Concerning the Power of Congress to Regulate the Election of Members
From the New York Packet.
Friday, February 22, 1788.

Author: Alexander Hamilton

To the People of the State of New York:

THE natural order of the subject leads us to consider, in this place, that provision of the Constitution which authorizes the national legislature to regulate, in the last resort, the election of its own members. It is in these words: “The TIMES, PLACES, and MANNER of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may, at any time, by law, make or alter SUCH REGULATIONS, except as to the PLACES of choosing senators.”[1] This provision has not only been declaimed against by those who condemn the Constitution in the gross, but it has been censured by those who have objected with less latitude and greater moderation; and, in one instance it has been thought exceptionable by a gentleman who has declared himself the advocate of every other part of the system. I am greatly mistaken, notwithstanding, if there be any article in the whole plan more completely defensible than this. Its propriety rests upon the evidence of this plain proposition, that EVERY GOVERNMENT OUGHT TO CONTAIN IN ITSELF THE MEANS OF ITS OWN PRESERVATION. Every just reasoner will, at first sight, approve an adherence to this rule, in the work of the convention; and will disapprove every deviation from it which may not appear to have been dictated by the necessity of incorporating into the work some particular ingredient, with which a rigid conformity to the rule was incompatible. Even in this case, though he may acquiesce in the necessity, yet he will not cease to regard and to regret a departure from so fundamental a principle, as a portion of imperfection in the system which may prove the seed of future weakness, and perhaps anarchy. It will not be alleged, that an election law could have been framed and inserted in the Constitution, which would have been always applicable to every probable change in the situation of the country; and it will therefore not be denied, that a discretionary power over elections ought to exist somewhere. It will, I presume, be as readily conceded, that there were only three ways in which this power could have been reasonably modified and disposed: that it must either have been lodged wholly in the national legislature, or wholly in the State legislatures, or primarily in the latter and ultimately in the former. The last mode has, with reason, been preferred by the convention. They have submitted the regulation of elections for the federal government, in the first instance, to the local administrations; which, in ordinary cases, and when no improper views prevail, may be both more convenient and more satisfactory; but they have reserved to the national authority a right to interpose, whenever extraordinary circumstances might render that interposition necessary to its safety. Nothing can be more evident, than that an exclusive power of regulating elections for the national government, in the hands of the State legislatures, would leave the existence of the Union entirely at their mercy. They could at any moment annihilate it, by neglecting to provide for the choice of persons to administer its affairs. It is to little purpose to say, that a neglect or omission of this kind would not be likely to take place. The constitutional possibility of the thing, without an equivalent for the risk, is an unanswerable objection. Nor has any satisfactory reason been yet assigned for incurring that risk. The extravagant surmises of a distempered jealousy can never be dignified with that character. If we are in a humor to presume abuses of power, it is as fair to presume them on the part of the State governments as on the part of the general government. And as it is more consonant to the rules of a just theory, to trust the Union with the care of its own existence, than to transfer that care to any other hands, if abuses of power are to be hazarded on the one side or on the other, it is more rational to hazard them where the power would naturally be placed, than where it would unnaturally be placed. Suppose an article had been introduced into the Constitution, empowering the United States to regulate the elections for the particular States, would any man have hesitated to condemn it, both as an unwarrantable transposition of power, and as a premeditated engine for the destruction of the State governments? The violation of principle, in this case, would have required no comment; and, to an unbiased observer, it will not be less apparent in the project of subjecting the existence of the national government, in a similar respect, to the pleasure of the State governments. An impartial view of the matter cannot fail to result in a conviction, that each, as far as possible, ought to depend on itself for its own preservation. As an objection to this position, it may be remarked that the constitution of the national Senate would involve, in its full extent, the danger which it is suggested might flow from an exclusive power in the State legislatures to regulate the federal elections. It may be alleged, that by declining the appointment of Senators, they might at any time give a fatal blow to the Union; and from this it may be inferred, that as its existence would be thus rendered dependent upon them in so essential a point, there can be no objection to intrusting them with it in the particular case under consideration. The interest of each State, it may be added, to maintain its representation in the national councils, would be a complete security against an abuse of the trust. This argument, though specious, will not, upon examination, be found solid. It is certainly true that the State legislatures, by forbearing