The Legislative Branch

In Summary

Primary sources from JMC programs for teachers on the legislative branch.

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government.”


Federalist Papers, No. 57


The legislative branch is comprised of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Together, the houses embody the principle of federalism by representing individual citizens in each state and each state. The texts below provide insight into how some of the Founders thought about the legislative branch.

JMC Resources


The House of Representatives


Though most framers approved of a bicameral legislative branch, the powers and composition of each house was not easily decided. The selected papers below make arguments about the modes of election and representation, justifications for term length, and the exclusive powers granted to the House of Representatives from Federalist and Anti-Federalist perspectives.


Federalist Papers

Federalist Papers, No. 52, 1788

Federalist Papers, No. 53, 1788

Federalist Papers, No. 55, 1788

Federalist Papers, No. 57, 1788


Anti-Federalist Papers

Federal Farmer III, 1787

Cato VI, 1787

Federal Farmer, “An Additional Number of Letters to the Republican,” 1788 



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Congress voting independence, Robert Edge Pine

The Senate


The Senate was often praised by Anti-Federalists and proponents of state sovereignty because each state is equally represented in the Senate. Some feared the powers of treaty approval and impeachment made the Senate too powerful, because those powers should be left to the executive and judicial branches exclusively. The Federalist Papers below defend the powers of the Senate and the Anti-Federalist papers challenge the authority delegated to the Senate in the Constitution.


Federalist Papers

Federalist Papers, No. 62, 1788

Federalist Papers, No. 63, 1788

Federalist Papers, No. 64, 1788

Federalist Papers, No. 65, 1788


Anti-Federalist Papers

Cincinnatus IV, 1787

Federal Farmer, “An Additional Number of Letters to the Republican,” 1788

Brutus XVI, 1788


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George Washington to the First Legislature 


George Washington delivered his first inaugural address in the Senate chambers to the first Congress in 1789. Washington speaks directly to Congressmen, reminding them of their Constitutional charge and his role in the governing process. The speech established his expectations for Congress during his first term, primarily that “a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen and a regard for the public harmony will sufficiently influence [its] deliberations.”


George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, 1789

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Other Writings


Before he became President, Woodrow Wilson pursued an academic career. While studying at Johns Hopkins, he wrote a series of essays later published as a book contrasting congressional and parliamentary systems of government. The book contains chapters on the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Executive.


Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, 1885


In this speech, Senator George Norris advocates for a change in the Nebraska state legislature system. He promotes a unicameral legislature, instead of the traditional bicameral legislature, to prevent corruption and guarantee citizens of Nebraska get laws they want passed. He identifies many problems with the bicameral system at the state level, which raises questions about the federal bicameral legislature. Nebraska voters approved the unicameral legislature in 1937 and Nebraska remains the only state in the nation with a one-house legislative branch.


George Norris, “The Model Legislature,” 1923

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Other Resources

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