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Constituents Tell Senator How to Vote

October 24, 1795

Senator Humphrey Marshall of Kentucky

The presumed right of the people to instruct their elected representatives extends back to colonial times.  In drafting the Bill of Rights in 1789, the House of Representatives briefly considered recognizing such a right, but then overwhelmingly rejected it.  The House response underscored representatives’ traditional desire to temper their constituents’ views with their own knowledge and opinions.

This issue hit the early Senate with special force.  Unlike the House, whose members were elected by a diffused constituency of individual citizens, senators came to their seats through the choice of their state legislatures—bodies skilled in framing expressions of opinion.  Soon after the Senate first convened in 1789, its members began receiving letters of instruction.  In 1791, the Virginia legislature directed its two senators to vote to end the Senate’s practice of meeting behind closed doors—the better to keep senators accountable.  When senators received instructions with which they agreed, some made a great show of following them.  When they disagreed, however, they faced a choice: they could ignore the instructions, or they could resign.

On October 24, 1795, the Kentucky Gazette printed a petition  from the inhabitants of Clark County to that state’s legislature.  The petitioners angrily denounced U. S. Senator Humphrey Marshall for his vote in favor of ratifying a controversial treaty.  The citizens urged the legislature to instruct Marshall to oppose the treaty if it should come before the Senate again.

Noting that Marshall had five years remaining in his term, others traced the problem to the length of senators’ terms.  Six-year terms endangered “the liberties of America,” they argued, by destroying senators’ sense of responsibility and enabling “them to carry into execution schemes pregnant with the greatest evils.”  These petitioners requested their state legislature to instruct both of Kentucky’s senators to propose a constitutional amendment permitting a state legislature to recall senators by a two-thirds vote.

A Federalist facing a hostile Jeffersonian-Republican legislature, Humphrey Marshall appealed directly to the people through a series of articles explaining his ratification vote.  He asserted that as a senator he was less interested in winning popularity contests than in doing his duty to the nation—“according to my own judgment.”  

Shortly afterwards, a mob dragged Marshall from his house.  Only by seconds did this skilled orator talk the crowd out of throwing him into the Kentucky River.  Stoned by angry citizens in the state capital, he kept a low profile for the remainder of his term.