the appointment of senators, may destroy the national government. But it will not follow that, because they have a power to do this in one instance, they ought to have it in every other. There are cases in which the pernicious tendency of such a power may be far more decisive, without any motive equally cogent with that which must have regulated the conduct of the convention in respect to the formation of the Senate, to recommend their admission into the system. So far as that construction may expose the Union to the possibility of injury from the State legislatures, it is an evil; but it is an evil which could not have been avoided without excluding the States, in their political capacities, wholly from a place in the organization of the national government. If this had been done, it would doubtless have been interpreted into an entire dereliction of the federal principle; and would certainly have deprived the State governments of that absolute safeguard which they will enjoy under this provision. But however wise it may have been to have submitted in this instance to an inconvenience, for the attainment of a necessary advantage or a greater good, no inference can be drawn from thence to favor an accumulation of the evil, where no necessity urges, nor any greater good invites. It may be easily discerned also that the national government would run a much greater risk from a power in the State legislatures over the elections of its House of Representatives, than from their power of appointing the members of its Senate. The senators are to be chosen for the period of six years; there is to be a rotation, by which the seats of a third part of them are to be vacated and replenished every two years; and no State is to be entitled to more than two senators; a quorum of the body is to consist of sixteen members. The joint result of these circumstances would be, that a temporary combination of a few States to intermit the appointment of senators, could neither annul the existence nor impair the activity of the body; and it is not from a general and permanent combination of the States that we can have any thing to fear. The first might proceed from sinister designs in the leading members of a few of the State legislatures; the last would suppose a fixed and rooted disaffection in the great body of the people, which will either never exist at all, or will, in all probability, proceed from an experience of the inaptitude of the general government to the advancement of their happiness in which event no good citizen could desire its continuance. But with regard to the federal House of Representatives, there is intended to be a general election of members once in two years. If the State legislatures were to be invested with an exclusive power of regulating these elections, every period of making them would be a delicate crisis in the national situation, which might issue in a dissolution of the Union, if the leaders of a few of the most important States should have entered into a previous conspiracy to prevent an election. I shall not deny, that there is a degree of weight in the observation, that the interests of each State, to be represented in the federal councils, will be a security against the abuse of a power over its elections in the hands of the State legislatures. But the security will not be considered as complete, by those who attend to the force of an obvious distinction between the interest of the people in the public felicity, and the interest of their local rulers in the power and consequence of their offices. The people of America may be warmly attached to the government of the Union, at times when the particular rulers of particular States, stimulated by the natural rivalship of power, and by the hopes of personal aggrandizement, and supported by a strong faction in each of those States, may be in a very opposite temper. This diversity of sentiment between a majority of the people, and the individuals who have the greatest credit in their councils, is exemplified in some of the States at the present moment, on the present question. The scheme of separate confederacies, which will always multiply the chances of ambition, will be a never failing bait to all such influential characters in the State administrations as are capable of preferring their own emolument and advancement to the public weal. With so effectual a weapon in their hands as the exclusive power of regulating elections for the national government, a combination of a few such men, in a few of the most considerable States, where the temptation will always be the strongest, might accomplish the destruction of the Union, by seizing the opportunity of some casual dissatisfaction among the people (and which perhaps they may themselves have excited), to discontinue the choice of members for the federal House of Representatives. It ought never to be forgotten, that a firm union of this country, under an efficient government, will probably be an increasing object of jealousy to more than one nation of Europe; and that enterprises to subvert it will sometimes originate in the intrigues of foreign powers, and will seldom fail to be patronized and abetted by some of them. Its preservation, therefore ought in no case that can be avoided, to be committed to the guardianship of any but those whose situation will uniformly beget an immediate interest in the faithful and vigilant performance of the trust.


1. 1st clause, 4th section, of the List article.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

 Article I, Section 4, Clauses 1-2

1:  The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

2:  The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December,5  unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.

