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Idea of the Senate | The Senate as a Body of Individuals

Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson, 1907
Woodrow Wilson

In 1906, the president of Columbia University invited the president of Princeton University to deliver a series of lectures on American government. On April 12, 1907, Columbia students turned out to hear Princeton president Woodrow Wilson discuss the United States Senate. Twenty-two years earlier, Wilson had published his first book, Congressional Government (1885), in which he concluded that the American government was dominated by Congress, through its all-powerful committees. In the two decades since the Civil War, the presidency had grown weak and ineffectual. The influence of Senate and House committee chairmen, however, extended no further than their committee rooms. What the Congress of the 1880s lacked, in Wilson’s view, was effective party leadership, or ministerial responsibility.

As he prepared his remarks for the 1907 Columbia lecture series, Woodrow Wilson realized how out of date Congressional Government had become. The experience of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt had shifted considerable power from Capitol Hill to the White House. In the Senate, political party caucuses developed to a degree that no one would have imagined in 1885. By 1907 Wilson had become vastly better informed about the operations of the Senate. He compared the chairman of the Senate majority party caucus to the Speaker of the House in extent of influence among his colleagues. “Through the Committee on Committees and the Steering Committee, both of which he appoints subject to the confirmation of the caucus, he plays no small part in determining both the character and the handling of the business the Senate is called on to consider.”

Through considerable first-hand experience, he had come to view the Senate with a spirit of cordiality and toleration. He defended the Senate against negative media coverage flowing from the recent indictment of two senators for receiving compensation for representing private clients before federal agencies. A year earlier, Cosmopolitan magazine had run a series of sensationalized articles under the heading “Treason of the Senate.” The series exaggerated genuine problems of bribery and corruption associated with the election of senators by state legislatures. Wilson wrote, “. . . the large majority of the members of the Senate of the United States obtain their seats by perfectly legitimate methods, because the people whom they represent honestly prefer them as representatives; that the large majority of them are poor men who have little or nothing to live on besides their inadequate salaries; that the opinion and action of the Senate are for the most part determined by the influence of quiet men whom the country talks about very little and about whom it suspects nothing in the least questionable or dishonorable; and that the few notorious members whose reputations are most talked of generally play but a very obscure part in its business.” He added, “There is no better cure for thinking disparagingly of the Senate than a conference with men who belong to it, to find out how various, how precise, how comprehensive their information about the affairs of the nation is; and to find, what is even more important, how fair, how discreet, how regardful of public interest they are.” In the book that resulted from his 1907 Columbia lectures, Constitutional Government (1908), Wilson updated his written views of a changing Senate.

Constitutional Government

It is very difficult to form a just estimate of the Senate of the United States. No body has been more discussed; no body has been more misunderstood and traduced. There was a time when we were lavish in spending our praises upon it. We joined with our foreign critics and appreciators in speaking of the Senate as one of the most admirable, as it is certainly one of the most original, of our political institutions. In our own day we have been equally lavish of hostile criticism. We have suspected it of every malign purpose, fixed every unhandsome motive upon it, and at times almost cast it out of our confidence altogether.

The fact is that it is possible in your thought to make almost anything you please out of the Senate. It is a body variously compounded, made many-sided by containing many elements, and a critic may concentrate his attention upon one element at a time if he chooses, make the most of what is good and put the rest out of sight, or make more than the most of what is bad and ignore everything that does not chime with his thesis of evil. The Senate has, in fact, many contrasted characteristics, shows many faces, lends itself easily to no confident generalization. It differs very radically from the House of Representatives. The House is an organic unit; it has been at great pains to make itself so, and to become a working body under a single unifying discipline; while the Senate is not so much an organization as a body of individuals, retaining with singularly little modification the character it was originally intended to have. . . .

. . . What gives the Senate its real character and significance as an organ of constitutional government is the fact that it does not represent population, but regions of the country, the political units into which it has, by our singular constitutional process, been cut up. The Senate, therefore, represents the variety of the nation as the House does not. . . .

The fact that the Senate has kept its original rules of debate and procedure substantially unchanged, is very significant. It is a place of individual voices. The suppression of any single voice would radically change its constitutional character; and its character being changed, the individual voices of the country’s several regions being silenced, there would no longer be any sufficient reason for its present constitution. . . .

This, then, is the Senate, the House of individuals, a body of representative American men, representing the many elements of the nation’s make-up, exhibiting the vitality of a various people, speaking for the several parts of a country of many parts and many interests, a whole and yet full of sharp social and political contrasts; men much above the average in ability and in personal force; men connected in most cases by long service with the business of government and accustomed to handle its affairs in all their range and variety; a body of counselors who act, if not always wisely or without personal and party bias, yet always with energy and without haste.1

Referring to President Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson noted sympathetically the “unmistakable condescension with which the older members of the Senate regard the President of the United States.” Senior senators treat him “at most as an ephemeral phenomenon,” because they have served longer than presidents and their "experience of affairs is much mellower than the President's can be; [they look] at policies with steadier vision than the President’s; the continuity of the government lies in the keeping of the Senate more than in the keeping of the executive, even in respect to matters which are of the especial prerogative of the presidential office. A member of longstanding in the Senate feels that he is the professional, the President an amateur.”

Over the following decade, conditioned successively by experience as governor of New Jersey and then president of the United States, Wilson acquired a decidedly darker view of executive-legislative relations. In 1913, he denounced senators delaying a vote on a conference report as “a lot of old women.” In 1917, those who filibustered World War I armaments legislation were “a little group of willful men.” In 1919, asked to accept reservations to the Treaty of Versailles, offered by Senate majority leader and Foreign Relations Committee chairman Henry Cabot Lodge to ensure American participation in the League of Nations, he said, “Never! I’ll never consent to adopt any policy with which that impossible name is so prominently identified.”

Never in American history was there a president better equipped by training and experience to work constructively with the Senate; never were there more serious consequences of his failure to do so.

Further Reading:

New York Times, April 13, 1907.

Wilson, Woodrow. Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1885.

__________. Constitutional Government in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1911.

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1. Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1911), 112-13, 114, 121, 129-30.