CHAPTER 12 | Document 27

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 2:§§ 547--58


§ 547. The utility of a subdivision of the legislative power into different branches, having a negative upon each other, is, perhaps, at the present time admitted by most persons of sound reflection. But it has not always found general approbation; and is, even now, sometimes disputed by men of speculative ingenuity, and recluse habits. It has been justly observed, that there is scarcely in the whole science of politics a more important maxim, and one, which bears with greater influence upon the practical operations of government. It has been already stated, that Pennsylvania, in her first constitution, adopted the scheme of a single body, as the depositary of the legislative power, under the influence, as is understood, of a mind of a very high philosophical character. Georgia, also, is said in her first constituion, (since changed,) to have confided the whole legislative power to a single body. Vermont adopted the same course, giving, however, to the executive council a power of revision, and of proposing amendments, to which she yet adheres. We are also told by a distinguished statesman of great accuracy and learning, that at the first formation of our state constitutions, it was made a question of transcendant importance, and divided the opinions of our most eminent men. Legislation, being merely the expression of the will of the community, was thought to be an operation so simple in its nature, that inexperienced reason could not readily perceive the necessity of committing it to two bodies of men, each having a decisive check upon the action of the other. All the arguments derived from the analogy between the movements of political bodies, and the operations of physical nature; all the impulses of political parsimony; all the prejudices against a second co-ordinate legislative assembly stimulated by the exemplification of it in the British parliament, were against a division of the legislative power.

§ 548. It is also certain, that the notion, that the legislative power ought to be confided to a single body, has been, at various times, adopted by men eminent for their talents and virtues. Milton, Turgot, Franklin, are but a few among those, who have professedly entertained, and discussed the question. Sir James Mackintosh, in a work of a controversial character, written with the zeal and eloquence of youth, advocated the doctrine of a single legislative body. Perhaps his maturer life may have changed this early opinion. At all events, he can, in our day, count few followers. Against his opinion, thus uttered, there is the sad example of France itself, whose first constitution, in 1791, was formed on this basis, and whose proceedings the genius of this great man was employed to vindicate. She stands a monument of the folly and mischiefs of the scheme; and by her subsequent adoption of a division of the legislative power, she has secured to herself (as it is hoped) the permanent blessings of liberty. Against all visionary reasoning of this sort, Mr. Chancellor Kent has, in a few pages of pregnant sense and brevity, condensed a decisive argument. There is danger, however, that it may hereafter be revived; and indeed it is occasionally hinted by gifted minds, as a problem yet worthy of a fuller trial.

§ 549. It may not, therefore, be uninstructive to review some of the principal arguments, by which this division is vindicated. The first and most important ground is, that it forms a great check upon undue, hasty, and oppressive legislation. Public bodies, like private persons, are occasionally under the dominion of strong passions and excitements; impatient, irritable, and impetuous. The habit of acting together produces a strong tendency to what, for want of a better word, may be called the corporation spirit, or what is so happily expressed in a foreign phrase, l'esprit du corps. Certain popular leaders often acquire an extraordinary ascendency over the body, by their talents, their eloquence, their intrigues, or their cunning. Measures are often introduced in a hurry, and debated with little care, and examined with less caution. The very restlessness of many minds produces an utter impossibility of debating with much deliberation, when a measure has a plausible aspect, and enjoys a momentary favour. Nor is it infrequent, especially in cases of this sort, to overlook well-founded objections to a measure, not only because the advocates of it have little desire to bring them in review, but because the opponents are often seduced into a credulous silence. A legislative body is not ordinarily apt to mistrust its own powers, and far less the temperate exercise of those powers. As it prescribes its own rules for its own deliberations, it easily relaxes them, whenever any pressure is made for an immediate decision. If it feels no check but its own will, it rarely has the firmness to insist upon holding a question long enough under its own view, to see and mark it in all its bearings and relations on society.