Article I, Section 4, cl. 1, delegates to the state legislatures the authority to determine the time, place and manner of electing Senators and Representatives. However, with one qualification that has been rendered effectively moot by the 17th Amendment, Congress may supersede state law.

This is one of few clauses in the Constitution that affirmatively require the exercise of authority by the states. It raises interesting questions about the applicability of the traditional “default” view that all powers not affirmatively delegated to Congress or explicitly denied to the states, are reserved to the states or the people, as reflected in the 10th Amendment. Does this explicit provision “create” power for the states to act? Or, does the clause require the states to exercise a power they already have, but that they could ignore in the absence of this command?

Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, and Justice Thomas, writing for four dissenters, debated that issue in a fascinating case, U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, in 1995. Term Limits addressed the constitutionality of an Arkansas state constitutional amendment that imposed term limits on its Senators and Representatives. Technically, the opinion involved the interpretation of the “qualifications” clause of Article I, Section 2, clause 2, whether term limits constituted an unconstitutional addition to the listed qualifications. But both sides (especially Justice Thomas) explored the applicability of Article I, Section 4, and the question of state power to act when the Constitution is silent.

The majority held that the states have no powers to act in matters that spring exclusively out of the existence of the national government created by the Constitution, unless the Constitution itself delegates that power to the states. Justice Stevens quoted the brilliant early-19th century nationalist Justice Joseph Story that, “No state can say, that it has reserved, what it never possessed.” He also noted that Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist 59, had warned of the danger to the Union’s existence if the states had the exclusive power to regulate Congressional elections.

In Stevens’s view, the Constitution created the national government ex nihilo, and the states had reserved powers only in those areas previously within their legislative discretion. Hence, since there was no affirmative grant to states to add qualifications for federal representatives, such power did not exist. Stevens viewed Article I, Section 4, as evidence for this proposition, as it (in his view) delegated authority to the states to act that, in the clause’s absence, would not have existed, while giving Congress ultimate control.

Stevens’s position makes it unclear why the clause is needed at all. Presumably, if the states do not have the inherent power to control the manner of election of the national legislature, but such power rests instead in the federal government, Congress already has ultimate control over the manner of election. Also, if this was delegation to the states, there is no need to declare what the states “must” do, and what Congress “may” do.

Justice Thomas found Stevens’s view to be exactly backwards. Since the states once had all powers, including the power to create whatever Union they wanted, or none at all, they also retained whatever authority they had not surrendered or that was not denied them in regards to the composition of the national government. Since the Constitution does not deny the states the power to add (but not subtract) from the listed qualifications, term limits are constitutional. Moreover, Article I, Section 4, does not detract from the general position that the states have all reserved powers. Thomas saw this provision not as a delegation to the states from the people, created by the Constitution. Rather, this is an imposition on the states of a duty to act, where otherwise none would exist.

Thomas pointed out that, without such a clause, the states could still determine the time, place, and manner of electing members of the national legislature. But they also might refuse to elect members of Congress, to cripple the federal government just as Hamilton warned. This clause, then, imposed a duty on the states (“must”) to exercise that power, subject to the authorization to Congress (“may”) to override the states’ choices. As a corollary, if the clause did not exist, Congress would have no power to act.

Until 1842, Congress left regulation of such elections to the states. States did not adhere to a single standard of electing Representatives (Senators were still elected by state legislatures). Often, at least some Congressmen were elected at-large. In that year, Congress began to require that single-member districts be used. By 1911, federal law mandated that such districts be “composed of a compact and contiguous territory and containing as nearly as practicable an equal number of inhabitants.”

When a later law eliminated that last requirement, substantial malapportionment occurred. Eventually, the Supreme Court waded into this “political thicket,” using another related provision, Article I, Section 2, to strike down apportionment that resulted in districts of disproportionate populations. A nearly absolute “one man-one vote” equality emerged to assure that, as nearly as practicable, “one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.”

Additional questions raised by this clause are whether Congress could regulate primaries that, after all, are an integral part of the election process (based on Supreme Court opinions, today it probably could) or financing of Congressional elections (yes, within the broad contours of the First Amendment). Congress can prescribe the mechanics of voting, as well.

