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I have always presumed this to be the case. They have a similar form: two chambers, the lower representing "all the people" and the upper representing, very roughly speaking, "institutional forces" (in the British case it used to be the Church and the aristocracy, in the American case it's the states). The electoral system and the procedures are largely similar.

It also stands to reason that the American Founding Fathers, being well-acquainted with the British political tradition, would have emulated it, adding what they surely perceived as improvements. And, as far as I know, Britain was the only European country to even have a proper parliament in the 18th century.

But this is all surmise and conjecture, no matter how sensible. Is there documentary evidence that Congress is a conscious imitation of/improvement upon Parliament?

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I've always felt like it was patterned after the ancient Greek system. –  Hermann Ingjaldsson Jan 6 '13 at 11:01
@HermannIngjaldsson: In what way? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 6 '13 at 12:06
See also: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/36/… –  Steve Melnikoff Jan 12 '13 at 23:22
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

(Update: new summary)

I have given in to my weaker loquacious side and allowed this answer to become a tar baby, incorporating many topics that are only tangential to the OP. The summary is that bicameralism is one of many governmental architectures designed to incorporate stakeholders, foster deliberation and slow consensus. Although it was a tool familiar to the founders, they considered a wide variety of models of government, including explicitly the Iroquois, the Polish, the Roman and the English.

There are a whole bunch of assumptions in this question that don't pan out. First of all, France had a parliament, although it served a very different function. The Swiss and the Dutch were both republics, although substantially different from either the British or Republican model. Russia had the Duma. Poland had a bicameral parliament in 1493. I don't remember enough of the structure of the Spanish or Portugese government to make any statement.

(The following paragraph has been rewritten at the request of OP and others) I also question your assumption that the Founding Fathers would have leapt to emulate the British model. Remember that their first attempt (the Articles of Confederation) was very different; it was unicameral, very limited in scope and effectively included no executive. The discussions about the second attempt (the Constitution) included several different solutions. The Virginia Plan was bicameral, but the upper chamber may not have been directly elected (wikipdedia disagrees, and I don't have my other sources with me). The New Jersey Plan advocated a unicameral legislature. Hamilton advocated a government that was explicitly constructed on the British model - his plan was soundly rejected, partly because it called for a strong executive serving for life, and partly because the delegates feared Hamilton's affection for the British Model.

(Update: Rewritten) Bicameralism was a constraint of trying to include the right class of stakeholders, not a slavish adoption of a British model. The fundamental problem of the Constitutional Convention was to find a way to build a government that was stronger than the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation, but not so strong that it would subsume the state governments. This is not the problem that the British Parliament was designed to solve.

(Update: Added) The British Government wasn't "fixed" at this point; it was still being redesigned. Yes there were two houses of parliament, but the relationship between those houses, and the relationship of the houses with the Executive/monarchy were still in flux. Their electoral process doesn't match anything we'd recognized (rotten and pocket borough's for example. I can't cite, but I believe Jack Rakove lectures on construction of the government which available through iTunes, and are both full of knowledge and a pleasant listen, touch on this fairly well; they also include a reference to one of the best books on the formation of the constitution, the name of which escapes me right now. The British Parliament is transformed by the American Revolution (the Intolerable Acts are important from the British point of view), and that transformation continues throughout the French Revolution and the Regency Crisis.

(Update: I mistakenly included the Albany plan in my original writeup, because I'd confused it with the Virginia plan; the Albany Plan was a 1754 plan for a defensive alliance between the colonies. Based solely on the Wikipedia page, it appears to have been unicameral. The relationship between the Albany plan and the Iroquois is significantly more complex. I need to read Forgotten Founders in more detail. Another Yahoo asserts that the Articles of Confederation are a version of the Albany Plan, but I'm afraid that I can't follow the author's line of reasoning until I've done a bit more research. It appears that the League of Five Nations, the Albany Plan and the Articles of Confederation are all solutions to how to compromise sovreignity with confederation - to permit member states to ally and share governance on common matters, but to retain agency within their borders. That's a fascinating and relevant discussion, but is not precisely germane to the question).

Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans (although that term did not yet exist when the constitution was designed) despised the British, and would have resisted including anything British.

