Cooling Off the House
It is said that George Washington, in explaining the role of the Senate to Thomas Jefferson, compared the upper chamber to a saucer: Just as hot coffee is poured into a saucer to cool it off, the passions of the House of Representatives will be cooled in the Senate. Apocryphal or not, the analogy captures the essence of the upper chamber's mission.
Until 1913, senators were selected by their state legislatures and not by the people. This distance from the people allowed the Senate to establish procedures that would safeguard minority rights in a way that the House could not. In fact, a handful of senators — and in some cases just one — have the ability to bring the body to a standstill through delaying tactics and unlimited debate. No other institution in American government so fiercely guards minority rights.
The Constitution mandates that one-third of the Senate be selected every two years. In order to properly stagger the terms to meet this requirement, the first Senate divided its membership into three “classes,” with senators drawing lots to determine which members would have to stand for reappointment two and four years later. This decision was the first official act of the Senate.
As a chamber, the United States Senate experienced its “golden years” during the nineteenth century as it debated the great issues of the day — slavery, secession, and reconstruction — and enjoyed unprecedented sway over a series of weak presidents. It was a time of great orators, great issues, and great influence.
But since the ascension of the presidency as the first branch of government, which began with Theodore Roosevelt, the Senate has lost some of its pre-eminence. It is less elitist and more populist today, but retains some important vestiges of its noble origins.