State laws are still important. For example, states still control the requirements for recounts, as a number of candidates in various close races in November, 2010, discovered. As well, states have different rules (and interpretations by state courts) for replacing candidates who drop out shortly before the election. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was permitted to replace corruption-plagued Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli on the ballot when the latter withdrew a month before the election. On the other hand, Texas Republicans were not permitted to replace Tom DeLay’s name on the ballot when he withdrew five months before the election.

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. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  Read more from Professor Knipprath at: .


Howdy from Texas! Well, I am back at the essay desk after an intense week of having the great joy of reading so many essays! Cathy and I read through each one judiciously, as well as the poems. We also had fun listening to the fabulous songs, watching the PSAs, short films and looking through the artwork. However, it was a time consuming, intensive work and just today are the works off to the judges! Thus, there were absolutely not enough hours in the day to peruse all of the generous entries and write essays!

Wonderful results. We thank each and every one of you who helped spread the word. Cathy and I are presently working on our next phase, which is the Constituting America Winners Behind the Scene Documentary and the Celebration for the winners in Philadelphia – an exciting program, interviews with the press, tours, etc. More to come!

Regarding Federalist Paper No. 59, I find that I am still confused over the “places, times and manners” of then and now – other than the fact that the senate was changed all together with the 17th Amendment.

What is obvious, as our distinguished Constitutional Scholar, Professor Kyle Scott, mentioned today, is the necessity and spirit of debate and a wise, well- informed premise. Hence, the reason for our foundation!
I concur wholeheartedly.

To quote Professor Scott, the need for Americans 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,” is essential now. Now are the times that warrant the awareness, dedication and perseverance of citizens that reflect the deep love of liberty and country.

A paragraph that caught my eye in Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No. 59 is:

“It ought never to be forgotten, that a firm union of this country, under an efficient government, will probably be an increasing object of jealousy to more than one nation of Europe; and that enterprise to subvert it will sometimes originate in the intrigues of foreign powers, and will seldom fail to be patronized and abetted by some of them.”

Could this be more relevant to today?

The antidote to the “intrigues of foreign powers” is a government with a firm resolve to be vigilant and quick against these sly insurgencies of malice. As mentioned in an earlier Federalist Paper, “The enemy is in the field.” This is true whether it be as obvious as a terror attack or as insidious as the over zealousness of “political correctness” that paralyzes common sense.

God Bless,

Janine Turner

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Hello from Mt. Vernon Virginia! As Janine mentioned in her essay last night, we have been very busy over the past few days reading essays and poems, viewing short films and public service announcements, listening to songs, and looking at artwork, all submitted by a diverse group of young people across the country, with theme of how the Constitution is relevant to them today!

The good news is that we received an overwhelming response for our first “We The People 9.17 Contest!”   The entries have been inspiring! The contest entrants all worked hard and put forth their very best efforts and creativity!

The bad news is that there are only so many hours in a day, and I have discovered that every now and then, I actually need to sleep!   I have missed writing essays on Federalist Papers for a few days, but have been greatly encouraged by the knowledge of, respect for, and dedication to the United States Constitution by the young people who entered the contest.

Stay tuned for updates on the “We The People 9.17 Contest,” including the announcement of our distinguished panel of judges, and September 17 activities in Philadelphia where we will reveal the contest winners!

Federalist No. 59 discusses the advantages of the federal government regulating its elections.  As someone who has worked in federal campaigns, I believe it makes sense to have uniform federal election laws, and the only way to achieve uniformity, is to regulate these elections federally.

Through a series of legislative acts, beginning in 1867 when Congress passed a law prohibiting officers from soliciting political contributions from Navy Yard workers, Congress has passed laws to require public disclosure of federal campaign contributions, set limits on individual contributions to federal campaigns, prohibit certain sources of campaign donations,  restrict certain types of federal campaign expenditures, and in certain cases, limit federal campaign expenditures if public financing is accepted.  Because of abuses that occurred during the Watergate era of our country, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was established in 1975 as an independent agency, with civil enforcement jurisdiction, authority to write regulations, monitor compliance, and serve as a centralized source of information about federal elections, federal campaign committees, and federal campaign donors.