§ 550. But it is not merely inconsiderate and rash legislation, which is to be guarded against, in the ordinary course of things. There is a strong propensity in public bodies to accumulate power in their own hands, to widen the extent of their own influence, and to absorb within their own circle the means, and the motives of patronage. If the whole legislative power is vested in a single body, there can be, practically, no restraint upon the fullest exercise of that power; and of any usurpation, which it may seek to excuse or justify, either from necessity or a superior regard to the public good. It has been often said, that necessity is the plea of tyrants; but it is equally true, that it is the plea of all public bodies invested with power, where no check exists upon its exercise. Mr. Hume has remarked with great sagacity, that men are generally more honest in their private, than in their public capacity; and will go greater lengths to serve a party, than when their own private interest is alone concerned. Honour is a great check upon mankind. But where a considerable body of men act together, this check is in a great measure removed, since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party, for what promotes the common interest; and he soon learns to despise the clamours of adversaries. This is by no means an opinion peculiar to Mr. Hume. It will be found lying at the foundation of the political reasonings of many of the greatest men in all ages, as the result of a close survey of the passions, and infirmities, of the history, and experience of mankind. With a view, therefore, to preserve the rights and liberties of the people against unjust encroachments, and to secure the equal benefits of a free constitution, it is of vital importance to interpose some check against the undue exercise of the legislative power, which in every government is the predominating, and almost irresistible power.

§ 551. This subject is put in a very strong light by an eminent writer [John Adams], whose mode of reasoning can be best conveyed in his own words. "If," says he, "we should extend our candour so far, as to own, that the majority of mankind are generally under the dominion of benevolence and good intentions; yet it must be confessed, that a vast majority frequently transgress; and what is more decidedly in point, not only a majority, but almost all, confine their benevolence to their families, relations, personal friends, parish, village, city, county, province; and that very few indeed extend it impartially to the whole community. Now, grant but this truth, and the question is decided. If a majority are capable of preferring their own private interests, or that of their families, counties, and party, to that of the nation collectively, some provision must be made in the constitution in favour of justice, to compel all to respect the common right, the public good, the universal law in preference to all private and partial considerations." Again: "Of all possible forms of government, a sovereignty in one assembly, successively chosen by the people, is, perhaps, the best calculated to facilitate the gratification of self-love, and the pursuit of the private interests of a few individuals. A few eminent, conspicuous characters will be continued in their seats in the sovereign assembly from one election to another, whatever changes are made in the seats around them. By superior art, address, and opulence, by more splendid birth, reputations, and connexions, they will be able to intrigue with the people, and their leaders out of doors, until they worm out most of their opposers, and introduce their friends. To this end they will bestow all offices, contracts, privileges in commerce, and other emoluments on the latter, and their connexions, and throw every vexation and disappointment in the way of the former, until they establish such a system of hopes and fears throughout the whole state, as shall enable them to carry a majority in every fresh election of the house. The judges will be appointed by them and their party, and of consequence will be obsequious enough to their inclinations. The whole judicial authority, as well as the executive, will be employed, perverted, and prostituted, to the purposes of electioneering. No justice will be attainable; nor will innocence or virtue be safe in the judicial courts, but for the friends of the prevailing leaders. Legal prosecutions will be instituted, and carried on against opposers to their vexation and ruin. And as they have the public purse at command, as well as the executive and judicial power, the public money will be expended in the same way. No favours will be attainable, but by those, who will court the ruling demagogues of the house, by voting for their friends, and instruments; and pensions, and pecuniary rewards and gratifications, as well as honours, and offices of every kind, voted to friends and partisans, &c. &c. The press, that great barrier and bulwark of the rights of mankind, when it is protected by law, can no longer be free. If the authors, writers, and printers, will not accept of the hire, that will be offered them, they must submit to the ruin, that will be denounced against them. The presses, with much secrecy and concealment, will be made the vehicles of calumny against the minority, and of panegyric, and empirical applauses of the leaders of the majority, and no remedy can possibly be obtained. In one word, the whole system of affairs, and every conceivable motive of hope or fear, will be employed to promote the private interests of a few, and their obsequious majority; and there is no remedy but in arms. Accordingly we find in all the Italian republics, the minority always were driven to arms in despair."

§ 552. Another learned writer [James Wilson] has ventured on the bold declaration, that "a single legislature is calculated to unite in it all the pernicious qualities of the different extremes of bad government. It produces general weakness, inactivity, and confusion; and these are intermixed with sudden and violent fits of despotism, injustice and cruelty."

§ 553. Without conceding, that this language exhibits an unexaggerated picture of the results of the legislative power being vested in a single assembly, there is enough in it to satisfy the minds of considerate men, that there is great danger in such an exclusive deposit of it. Some check ought to be provided, to maintain the real balance intended by the constitution; and this check will be most effectually obtained by a co-ordinate branch of equal authority, and different organization, which shall have the same legislative power, and possess an independent negative upon the doings of the other branch. The value of the check will, indeed, in a great measure depend upon this difference of organization. If the term of office, the qualifications, the mode of election, the persons and interests represented by each branch, are exactly the same, the check will be less powerful, and the guard less perfect, than if some, or all of these ingredients differ, so as to bring into play all the various interests and influences, which belong to a free, honest, and enlightened society.

