Guest Essayist: David J. Bobb, Ph.D., director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.

A republican government is one in which the people rule—indirectly.  How, not if, the people should be represented was one of the vexing questions faced by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  Especially tricky was determining the size of the House of Representatives, the topic Madison takes up in Federalist 55.

Until the very last day and hour of the Convention’s debate in 1787, the consensus opinion of delegates was that there would be one member of the House for every 40,000 American citizens.  On September 17, what we now know as Constitution Day, the final day of deliberations, Benjamin Franklin made a last plea for unanimity in the signing of the document.  It was a dramatic speech, and might have made a fitting coda to the Convention but for one last interjection.

Nathaniel Gorham, from Massachusetts, motioned to peg the ratio of each House member per people represented at 1:30,000 instead of 1:40,000, hoping that the new figure might bring on board a few more dissenters who wished federal elected officials to be more accountable to the people.  After the motion was seconded, George Washington, who up to that point had not spoken at all during the Convention, despite presiding over it, intervened to offer his own, weighty, second to the motion.  The new ratio passed unanimously (even if the Constitution did not).

Despite the adoption of the new ratio, and the promise of a 65-member House of Representatives if the Constitution was ratified, some anti-Federalists still thought the numbers, and the principle they represented, were not quite right.  Lower ratios meant less chance of cabal, or undue influence by forces inimical to the common good.

To these complaints Madison offers a direct rejoinder:  “Nothing can be more fallacious than to found our political calculations on arithmetical principles.”  Fiddle with the numbers all you want, he says, but you are still dealing with people who are prone to abusing power.  “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

To avoid mobocracy, then, we must rely upon prudence.  Sixty-five House members seems a good number for now; the nation will continue to grow, of course, Madison says.  The most important point is not to get lost in the debate over numbers, because however vital it is that we get those right, we must without fail take our political bearings from human nature, not numerical calculations.

“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Men are not angels.  But they also are not beasts.  Don’t trust human beings too much, Madison says.  Similarly, don’t get so down on human beings that self-government is thought impossible.  Virtue is required for republican, or representative, government.  What sort of virtues—“these qualities” that are mentioned by Madison—do you think are “presupposed” by republican government?

As for the numbers, it’s worth noting that had the original ratio of 1:30,000 held constant, the House today would have more than 10,000 members.  Today, an average of slightly more than 700,000 Americans are represented by a single member of the House of Representatives.  Since 1912 the number of House members has been set by law at 435.  Is this ratio in need of a readjustment?

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

David J. Bobb, Ph.D., is director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.


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