If you have never taken a few minutes to explore the Federal Election Commission website:, I highly recommend it.  You will find it fascinating!  With a few clicks (“Campaign Finance Reports and Data” on left sidebar, and then “Search the Disclosure Database”) you can search Federal Campaign Contribution Data in a variety of ways.   You can also read about the latest campaign finance laws and regulations and a history of the FEC.

Like all other congressional powers, our founding fathers devised checks on Congress’s regulation of Federal elections.  One check, the States’ power to appoint U.S. Senators, was removed with the adoption of the 17th Amendment.  This was an important structural check, noted by Hamilton in Federalist No. 59 as “that absolute safeguard which they (States) will enjoy under this provision.”

While the States have lost their power to have a voice in Congress’s power to regulate federal elections, the judicial branch is still actively engaged.  The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Electio Commission (holding that the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on corporate financing of independent advertising in federal election campaigns) is one example.

Of course the most important check is our vote.  As Janine Turner stated in her Fox News Op-Ed, Your Vote is Your Voice . Ues it!  Research how your member of Congress votes on Federal Election Law issues.  Do you agree or disagree? Let your vote be your voice on November 2, 2010!

Monday, July 19th, 2010


Guest Essayist: Kyle Scott, Political Science Department and Honors College Professor at the University of Houston

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.

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

Federalist 59-61 address the federal power to regulate the election of senators and representatives. The clause being defended by Hamilton reads: “The times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may, at any time, by law, make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing senators.”

Vox Populi, in Anti-federalist 59, argued against the national congress regulating the election of senators and representatives. This was viewed as an infringement on state sovereignty and a possible tool of national tyranny.

In Federalist 59, Hamilton defended this clause by saying that every government must have the means to defend itself. The safety of the national government depended on its authority to override state rules that were harmful to the election of its own members.

In Federalist 60, Hamilton again argues against unfettered state authority over the election of members of the United States Congress. A national override of election laws is less pertinent than the arguments used by Hamilton. He defends the clause by stressing that safety from oppressive laws comes from the careful distribution of power and divergent methods of selecting each component of the national government.

He says, “the circumstance which will be likely to have the greatest influence in the matter, will be the dissimilar modes of constituting the several component parts of the government. The House of Representatives being to be elected immediately by the people, the Senate by the State legislatures, the President by electors chosen for that purpose by the people, there would be little probability of a common interest to cement these different branches in a predilection for any particular class of electors.”

One is struck by the recurrence of the checks and balances theme—in Madison’s convention notes, the Constitution itself, the Federalist Papers, and the minutes of the ratification conventions. There can be no doubt that the Founders believed that liberty depended on one part of the government acting as an effective check on all other parts of the government, and that meant between the national branches and between the states and the national government. The Founders abhorred concentrated power. They believed that only through judiciously balanced power—constituted by dissimilar modes—could liberty survive the natural tendency of man to dictate the habits of other men.

Hamilton made another interesting argument. If elected officials violated the Constitution to usurp power, “Would they not fear that citizens, not less tenacious than conscious of their rights, would flock from the remote extremes of their respective states to the places of election, to overthrow their tyrants, and to substitute men who would be disposed to avenge the violated majesty of the people?”

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

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.


Greetings from Mt. Vernon, Virginia!

Thank you to Professor Kyle Scott for soaring to 50,000 feet and giving us the aerial view of Hamilton’s important point in Federalist 61!  I was in the weeds, struggling to make sense of where and when elections should be held, and the most important point of this paper sailed right over my head until I read Professor Scott’s essay.

Federalist 61 gives us an important insight and specific example of the founders’ view and intention of the construction of the United States Constitution:  broad principles outlined that provide a structure and framework to guide the specifics of future legislation as time and events require.

