Senate, a long perspective

The Senate is a terrible institution, intrinsically, but that’s really no more or less than we ever should have expected, given its origins.

I could write at length about the problems with the United States Senate, with its origins, and with the very concept of a senate. But lately I have been musing on one, somewhat ironic, feature of this institution which seems likely to preside over the wrecking of America (with characteristic pomp and puffery).

A quick search online supports my sense that the framers of America’s Constitution had the Roman Republic very explicitly in mind, and that the existence of America’s senate is thus the product of conscious reference to Rome, and its.

From the perspective of history, I submit, the notable feature of the Roman Republic is its takeover from within by a series of tyrants, never reversed right up through the collapse of the Roman state—despite the continued existence of the Roman Senate throughout.

The Framers’ big model for thinking about how a republic could work, in other words, fell to autocrats who found a senate to be no obstacle, and in some ways even a very willing partner to autocracy.

Now, I grant that in the late 18th century, the available real-world models for republican government were limited. I grant also that the Constitution’s framers were very mindful of the failure of the Roman Republic, and did not attempt to re-create it exactly.

Yet, given that they were aware of reasons to depart from their model, and capable of doing so, the decision to include a direct reference to the Roman Senate anyway seems like tempting fate.

They did not need a senate at all. They did not need a second, “upper house” of the legislature at all. In fact, if aversion to British government was operating in the decision to eschew a parliamentary system, this also would have been a point in favor of a “unicameral” legislature.

Instead, people intensely aware of the Roman Senate’s history chose to include an unneeded upper house in our Constitution, consciously modeled on and named after the senate of Rome.

It seems difficult to explain this choice fully without invoking the imp of the perverse.

In any event, should the Senate thus created turn out to be not just counterproductive but finally destructive to this republic…

…it really seems like America, from a perspective of long-term history, will only be getting exactly what it asked for.

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