Bicameralism in the United States

U.S. Bicameralism History

the Constitution immediately establishes a bicameral legislature–that is, one made up of two houses. It does so for historical, practical, and theoretical reasons.

  • Historical: The British Parliament had consisted of two houses since the 1300s. The Framers and most other Americans knew the British system of bicameralism quite well. Most of the colonial assemblies and, in 1787, all but two of the new State legislatures were also bicameral. Among the original thirteen colonies, only Georgia and Pennsylvania had unicameral colonial and then State legislatures. Georgia’s legislature became bicameral in 1789 and Pennsylvania’s in 1790 (Only one State, Nebraska, has a unicameral legislature today).
  • Practical: The Framers had to create a two-chambered body to settle the conflict between the Virginia and the New Jersey Plans at Philadelphia in 1787. As noted in this legal Encyclopedia, the most populous States wanted to distribute the seats in Congress in proportion to the population of each State, while the smaller States demanded an equal voice in Congress. Bicameralism is a reflection of federalism. Each of the States is equally represented in the Senate and each is represented in line with its population in the House.
  • Theoretical: The Framers favored a bicameral Congress in order that one house might act as a check on the other.

A leading constitutional historian recounts a breakfast-table conversation between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson, who had just returned from France, told Washington that he was opposed to a two-chambered legislature. As he made his point, he poured his coffee into his saucer, and Washington asked him why he did so. “To cool it,” replied Jefferson. “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” (Max Farrand, The Framing of the Constitution (1913)).

The Framers were generally convinced that Congress would dominate the new National Government. As Madison observed,

“In a republican government, Sources the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches.” (The Federalist No. 51)

The Framers saw bicameralism as a way to diffuse the power of Congress and so prevent it from overwhelming the other two branches of government.

Through the U.S. constitutional history, some people have argued that equal representation of the States in the Senate is undemocratic and should be eliminated. There is not the remotest chance that that would ever be done. Recall, the Constitution provides in Article V that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” They often point to the two extremes to make their case. The State with the least population, Wyoming, has only some 500,000 residents. The largest State, California, now has a population of more than 35 million. Yet each of these States has two senators.

Those who argue against State equality in the Senate ignore a vital fact. The Senate was purposely created as a body in which the States would be represented as coequal members and partners in the Union. Remember, had the States not been equally represented in the Senate, there might never have been a Constitution.

Legislative Definition of Bicameral

This Congressional concept is provided by the United States Congress website as a a basic reference document: Literally, “two chambers;” in a legislative body, having two houses (as in the House of Representatives and the Senate comprising the U.S. Congress).

Bicameral Definition in the Legislative Process

The following is a definition of Bicameral, by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL): A legislature consisting of two separate chambers, each serving as a check on the other’s power.

Concept of Bicameralism

In the U.S., in the context of the U.S. Congress (Senate and House of Representatives), Bicameralism has the following meaning: From the Latin words “bi” (meaning two) and “camera” (meaning chamber), legislatures having two chambers or “houses” are described as bicameral. An example is the U.S. Congress which contains the Senate and the House of Representatives. (Source of this definition of Bicameralism : University of Texas)



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