§ 554. The value, then, of a distribution of the legislative power, between two branches, each possessing a negative upon the other, may be summed up under the following heads. First: It operates directly as a security against hasty, rash, and dangerous legislation; and allows errors and mistakes to be corrected, before they have produced any public mischiefs. It interposes delay between the introduction, and final adoption of a measure; and thus furnishes time for reflection; and for the successive deliberations of different bodies, actuated by different motives, and organized upon different principles.

§ 555. In the next place, it operates indirectly as a preventive to attempts to carry private, personal, or party objects, not connected with the common good. The very circumstance, that there exists another body clothed with equal power, and jealous of its own rights, and independent of the influence of the leaders, who favour a particular measure, by whom it must be scanned, and to whom it must be recommended upon its own merits, will have a silent tendency to discourage the efforts to carry it by surprise, or by intrigue, or by corrupt party combinations. It is far less easy to deceive, or corrupt, or persuade two bodies into a course, subversive of the general good, than it is one; especially if the elements, of which they are composed, are essentially different.

§ 556. In the next place, as legislation necessarily acts, or may act, upon the whole community, and involves interests of vast difficulty and complexity, and requires nice adjustments, and comprehensive enactments, it is of the greatest consequence to secure an independent review of it by different minds, acting under different, and sometimes opposite opinions and feelings; so, that it may be as perfect, as human wisdom can devise. An appellate jurisdiction, therefore, that acts, and is acted upon alternatively, in the exercise of an independent revisory authority, must have the means, and can scarely fail to possess the will, to give it a full and satisfactory review. Every one knows, notwithstanding all the guards interposed to secure due deliberation, how imperfect all human legislation is; how much it embraces of doubtful principle, and of still more doubtful utility; how various, and yet how defective, are its provisions to protect rights, and to redress wrongs. Whatever, therefore, naturally and necessarily awakens doubt, solicits caution, attracts inquiry, or stimulates vigilance and industry, is of value to aid us against precipitancy in framing, or altering laws, as well as against yielding to the suggestions of indolence, the selfish projects of ambition, or the cunning devices of corrupt and hollow demagogues. For this purpose, no better expedient has, as yet, been found, than the creation of an independent branch of censors to revise the legislative enactments of others, and to alter, amend, or reject them at its pleasure, which, in return, its own are to pass through a like ordeal.

§ 557. In the next place, there can scarcely be any other adequate security against encroachments upon the constitutional rights and liberties of the people. Algernon Sidney has said with great force, that the legislative power is always arbitrary, and not to be trusted in the hands of any, who are not bound to obey the laws they make. But it is not less true, that it has a constant tendency to overleap its proper boundaries, from passion, from ambition, from inadvertence, from the prevalence of faction, or from the overwhelming influence of private interests. Under such circumstances, the only effectual barrier against oppression, accidental or intentional, is to separate its operations, to balance interest against interest, ambition against ambition, the combinations and spirit of dominion of one body against the like combinations and spirit of another. And it is obvious, that the more various the elements, which enter into the actual composition of each body, the greater the security will be. Mr. Justice Wilson has truly remarked, that, "when a single legislature is determined to depart from the principles of the constitution, and its uncontrollable power may prompt the determination, there is no constitutional authority to check its progress. It may proceed by long and hasty strides in violating the constitution, till nothing but a revolution can check its career. Far different will the case be, when the legislature consists of two branches. If one of them should depart, or attempt to depart, from the principles of the constitution, it will be drawn back by the other. The very apprehension of the event will prevent the departure, or the attempt."

§ 558. Such is an outline of the general reasoning, by which the system of a separation of the legislative power into two branches has been maintained. Experience has shown, that if in all cases it has not been found a complete check to inconsiderate or unconstitutional legislation; yet, that it has, upon many occasions, been found sufficient for the purpose. There is not probably at this moment a single state in the Union, which would consent to unite the two branches into one assembly; though there have not been wanting at all times minds of a high order, which have been led by enthusiasm, or a love of simplicity, or a devotion to theory, to vindicate such a union with arguments, striking and plausible, if not convincing.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 12, Document 27
The University of Chicago Press

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.

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