Guest Essayist: Brion McClanahan, Ph.D., author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers

James Madison wrote Federalist No. 58 to defend the construction of the House of Representatives, and in particular to refute the charge that “the number of members will not be augmented as the progress of population demands.”  This is an interesting issue and one that demands both a retrospective and contemporary analysis.

He began by stating that the objections against the House on the aforementioned basis “can only proceed from a partial view of the subject, or from a jealousy which discolors and disfigures every object which is beheld.”  Madison simply pointed to the fact that the Constitution explicitly stated that the House will be reapportioned every ten years following a mandatory federal census and that the initial number of representatives was to be for “the short term of three years.”  He illustrated that this design was based on several State constitutions, and the United States Constitution, in contrast to the State models, had more teeth.  The United States Constitution stipulated that each State must have at least one representative in the lower House and that no member would represent more than thirty thousand inhabitants.  States had gradually increased the numbers of representatives in their legislative bodies without such explicit language, and Madison argued that this would surely be the case under the United States Constitution.

Moreover, because the Congress was a bicameral legislature, it could check schemes by one house or the other to seize control of the government.  The Senate was, in Madison’s words, the “representation…of the States,” while the House was “a representation of the citizens.”  No house, he argued, would allow the other to compromise their specific constitutional authority, and no faction in either house would be able to garner enough support to destroy the other.   Of course, Madison was restating his beliefs in the “checks and balances” of the federal government under the Constitution.  And, if the Senate, controlled by the smaller States, tried to block reapportionment, the House could refuse to fund the government.  As Madison stated, “This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

Of course, Madison based his arguments on the premise that the United States Constitution maintained a federal republic and did not create a “national” government.  The States still had equal representation in the Senate.  He was negating objections that were born from the federal convention in Philadelphia, namely that the “small States” would be swallowed up by the “large States.”  In many ways, “large State” and “small State” were code words for “national” and “State’s rights.”  The “small States” enjoyed equal representation under the Articles of Confederation in a federal republic.  The “large States” often believed they were under-represented and thwarted by “factions” of “small States;” thus, they wanted the greater control a “national” government offered.  Madison tepidly argued (he wanted a much more powerful central government at the Philadelphia Convention), as did many Federalists who initially supported the Constitution, that the Constitution did not change the nature of the United States government, only the structure.  As such, the House could add members without jeopardizing the equality of the States through the Senate.

Madison cut to the heart of the debate near the end of the essay.  Some members of both the Philadelphia Convention and the State ratifying conventions believed that the House contained too few members to be a truly representative body of the “people.”  A thirty thousand to one ratio did not allow for enough democratic control of the government.  Madison answered by stating, “the more numerous an assembly may be, of whatever characters composed, the greater is known to be the ascendency of passion over reason.  In the next place, the larger the number, the greater will be the proportion of members of limited information and weak capacities.”  Madison said that history had proven that large legislative bodies were typically hijacked by “a single orator, or an artful statesman….Ignorance will be the dupe of cunning, and passion the slave of sophistry and declamation.” He continued:

The people can never err more than in supposing that by multiplying their representatives beyond a certain limit, they strengthen the barrier against the government of a few. Experience will forever admonish them that, on the contrary, AFTER SECURING A SUFFICIENT NUMBER FOR THE PURPOSE OF SAFETY, OF LOCAL INFORMATION, AND OF DIFFUSIVE SYMPATHY WITH THE WHOLE SOCIETY, they will counteract their own views by every addition to their representatives. The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic.

Madison’s arguments in Federalist No. 58 are contemporary for two reasons.  First, his contention that the Constitution did not destroy the federal republic is true when coupled with the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution and the original election of the Senate by State legislatures.  The Seventeenth Amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators, destroyed one vestige of State control over the government.  In essence, both houses are now “national” legislative bodies, something Madison argued against in Federalist No. 58 (but supported in his Virginia Plan).  Second, Madison was correct when he asserted that large legislative bodies are unresponsive and doomed to failure.

But in 1790, the population of the United States stood at around four million, and the largest State, Virginia, had less than 800,000 people.  That is one legislative district today.  Twenty-six States have a greater population than the entire United States in 1790 with four States exceeding the 1840 population of the United States.  If the Framers believed that a ratio of thirty thousand to one was sufficient for a representative legislative body and that a population of four million constituted a “country,” then would not the States today—forty three of which have a population greater than one million and many which have the approximate thirty thousand to one ratio in the original Constitution—be better handling the majority of legislative issues?  The Founders would think so.

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Brion McClanahan, Ph.D., is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers. He teaches history at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, AL.


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