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Mark, thanks for the critique! Can you find some sources that discuss the Founders' inspiration? It may well be that I got it wrong. I still think the British could have been an influence; after all the Americans were British before the Revolution. –  Felix Goldberg Jan 20 '13 at 21:05
Especially the Articles of Confederation angles is interesting. Can you expound on it? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 21 '13 at 0:33
They were British but some (Jefferson) despised Britain; more importantly they were trying to solve a different problem. Britain was an influence. I hope that I addressed your request for more information on the Articles of Confederation. –  Mark C. Wallace Jan 21 '13 at 12:53
Thanks, that's much more clear now. –  Felix Goldberg Jan 21 '13 at 13:49
Re: Direct election to the upper house. The Senate was much closer to the House of Lords originally, in that state legislatures- not ordinary citizens, selected senators. In the 1900s, however, the 17th amendment changed tat, making them directly elected. (and killing federalism in the process, but I digress) –  Affable Geek Jan 21 '13 at 14:19
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I think the legislatures in many countries have the same structure. A quite distant example is the Supreme Council of the USSR which also had two chambers, the Council of the Union and the Council of the Nationalities. The former was elected by the population at rate of 1 deputy per 300000 people while the later represented the constituent republics.

I think a similar structure you can find as early as the Ancient Rome, where there was the Senate and the Popular Assembly.

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+1 for Rome. The AFF were also great fans of Rome, so maybe they lifted the idea from there. But I'd still love to see documentary evidence, one way or the other. –  Felix Goldberg Jan 6 '13 at 1:17
The Roman structure was copied from the ancient Greek one. –  Hermann Ingjaldsson Jan 6 '13 at 11:03
@HermannIngjaldsson: Aside from the mythical-sounding story about the Roman embassy to Greece, is their evidence for copying? To me it seems like parallel development is more likely. –  Felix Goldberg Jan 6 '13 at 12:07
Well the Greeks were an older civilization and they were at their peak around 400bc, whereas Rome developed later. Therefore it must have been the Romans copying. –  Hermann Ingjaldsson Jan 6 '13 at 16:19
@Hermann Ingjaldsson in what Greek cities the system was similar? –  Anixx Jan 6 '13 at 17:41
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The US copied the British which copied the Roman which copied the Greek.

The United States, Britain and most western governments adopted the fundamental building blocks of the ancient Greek system.

  1. The ancient Greeks had a senate and a parliament.

  2. The Greeks divided their goverment into the three branches, Legislative, Executive and Judicial. And within them the power was divided even further through for instance electoral processes. The west pretty much just copied this.

  3. The Greeks had Solon's law, the functional equivalent of the modern day constitution. Any law that went against it was to be automatically discarded. It was written in 594BC and improved in 508BC.

  4. Western government buildings are often of Greek architecture, the American White House for instance, http://www.whitehouse.gov/our-government/executive-branch is Greek. Notice the front supportive columns, this is typical Greek design and indicates they were looking at ancient Greece when designing their system.

The west most likely adopted many more things as I have only researched the matter slightly.

The book "Mannkynssaga fram til 1500" straight out states that the Romans pretty much just copied the Greek political system and added little to it themselves.

Source: Mannkynssaga fram til 1500, Þættir úr sögu vestrænnar menningar.

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Thanks for the answer, it brings to light some good points. But I think you are over-reliant here on a textbook and textbooks have their organic limitations. For instance, point 4 is strange: you must be referring to Athens; there was no such thing as a "Greek constitution". As for the Romans, I find it hard to credit the assertion they copied the Greek system. If you want, I can open a separate question for this and we can have a more extended discussion there. –  Felix Goldberg Jan 21 '13 at 11:40
In the book they state Solon's law's of 594BC were the functional equivalent of a constitution. They didn't call it a constitution but it was a set of laws which all other laws are below and must not contradict. –  Hermann Ingjaldsson Jan 21 '13 at 11:51
As for who copied whom I can't really debate for almost all I know on the subject is from that book which declares the Greek system to have been the first and that the Romans mostly just copied it. It's just one source and limited as such. I wouldn't mind seeing some other source with some somewhat different claim. –  Hermann Ingjaldsson Jan 21 '13 at 11:55
Re: Solon. Yes, it was some sort of constitution, but only for Athens. Other cities had their own, homegrown, "constitutions" which they developed without necessarily copying them from Athens. If the other Greek cities could do so, why not Rome? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 21 '13 at 12:05
I don't really know how it went, I just read it in the book that it went from Greece to Rome. They also talk about how much stronger Athens was than the other cities, the only one that came close was Sparta. And they talk much of Perikles's[highly ranked Athenian from 462BC-429BC] efforts to get other city states to take up the Athenian democracy. The Athenians were also unchallenged at sea(beat Persia itself at sea in 480BC for instance) which further indicates their influence probably went far. –  Hermann Ingjaldsson Jan 21 '13 at 12:20
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