Our founders had great wisdom as to what is appropriate for the Congress to decide, the specific powers that should be delegated to the federal government, where the federal government’s limits are, and what needed to be carefully spelled out and guarded in the Constitution.  Reading back through Federalist Papers 52-61, the founders gave Congress many powers when it came to elections: deciding the time of elections, the power to modify election law, even the power to alter the total number of U.S. Representatives.  These are all powers Publius argues are “safe for the legislature to decide.” The important guiding principles, such as the frequency of elections, and who may vote (broadened with Amendments, thanks to the “genius of the people”) are safely embedded in the Constitution.

In Federalist 51, Publius writes:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Giving the government any power over the laws affecting the election of its own members is a tricky proposition.  The founders’ carefully crafted system of checks and balances, including “THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE,” (Federalist No. 22) have preserved our liberty for over 200 years.

Let us not forget the words of Federalist No. 60 regarding the ultimate “check” of the people:

“Would they not fear that citizens, not less tenacious than conscious of their rights, would flock from the remote extremes of their respective States to the places of election, to overthrow their tyrants, and to substitute men who would be disposed to avenge the violated majesty of the people?”

Looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts and comments today!!

Stay cool!

Cathy Gillespie

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010


Guest Essayist: Kyle Scott, Political Science Department and Honors College Professor at the University of Houston

In Federalist #61 Hamilton reveals his theory of constitutional construction in a peculiar way. Hamilton’s view of the role constitutions should serve is consistent with what modern political scientists consider vital for a long-lasting constitution. Constitutions, if they are to last, must be broad and treated with reverence.

The topic of #61 is a carryover from #59 and #60; for the first of these I have already provided comments. The reason Hamilton cannot leave this topic alone is because his opponents will not. Much of the Federalist owes its structure to the fact that Publius was engaged in an ongoing public opinion campaign. If Publius felt that it lacked public support on a particular facet of the Constitution because of an objection raised by an Anti-Federalist then Publius would write another paper on the topic. Because many of the objections are being levied by those who favor a more decentralized structure than what the Constitution proposes; Hamilton uses the states to his advantage. In this paper He shows that, as has been customary throughout the Federalist, the provisions which are incorporated into the Constitution also appear in some of the state constitutions. This is a successful rhetorical strategy albeit one that lacks some logical and philosophical rigor. For instance, while Hamilton never reconciles the Constitution’s inconsistency with the U.S. Declaration with regard to the location of elections, he does make it a more palatable inconsistency to show that the people of New York have dealt with this in their own state without causing much of a problem.

Hamilton gives a straightforward defense of placing the power to determine when and how elections are held in the latter-third of #61, something for which the reader has been patiently awaiting. Putting this power into the hands of the national government is a matter of political expediency. If the power were left in the hands of the states there would be little or no consistency with regard to elections and members elected to the House and Senate would begin their terms anytime between January and December depending upon when their state held elections. One could easily imagine what types of problems this might cause. Of course, Hamilton knows that there is an easy objection to his claim: Why leave the decision to Congress? Why not specify in the Constitution when all elections for national office are to be held? Hamilton’s response is where we see his theory of constitutional construction come through.

Hamilton objects to the inclusion of such a specification in the Constitution because he is open to the possibility that events and changes may occur that would require an amendment to the Constitution as it relates to this matter. If there are such events on a regular basis, amending the Constitution on a regular basis will become necessary. Hamilton does not want to see this happen. For if Constitutions are specific in their provisions, and they contain too numerous provisions, they will require constant amendment. Being so specific is not what Constitutions are for, but rather laws. Constitutions provide the scaffolding and the laws provide the brick and mortar. Moreover, the more we amend Constitutions the more feeble they become, if not in actuality, then at least in perception, which then leads to an actual weakening. If citizens and officials perceive their Constitution as weak, then the whole system runs the risk of collapsing. A Constitution must be held in reverence by the people and officials; which means it should not be tinkered with too much after it is ratified. Hamilton knew this, and so did the Framers who approved of Article V which made the amendment process so difficult and thus unlikely.

Whether we agree or disagree with Hamilton’s position that the threat to a just government comes from below rather than above, we cannot deny that his understanding of constitutional construction is accurate.

Wednesday, July 21st, 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.