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  The Unfinished Revolution  

By Gary B. Nash

Unicameralism, a one-house legislature, defied the notion that different classes of people, especially the wealthy and the common people, should each have a legislative chamber.  In England, the House of Lords represented the nobility; the House of Parliament protected the interests of the people at large.  Political theorists argued that this created a balance of power; too much power to the upper house would create an oligarchy; too much to a lower house would lead to anarchy—or the tyranny of an unchecked single legislative body. But some in the Revolutionary generation believed there should be no such distinctions: that a freeman was the highest badge of status and that bicameral legislatures ate at what should be the natural harmony of a free American society.
Three states in the revolutionary era crafted constitutions mandating unicameral legislatures.  Pennsylvania led the way. The constitutional convention delegates’ case for unicameralism rested primarily on long historical experience showing that upper houses in the colonies had reflected the interests of the wealthy and gave institutional form to a contest of interests that did not, at least in the minds of most ordinary people, serve the common good.  Other precedents fortified the unicameralist argument: the Roman Senate, town meetings, the Continental Congress itself, and almost a century of one-house rule in Pennsylvania had functioned in this way.  Hardly a radical, Benjamin Franklin supported unicameralism, seeing an upper house as a vestige of the aristocratic English system against which the Americans were rebelling. Franklin sat as president of the Convention, but having just returned sick and exhausted from Canada, he slept through many of the sixty-three sessions and often stepped across the hall to sit with the Continental Congress.  Now he awakened to toss off one of his earthy metaphors, comparing a two-house system to the fable snake with two heads:  “She was going to a brook to drink, and on her way was to pass through 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 context, and, before the decision was completed,, the poor snake died with thirst.”

Georgia followed Pennsylvania’s lead as did Vermont (which was struggling to establish itself as a breakaway part of New York). In at least one county of North Carolina, the sentiment ran strong for a unicameral legislature, though the state at large did not agree.

Unicameralism frightened conservative revolutionists, who were more committed to independence from Great Britain than in reforming American society.  “A single assembly 8is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual,” wrote John Adams, and added that “a single assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and afte4r a time will not hesitate to vote itself perpetual.”  Benjamin Rush, once an advocate of unicameralism, grew frightened and warned that “a single legislature is big with tyranny; I had rather live under the government of one man than of 71.”
Yet unicameralism, with its insistence that a true democracy should make no distinctions between the haves and have-nots as represented in upper and lower legislative houses, spread to many parts of the world. It was acclaimed and implemented in revolutionary France in the 1790s. In the United States and its territories today, it is how law is made in Nebraska, Guam, and the Virgin Islands (and is pending in Maine and Puerto Rico, where one of the arguments on its behalf is that much taxpayer money can be saved and laws more efficiently passed by reducing the number of legislators involved). Unicameralism prevails throughout much of the English-speaking world: in Hong Kong, all of Australia and Canada’s provinces, and in the legislative bodies of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Likewise, it is how laws are made in Italy, Spain, and almost all Socialist states.

Further Reading:
Marc W. Kruman, Between Authority and Liberty: State Constitution Making in Revolutionary America Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997)
Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Penguin Books, 2007)           

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