Legislatures, Bicameral and Unicameral

views updated


LEGISLATURES, BICAMERAL AND UNICAMERAL. In the United States, legislatures at the federal, state, and local levels may be bicameral (consisting of two houses) or unicameral (one house). Even before adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the bicameral legislature—modeled on the example of the British Parliament and exemplified later by the U.S. Congress—was more common among colonial, and then state, governments. But unicameralism, which now is widely used only by local governments, has occasionally been employed by states and even at the national level: the first organizational law of the United States, the Articles of Confederation of 1781, prescribed a unicameral Congress.

This changed when delegates met at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. They adopted Edmund Randolph's plan for a three-branch government and a bicameral legislature based on population after a weeklong debate dismissing an alternative proposal by William Paterson of New Jersey for a unicameral legislature in which each state would have one vote. Paterson's plan had been supported by the smaller states, which feared that a legislature apportioned according to population would lead to dominance by the larger states. Distrusting democracy, many of the delegates were afraid that in a single house only the members' "virtue and good sense" would prevent legislative despotism. This seemed an inadequate check. The only possible restraint was to divide the legislative authority within itself. Ideas about an upper house, where men of property and great wisdom would take care of issues that were beyond the grasp of the masses, merged with the need to find a compromise that would provide the smaller states with a satisfactory input in the legislative process. Accordingly the convention compromised to propose a House of Representatives, in which members were apportioned among the states according to population, and a Senate, in which each state had an equal vote.

Before the Revolution, most individual colonies had followed the bicameral model in their governments, with an upper house, generally called the council, representing the interests of the proprietor or the Crown, and a lower house, generally called the assembly, representing the settlers. However, Pennsylvania and Delaware (which had been part of Pennsylvania until 1701) both had unicameral legislatures. Delaware adopted a bicameral legislature at the time of the Revolution, though Pennsylvania did not convert to bicameralism until 1790. Georgia went the other way, converting to unicameralism in 1777 and then back to bicameralism eleven years later. Vermont adopted a unicameral legislature in 1777 and retained this system when it entered the union in 1791. For forty-five years, Vermont remained the only state with a unicameral legislature within the United States, until a tie vote for governor that could not be resolved under this system led to the change to bicameralism in 1836.

On the local level, bicameral legislatures were most common until the reform movement at the turn of the twentieth century made unicameral city councils the norm by the 1930s. While distrust of the masses and the "need" for a propertied elite to guide them has clearly vanished as an argument for a bicameral system, this is not reflected in the set-up of the legislatures at the state or federal levels. Only Nebraska changed its system when, during the Great Depression and due to the energetic campaigning of the "New Deal Republican" George Norris, the state implemented a unicameral legislature in 1937, making it more efficient and less costly.


Keefe, William J., and Morris S. Ogul. The American Legislative Process: Congress and the States. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Kurland, Philip B., and Ralph Lerner, eds. The Founders' Constitution. 5 vols. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2000.

Moschos, Demitrios, and David Katsky. "Unicameralism and Bicameralism: History and Tradition." Boston University Law Review 45 (1965): 250–270.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776– 1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.


See alsoCongress, United States ; Separation of Powers .

About this article

Legislatures, Bicameral and Unicameral

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article