Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn

One of the criticisms raised against the Constitution was that there were too few members in the House of Representatives to adequately represent constituents.

The rule reads: “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.”

Federalist 55 argued that a representative body ought to have enough members to mitigate the threat of corruption, but not so many so as to cause confusion. The initial number would be 65, but a census in three years would adjust this number. Federalist 55 basically argues that the number in the state legislatures varied, and if 65 members were too few, it would be increased in a short time after the first census.

Federalist 56 addresses the objection that a small House would not possess the collective knowledge necessary to make laws.

The first argument is one that we’ve heard before: The powers of the national legislature are limited, and state legislatures would have specific knowledge for the powers retained by the states. “In determining the extent of information required in the exercise of a particular authority, recourse then must be had to the objects within the purview of that authority.” Since the national government had only enumerated powers, the House did not need a broad breadth of knowledge.

This led easily into the second argument, which was that national law could rely on state laws. “The laws of the state, framed by representatives from every part of it, will be almost of themselves a sufficient guide … little more to be done by the federal legislature, than to review the different laws, and reduce them in one general act.”

Both arguments show that Publius believed the states would handle the preponderance of legislation and act as a safeguard against the federal government.

For these reasons, Publius concludes “that a representative for every THIRTY THOUSAND INHABITANTS will render the latter both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it.”

This may seem like a minor issue, but in 1787 it grabbed the attention of the most powerful politician in the country. In the last days of the convention, George Washington verbally supported allowing a representative for every thirty thousand, rather than one for every forty thousand. In his convention notes, Madison wrote, This was the only occasion on which the President entered at all into the discussions of the Convention.

During the convention, James Madison also proposed doubling the initial number of congressmen, but as part of the Publius triumvirate, he ended up defending the smaller number.

What about today? Until 1911, the number of representatives was adjusted by population. Since that year, the population criterion has been adjusted to keep the number of representatives constant. The “shall not exceed” clause allowed the House of Representatives to restrict their membership to 435. Congress restricted their growth in number, but not their growth in power.

A quote from Federalist 55 shows that Publius never anticipated a dominating Congress. “I am unable to conceive that the State legislatures, which must feel so many motives to watch, and which possess so many means of counteracting, the federal legislature, would fail either to detect or to defeat a conspiracy of the latter against the liberties of their common constituents.”

James D. Best is an author who writes historical novels and contemporary novels with a strong historical theme. Tempest at Dawn is a dramatization of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

character that balances republican virtue, self-restraint, and vigilant self-interest, and on the subtler bonds of cultural and political tradition. Constitutional forms help, but, ultimately, responsibility lies with the people.

Madison warns against laws that will not have “full operation on [Congressmen] and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society.” Making only laws that are universally applicable “has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together.”  Citizen legislators must not be a privileged class.

Though the Republican take-over of Congress in 1995 spurred the passage of a law that removed Congressional exemption from a dozen anti-discrimination, labor, and safety laws, there yet remain other laws that apply to private citizens but not to Congress. Madison asserts that the American spirit will restrain the legislature from making legal discriminations in their favor and that of a particular class. “If this spirit shall ever be so far debased, as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Where does that place us?  As many have said in some variant about republican systems, “The people get the government they deserve.”

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is


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