In a representative system of government the election of legislators is of paramount importance. Given that the legislature is to be the primary lawmaking body, the election of its members will go a long way in deciding what gets done. Thus, it is no surprise that the method by which members of the House and Senate were to be chosen under the new Constitution became a contentious issue during the ratification debates. On February 22, 1788, Alexander Hamilton published Federalist #59—under the now well-known pseudonym Publius—to address the issue of how the election of members of Congress was to be regulated.
In the Declaration of Independence one set of grievances levied against King George III was the unfair manipulation of elections. Among the long-train of abuses that the King was found guilty of were that “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records…He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly…He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative power, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.” The idea that a people ought to determine for itself how its representatives are elected and when the legislative branch meets and dissolves is central to the Jeffersonian conception of self-government and all those who agree with the political theory outlined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. For without the ability to do so, the people are left unable to govern themselves and must succumb to the whim of the body that does have the power to decide how legislators are chosen and when the legislature is to meet.
Federalist #59 argues that these powers are given to the state except in instances when the national government feels it is necessary to step in. The national government, according to Hamilton’s argument, may alter the times and manner for holding elections of senators and representatives, and may alter the places in which elections are held for representatives, but may not interfere with the places in which senators are elected. Hamilton’s argument was that leaving these powers solely in the hands of the states would leave the Union at the mercy of the states. Hamilton’s fear was of disunion. He argued that the national government should be given a check on the ability of state governments to regulate the election of members to Congress in order to prevent disunion that would result from too much state autonomy. Opponents of constitutional ratification, known collectively as Anti-Federalists and who Hamilton was responding to in #59, did not see disunion as the primary threat to self-government as Hamilton did, but rather the accumulation of political power within a centralized national government.
While the debate over how to determine the means of representation is itself important, it brings to light one of the central debates in American politics—how to balance the need for stability and the need for liberty. We see this debate play out in issue areas as varied as federalism and national security to financial regulation. It is a continuous struggle to find the balance, but it is in the struggle where the balance is found. Had Hamilton faced no opposition then one could justifiably read the constitution as a vehicle for government centralization, but because he faced opposition we know that the constitution was designed to balance the need for a central government with the need to maintain local government structures. We need to take our cue from the founding generation—and not just Publius—but all of those who took it upon themselves to embark on a high-minded political debate that touched upon perennial questions of political significance. By following the founders in this respect we will be able to engage in a reasoned and informed debate about what is most important to us. By doing so we will be able to stay faithful to the wording and intentions of the founders’ Constitution as well as the spirit through which the founding generation governed.
Monday, July 19th, 2010
Kyle Scott, PhD teaches in the Political Science Department and Honors College at the University of Houston. His published research deals with constitutional interpretation and its relevance for contemporary politics. His most recent book, The Price of Politics, critically assesses the Supreme Court’s eminent domain decisions and explains the importance of property rights.