The Making of an American Senate

Reconstitutive Change in Congress, 1787-1841
Elaine K. Swift
How institutional change occurred in the early American Senate


At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers created a Senate that was nothing short of an American House of Lords. Until the early 1800s, it remained the insulated, legislatively reactive, and executive-friendly upper chamber the Framers intended. By 1841, however, it had become the distinctly American Senate we recognize today: popularly oriented, legislatively proactive, and often independent of executive influence. The Making of an American Senate uses this story to explain how Congress is at times capable of dramatic and enduring institutional change.

To explain this upheaval that reshaped every major aspect of the Senate, the author introduces the concept of reconstitutive change, a theory based on the "garbage can" model of organization choice. Reconstitution, she argues, is produced by the confluence of two streams, the first creating pressures and opportunities, and the second supplying direction and mobilizing support. The first stream is composed of major changes in national political parties, the national electorate, and the national governmental agenda. The second is composed of institutional vision, or prevailing beliefs about what governmental role the institution should play, and institutional catalysts, or members of Congress who bring about change.

This book will engage political scientists concerned with Congressional history, institutional change, and the founding of new institutions. It will also interest historians of the Founding Era and the early American Republic.

Elaine K. Swift is Associate Professor of Government, Eastern Washington University.

Praise / Awards

  • "This is a fascinating work on a long-neglected subject—the shaping of the U.S. Senate during its early decades."
    —David Mayhew, Yale University
  • "This is a remarkable tour de force that utilizes the approaches of both the disciplines of political science and history to present an unusual, highly intelligent, and innovative picture of the development of the Senate of the United States during its first half century. Professor Swift's description is full of important insights into how the Senate evolved and worked in this crucial period of national development. At the same time, her understanding of the overall meaning of the Senate experience and her linkages of it to other aspects of the American political scene is imaginative and important. Historians and political scientists will learn a great deal from the book and, more important, they will use it to frame their own research and thinking about the American political process over time. I can give this book no higher compliment than to suggest that here, as in her earlier work, Professor Swift has taught a historian such as myself a great many new and important things and made me rethink a number of my approaches to and understanding of, congressional history. It is an outstanding achievement."
    —Joel H. Silbey, Cornell University
  • "Elaine Swift has plumbed and assembled a rich variety of source materials to trace the early 'reconstitution' of the U.S. Senate from the anglophilic House of Lords into a recognizably American governing institution. The result is a detailed, thoughtful, and persuasive explanation of a major institutional change. It is, equally, a shining example—substantive and theoretical—of the relevance of political history for the pursuit of political science."
    —Richard F. Fenno, University of Rochester
  • "By way of this fine book, Elaine Swift has given us a highly sophisticated account of the transformation of the U.S. Senate from the founding through the Jacksonian period."
    American Political Science Review
  • ". . . Swift has provided us with a new and provocative perspective from which to view the early history of the United States Senate, while simultaneously developing a model of political change that holds important lessons for anyone seeking to alter the organs of government."
    —Brady Henderson, University of Oklahoma, APSA Legislative Section Studies Newsletter, January 2003
  • "[Swift] has written a book that challenges long-held historical assumptions and provides the basis for further research."
    Journal of American History
  • ". . . this is a work of intriguing insight and imaginative methodology that forces a rethinking of early congressional history."
    Journal of Interdisciplinary History
  • "The work's numerous insights into the long-neglected subject of the self-creation of the United States Senate make it an important contribution to understanding congressional government in the early republic."
    William and Mary Quarterly

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 264pp.
  • 8 photographs, 4 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 1996
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-10702-5

Add to Cart
  • $89.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2002
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08871-3

Add to Cart
  • $30.95 U.S.