American Experience with Unicameral Legislatures

Report 147, December 1937


For many years Michigan was a one-party state. On occasions not a single representative of the minority party has sat in the lower house of the state legislature: frequently such representation has been limited to one or two members.

Recently the minority party has become the majority one. It is not to be partisan to say that the newly elected representatives were largely without legislative experience, and little amenable to party discipline and to a party leadership not yet fully developed and generally recognized. Whether these acknowledged virtues of party discipline and leadership will develop with time is beside the point.

These circumstances combined with the experiment of the state of Nebraska with a single-house legislature, the members of which are elected on a non- partisan ballot, have stimulated an unusual interest in unicameral legislative bodies, not in Michigan alone, but in other states as well. Unicameralism has been discussed in the press and announced as the subject of the debates of the Michigan High-School Forensic Association.

Particularly that these high-school students, receiving their first instruction in the structure and functioning of government, might have available some of the known facts on the subject, Professor Charles W. Shull volunteered to prepare this brief discussion of Unicameralism—attempting a factual presentation, deleted of personal opinions. If the text indicates a departure from this objective attitude, it is unintentional.

Professor Shull has attempted to portray the development of the English Parliament—the Mother of Parliaments—as a bicameral institution and its present trend away from the status, the history of provincial legislatures in colonial America, the necessities that led the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to adopt a bicameral congress, the aping of the federal form by both states and cities, the early Vermont experiment with unicameralism, the general discarding of the bicameral system by cities, the Nebraska experiment, the possible application of the unicameral system to Michigan.

Contrary to usual procedure in reports published by the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research, no specific conclusions and recommendations are included. The paucity of actual experience with unicameral state legislatures and the fact that the study may be used by high-school debating teams as a source book prompts this course.

LENT D. UPSON, Director
Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research, Inc.
and of the
School of Public Affairs and Social Work of
Wayne University.


December 15, 1937


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