon land law. He served as an editor of the North American Review and published biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and his great-grandfather, George Cabot. Although many gentlemen of his era eschewed politics, Lodge spent the lion’s share of his life in public office, serving in the Massachusetts legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate.

In “The Senate,” which appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1903, Senator Lodge described the Senate’s constitutional origins and its evolution since 1789. An excerpt reads as follows...

“The Senate”

The Senate . . . was regarded as the key-stone of the new scheme, and the framers showed their belief in its overwhelming importance by providing that the basis of representation in the Senate should not be altered except by the consent of every State, while every other clause of the Constitution could be amended by a two-thirds vote of Congress followed by a ratification by three-fourths of the States. . . .

The Senate is to-day the most powerful single chamber in any legislative body in the world, but this power, which is shown daily by the wide attention to all that is said and done in the Senate of the United States, is not the product of selfish and cunning usurpations on the part of an ambitious body. It is due to the original constitution of the Senate, to the fact that the Senate represents States, to the powers conferred upon it at the outset by the makers of the Constitution, to its permanency of organization, and to the combination of legislative, executive, and judicial functions, which set it apart from all other legislative bodies. Without the assent of the Senate no bill can become law, no office can be filled, no treaty ratified. . . .

Administrations come and go, Houses assemble and disperse, Senators change, but the Senate is always there in the Capitol, and always organized, with an existence unbroken since 1789. . . . All this influence and authority in the Senate are due to the powers conferred upon it by its creators, by that remarkable body of men who, in the summer of 1787, framed at Philadelphia the Constitution of the United States. 1

When this article appeared, the U.S. Senate was under increasing attack from progressive reformers and muckraking journalists who saw the upper house as corruptly elected, dominated by special interests, and an obstacle to reform. Senator Lodge instead pointed back to the Constitutional Convention as the creator of “the most powerful single chamber in any legislative body in the world.” The role of the Senate was so important, he noted, that the Constitution added a provision that no state could lose its equal representation in the Senate without its consent, making the Senate’s representation the only part of the Constitution that could not be amended by three-quarters of the states. He pointed to the unique executive functions of the legislative body, confirming nominations and approving treaties. He noted that the Senate had retained all of the powers originally assigned to it by the Constitution. Most importantly, he celebrated the Senate as a continuous body, with an existence “unbroken since 1789.”

Unlike the House of Representatives, where every member from the Speaker to the greenest freshman must stand for election every two years, and where the rules are re-adopted at the beginning of each Congress, the Senate is a continuing body. Only one-third of the senators run in each congressional election, with two-thirds of the body insulated from the political frenzies of the moment. With the majority of senators continuing, the Senate need not re-authorize its rules from Congress to Congress. The Senate as a result maintains a sense of permanence that the changing House and even the presidency lacks. Given Senator Lodge’s admiration for these qualities, it is not surprising that he opposed Progressive-era initiatives to shift the election of senators from the state legislators to the voters, and also dissented from reformers’ advocacy of the initiative, referendum, and recall.

In the Senate, Lodge became Republican floor leader after his party won the majority in 1918. He also chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These dual roles placed him dramatically in opposition to President Woodrow Wilson—a rival scholar in politics—in the monumental battle over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War and created the League of Nations. Although both Lodge and Wilson were internationalists, they defined America’s role in the world differently. From a partisan perspective, the Republican Lodge was also determined not to allow the Democratic Wilson to claim full credit for restoring international peace and order. Making full use of his senatorial prerogatives, Lodge introduced a series of reservations to the treaty. Wilson adamantly refused to compromise, however, and took his case directly to the people. Upon his return to Washington following a grueling cross-country speaking tour, the president suffered a debilitating stroke. With no compromise possible, the treaty’s “irreconcilable” opponents defeated it outright rather than adopting Lodge’s revisions. In that sense, both Lodge and Wilson lost the battle. The United States never joined the League of Nations and international relations drifted into the Second World War a generation later. On an institutional level, however, Lodge prevailed. The Senate exerted its constitutional authority and twice rejected the Treaty of Versailles, decisions approved by the voters in 1920 when they elected overwhelmingly a Republican president and expanded Republican majorities in Congress.

Henry Cabot Lodge had entered the House during Grover Cleveland’s first term in the White House and served there through Benjamin Harrison’s presidency. He became a senator during Cleveland’s second term and remained in office until his death during Calvin Coolidge’s presidency. His congressional service saw eight different Speakers of the House from both parties, and bridged an important era in the development of Senate leadership. Lodge personally reflected his notion of the Senate as a continuous body: “Administrations come and go, Houses assemble and disperse, Senators change, but the Senate is always there.”

Further Reading:

Garraty, John A. Henry Cabot Lodge: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

Lodge, Henry Cabot. “The Senate.” Scribner’s Magazine 34 (November 1903).

Widenor, William C. “Henry Cabot Lodge: The Astute Parliamentarian.” In First Among Equals: Outstanding Senate Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Richard A. Baker and Roger H. Davidson, eds. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1991.

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1. Henry Cabot Lodge, “The Senate,” Scribner’s Magazine 34 (November 1903), 541, 549-50.