How did Congress determine the membership of the U.S. Senate during the 1700s?

The years preceding the enactment of the Constitution saw the need for a stronger national government.

The Congress that had been active since 1774 was weak, and while it technically had the right to coin money, regulate Indian affairs, declare war and peace, and appropriate funds, it had little power to carry out these responsibilities.

Each state had one vote in Congress, which was determined by a majority of the delegates from that state (there had to be at least two), who were appointed for one-year terms by the state legislatures. Representation from at least seven states, and in some instances nine, was required to accomplish anything, and this proved a problem.

Representatives were constantly ill or absent for one reason or another; those who did show up sometimes waited weeks for others to appear. The brevity of their terms contributed further to the instability of this governing body. National unrest was the result. Farmers in the West rose up against burdensome state taxes and restrictions. Spain refused Americans the right to navigate the Mississippi and, hungry for territory, wooed the troubled farmers in the areas that are now Kentucky and Tennessee.

A secessionist movement threatened North Carolina. States were bickering over their charters and boundaries, for some were designated as stretching all the way to the Pacific, while others were not. The economy was increasingly unstable, the paper money printed by Congress almost worthless. Congress, furthermore, failed to make satisfactory economic treaties with England.

Although proposals for a more binding central government were, made as early as 1776, little was done because many feared the crushing authority of a monarchy, such as they had recently freed themselves from.

State legislatures, which were daily assuming more power, naturally encouraged this sentiment. By the latter part of the 1780s, which brought Shays’ Rebellion and several instances of national humiliation, many members of Congress, political leaders, and writers were realizing the need to think, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “continentally.” A decision was made by all states except Rhode Island to revise the Articles of Confederation, the existing framework of the government, and in 1787, 55 delegates, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, and Hamilton, arrived in Philadelphia to do so.

Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented the plan of his brilliant colleague Madison, then only 36. This plan attempted to bypass the state legislatures and form a government directly responsive to the people, with representation proportionate to the population.

At the time each state, no matter what its size, had one vote in Congress. Most significantly, this new government, unlike any other, would have a built-in system of checks and balances so that no single branch could amass all the power. After two weeks of discussion and revision, most of the convention agreed that the legislative branch should comprise two houses: members of the upper would be appointed by the state legislatures, members of the lower elected by the people. The number of representatives in each would be proportionate to the population.

This plan might be in effect today had it not been for William Paterson (remembered perhaps by residents of the city in New Jersey named for him), who spoke up on behalf of the disgruntled small states for equal representation in at least one house.

Only when delegates from these small states threatened to quit the convention altogether did the other delegates agree that the upper house should allow each state an equal vote. In return for this concession, the large-state delegates determined that all appropriation of funds should be empowered to the lower house, and taxation would correspond to the population, which would be counted by a census every ten years.

Each state legislature would appoint two senators to serve in the upper house for six years; every two years the people would elect one representative for every 30,000 persons to the lower house; and the two houses would be equal in power. Anticipating some opposition to the new plan, particularly by existing state legislatures, the convention proposed that the people in each state elect a convention to decide on the Constitution, which would become effective as soon as nine states had accepted it.

After almost a year of national debate in which the proponents of the new plan acclaimed it in speeches and writing, the Constitution was ratified. Thus the Congress succeeded in dissolving itself and opening the way for a new government body, as determined in the first national elections in January 1789.

It was not until 1912 and the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution that senators came to be elected by popular vote instead of legislative ballot.