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The Idea of the Senate

Rebuttal to Alexis de Tocqueville
Thomas Hart Benton, 1854
Thomas H. Benton

When the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. Capitol in 1832, he sat in the galleries of the House and Senate to watch American democracy in action. In the House, de Tocqueville was dismayed by what he called the “vulgar demeanor” of the members, whom he regarded as obscure individuals: “village lawyers, men of trade, or even persons belonging to the lower classes of society.” The visitor found the Senate more to his liking. “The Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, and statesmen of note, whose language would at all times do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.” De Tocqueville attributed the difference to the manner of election of the two houses. The vulgarity of the House was the result of its direct election by the people, while the elevation of the Senate resulted from its indirect election through state legislatures, which shielded them from the “petty passions” of democracy. At the time that de Tocqueville observed the two houses, Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton stood among those eloquent advocates that he admired. Two decades later, however, in his memoir, Thirty Years’ View, Benton attacked what he considered de Tocqueville’s misinterpretation of American democracy.

One of the most prominent statesmen of his era, Thomas Hart Benton was born near Hillsboro, North Carolina, in 1782, and attended Chapel Hill College, which later became the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Like so many other Americans of his generation he migrated westward and was admitted to the bar in Nashville, Tennessee, where he practiced law and entered into politics, serving in the Tennessee state senate. At one point he fought a duel with another rising Tennessee politician, Andrew Jackson, who carried Benton’s bullet in his body for the rest of his life. The two men had patched up their relationship by the War of 1812, when Benton, a colonel in the Tennessee volunteers, served as aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson. After the war, Benton moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he opened a law practice and edited the Missouri Inquirer. Following the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Missouri was admitted to the Union and the state legislature elected Benton as one of its first two senators. He spent the next 30 years as a Democratic Republican and later a Jacksonian Democrat, being reelected in 1827, 1833, 1839, and 1845. In the turbulent political year of 1850, Benton failed to win reelection to the Senate, but in 1852 he ran for the House of Representatives, where he served a single term. He devoted his last years to writing his memoirs and died in Washington in 1858. It was perhaps Benton’s experience of standing for election before the voters in 1852 that made him respond so vehemently in his Thirty Years’ View to de Tocqueville’s criticism of the House and of direct democracy.

Thirty Years’ View

I have had occasion several times to notice the errors of Monsieur de Tocqueville, in his work upon American democracy. That work is authority in Europe, where it has appeared in several languages; and is sought by some to be made authority here, where it has been translated into English, and published with notes, and a preface to recommend it. It was written with a view to enlighten European opinion in relation to democratic government, and evidently with a candid intent; but abounds with errors to the prejudice of that form of government, which must do it great mischief, both at home and abroad, if not corrected. A fundamental error of this kind—one which goes to the root of representative government, occurs in chapter 8 of his work, where he finds a great difference in the members comprising the two Houses of Congress, attributing an immense superiority to the Senate, and discovering the cause of the difference in the different modes of electing the members—the popular elections of the House, and the legislative elections of the Senate. . . .

The whole tenor of these paragraphs is to disparage the democracy—to disparage democratic government—to attack fundamentally the principle of popular election itself. They disqualify the people for self-government, hold them to be incapable of exercising the elective franchise, and predict the downfall of our republican system, if that franchise is not still further restricted, and the popular vote—the vote of the people—reduced to subaltern choice of persons to vote for them. . . . He seems to look upon the members of the two Houses as different orders of beings—different classes—a higher and a lower class; the former placed in the Senate by the wisdom of State legislatures, the latter in the House of Representatives by the folly of the people—when the fact is, that they are not only of the same order and class, but mainly the same individuals. The Senate is almost entirely made up out of the House! and it is quite certain that every senator whom Mons. de Tocqueville had in his eye when he bestowed such encomium on that body had come from the House of Representatives! placed there by the popular vote, and afterwards transferred to the Senate by the legislature; not as new men just discovered by the superior sagacity of that body, but as public men with national reputations, already illustrated by the operation of popular elections. And if Mons. de Tocqueville had chanced to make his visit some years sooner, he would have seen almost every one of these senators, to whom his exclusive praise is directed, actually sitting in the other House.1

Defending the “People’s House,” Benton reminded his readers that many U.S. senators previously served in the House and that there was no class distinction between the two bodies. He did acknowledge a different ethos in the Senate and House that would have the members seem so different to the casual visitor. The Senate was a smaller body, Benton noted, and therefore more formal. It was composed of older men, graver in demeanor than the younger, more boisterous House. Senators typically had previous service in their state legislatures and in the House of Representatives and were therefore more experienced. They were literally “the elect of the elect.” Longer terms gave their legislative talents more time to mature and allowed for enactment of legislation that conferred national fame upon its authors.

Benton argued that the framers of the Constitution had deliberately created one body of the legislature in which the people had direct control over electing, with the sole powers of originating revenue bills and impeachment. He argued that the House should never be considered inferior to the Senate and pointed out that for the federal government’s first 30 years, the House was “the controlling branch,” the one upon whose actions the public’s eye was fixed. That began to change with the Missouri Compromise, which divided the nation in two, banning slavery from the states to the north of the compromise line and permitting slavery to exist south of the line. For every free state admitted to the Union, a slave state would also be admitted, preserving the balance. Thus on the most emotional, divisive issue of the day, the Senate would be evenly divided. Ambitious young politicians, who until then had made their careers in the House, began migrating to the Senate, which in the 1830s and 1840s enjoyed its golden era of debate. “Since then the Senate has been taking the first place and people have looked away from the House,” Benton wrote. He judged this to be an injury to the institution and the people, and one that he trusted the House would soon reverse.

Further Reading:

Benton, Thomas Hart. Thirty Years’s View: A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871 [1854].

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. New York: Library of America, 2004.

Smith, Elbert B. Magnificent Missourian: The Life of Thomas Hart Benton. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1958.

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1. Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’s View: A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871 [1854]), 1:205-6.