CHAPTER 12 | Document 25

Benjamin Franklin, Queries and Remarks respecting Alterations in the Constitution of Pennsylvania

1789Writings 10:55--60

III. On the Legislative Branch.

"A plural Legislature is as necessary to good Government as a single Executive. It is not enough that your Legislature should be numerous; it should also be divided. Numbers alone are not a sufficient Barrier against the Impulses of Passion, the Combinations of Interest, the Intrigues of Faction, the Haste of Folly, or the Spirit of Encroachment. One Divison should watch over and controul the other, supply its Wants, correct its Blunders, and cross its Designs, should they [be] made up of the Portions of Sense and Knowledge which each Member brings to it."

On this it may be asked, May not the Wisdom brought to the Legislature by each Member be as effectual a Barrier against the Impulses of Passion, &c., when the Members are united in one Body, as when they are divided? If one Part of the Legislature may controul the Operations of the other, may not the Impulses of Passion, the Combinations of Interest, the Intrigues of Faction, the Haste of Folly, or the Spirit of Encroachment in one of those Bodies obstruct the good proposed by the other, and frustrate its Advantages to the Public? Have we not experienced in this Colony, when a Province under the Government of the Proprietors, the Mischiefs of a second Branch existing in the Proprietary Family, countenanced and aided by an Aristocratic Council? How many Delays and what great Expences were occasioned in carrying on the public Business; and what a Train of Mischiefs, even to the preventing of the Defence of the Province during several Years, when distressed by an Indian war, by the iniquitous Demand that the Proprietary Property should be exempt from Taxation! The Wisdom of a few Members in one single Legislative Body, may it not frequently stifle bad Motions in their Infancy, and so prevent their being adopted? whereas, if those wise Men, in case of a double Legislature, should happen to be in that Branch wherein the Motion did not arise, may it not, after being adopted by the other, occasion lengthy Disputes and Contentions between the two Bodies, expensive to the Public, obstructing the public Business, and promoting Factions among the People, many Tempers naturally adhering obstinately to Measures they have once publicly adopted? Have we not seen, in one of our neighbouring States, a bad Measure, adopted by one Branch of the Legislature, for Want of the Assistance of some more intelligent Members who had been packed into the other, occasion many Debates, conducted with much Asperity, which could not be settled but by an expensive general Appeal to the People? And have we not seen, in another neighbouring State, a similar Difference between the two Branches, occasioning long Debates and Contentions, whereby the State was prevented for many Months enjoying the Advantage of having Senators in the Congress of the United States? And has our present Legislative in one Assembly committed any Errors of Importance, which they have not remedied, or may not easily remedy; more easily, probably, than if divided into two Branches? And if the Wisdom brought by the Members to the Assembly is divided into two Branches, may it not be too weak in each to support a good Measure, or obstruct a bad one? The Division of the Legislature into two or three Branches in England, was it the Product of Wisdom, or the Effect of Necessity, arising from the preëxisting Prevalence of an odious Feudal System? which Government, notwithstanding this Division is now become in Fact an absolute Monarchy; since the King, by bribing the Representatives with the People's Money, carries, by his Ministers, all the Measures that please him; which is equivalent to governing without a Parliament, and renders the Machine of Government much more complex and expensive, and, from its being more complex, more easily put out of Order. Has not the famous political Fable of the Snake, with two Heads and one Body, some useful Instruction contained in it? She was going to a Brook to drink, and in her Way was to pass thro' a Hedge, a Twig of which opposed her direct Course; one Head chose to go on the right side of the Twig, the other on the left; so that time was spent in the Contest, and, before the Decision was completed, the poor Snake died with thirst.

"Hence it is that the two Branches should be elected by Persons differently qualified; and in short, that, as far as possible, they should be made to represent different Interests. Under this Reasoning I would establish a Legislature of two Houses. The Upper should represent the Property; the Lower the Population of the State. The upper should be chosen by Freemen possessing in Lands and Houses one thousand Pounds; the Lower by all such as had resided four Years in the Country, and paid Taxes. The first should be chosen for four, the last for two years. They should in Authority be coequal."

Several Questions may arise upon this Proposition. 1st. What is the Proportion of Freemen possessing Lands and Houses of one thousand Pounds' value, compared to that of Freemen whose Possessions are inferior? Are they as one to ten? Are they even as one to twenty? I should doubt whether they are as one to fifty. If this minority is to chuse a Body expressly to controul that which is to be chosen by the great Majority of the Freemen, what have this great Majority done to forfeit so great a Portion of their Right in Elections? Why is this Power of Controul, contrary to the spirit of all Democracies, to be vested in a Minority, instead of a Majority? Then is it intended, or is it not, that the Rich should have a Vote in the Choice of Members for the lower House, while those of inferior Property are deprived of the Right of voting for Members of the upper House? And why should the upper House, chosen by a Minority, have equal Power with the lower chosen by a Majority? Is it supposed that Wisdom is the necessary concomitant of Riches, and that one Man worth a thousand Pounds must have as much Wisdom as Twenty who have each only 999; and why is Property to be represented at all? Suppose one of our Indian Nations should now agree to form a civil Society; each Individual would bring into the Stock of the Society little more Property than his Gun and his Blanket, for at present he has no other. We know, that, when one of them has attempted to keep a few Swine, he has not been able to maintain a Property in them, his neighbours thinking they have a Right to kill and eat them whenever they want Provision, it being one of their Maxims that hunting is free for all; the accumulation therefore of Property in such a Society, and its Security to Individuals in every Society, must be an Effect of the Protection afforded to it by the joint Strength of the Society, in the Execution of its Laws. Private Property therefore is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing; its Contributions therefore to the public Exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a Benefit on the Publick, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honour and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or the Payment of a just Debt. The Combinations of Civil Society are not like those of a Set of Merchants, who club their Property in different Proportions for Building and Freighting a Ship, and may therefore have some Right to vote in the Disposition of the Voyage in a greater or less Degree according to their respective Contributions; but the important ends of Civil Society, and the personal Securities of Life and Liberty, these remain the same in every Member of the society; and the poorest continues to have an equal Claim to them with the most opulent, whatever Difference Time, Chance, or Industry may occasion in their Circumstances. On these Considerations, I am sorry to see the Signs this Paper I have been considering affords, of a Disposition among some of our People to commence an Aristocracy, by giving the Rich a predominancy in Government, a Choice peculiar to themselves in one half the Legislature to be proudly called the UPPER House, and the other Branch, chosen by the Majority of the People, degraded by the Denomination of the LOWER; and giving to this upper House a Permanency of four Years, and but two to the lower. I hope, therefore, that our Representatives in the Convention will not hastily go into these Innovations, but take the Advice of the Prophet, "Stand in the old ways, view the ancient Paths, consider them well, and be not among those that are given to Change."

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 12, Document 25
The University of Chicago Press

The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Albert Henry Smyth. 10 vols. New York: Macmillan Co., 1905--7.

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