If you were to ask people to name their favorite Federalist Paper, or even what they considered to be the most famous or important, most would indicate either Federalist 10 or 51. Others might name number 68, or perhaps 9 or 14. To me, Federalist 55 is not only one of the most important of the essays penned by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, it is one of the foundational texts of modern political thought.
This essay is concerned with the number of representatives in the House of Representatives, particularly the concerns that the Constitution allowed for far too few representatives. To begin with, Madison examined the state legislative assemblies and the wide variation in how they apportioned legislators. Some states had huge legislative assemblies, allotting one representative for every thousand or so citizens. Yet certain states, such as Pennsylvania, had relatively small legislatures, and thereby each elected legislator represented far more people. In the end, no precise formula was perfect.
Another general remark to be made is, that the ratio between the representatives and the people ought not to be the same where the latter are very numerous as where they are very few. Were the representatives in Virginia to be regulated by the standard in Rhode Island, they would, at this time, amount to between four and five hundred; and twenty or thirty years hence, to a thousand. On the other hand, the ratio of Pennsylvania, if applied to the State of Delaware, would reduce the representative assembly of the latter to seven or eight members. Nothing can be more fallacious than to found our political calculations on arithmetical principles. Sixty or seventy men may be more properly trusted with a given degree of power than six or seven. But it does not follow that six or seven hundred would be proportionably a better depositary. And if we carry on the supposition to six or seven thousand, the whole reasoning ought to be reversed.
What follows is a critical passage.
The truth is, that in all cases a certain number at least seems to be necessary to secure the benefits of free consultation and discussion, and to guard against too easy a combination for improper purposes; as, on the other hand, the number ought at most to be kept within a certain limit, in order to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude. In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
This entire paragraph demonstrates how very Burkean Madison was in his approach to politics. First, he mocked the notion of a single, pre-determined formula as being the best or only way to allot representatives. More importantly, he revealed his very un-Jeffersonian approach to democracy and political affairs. This was a direct assault against direct democracy, as Madison contended that a large assemblage of people would only lead to discord and anarchy. Representative assemblies must be refined to a small enough number to better guarantee that reason prevails over passion.
This sentiment goes even deeper. Madison had a much less rosy view of human nature than the likes of Jefferson and Paine. The latter thought that human beings could easily manage public affairs, and that the public at large would govern through their good sense. Madison had a much more circumspect view of human nature, and he believed that it was all too easy for human institutions to break down due to those unruly passions overtaking reason. He wasn’t exactly a pessimist when it came to human nature, but he was quite obviously more weary of granting people too much political power, an he certainly did not trust large assemblies to govern sensibly.
It is true that Jefferson himself once said that “73 despots could surely be as oppressive as one,” a sentiment seemingly in accord with Madison’s comment about an assembly of Socrates. But the underlying motivation was quite different. Jefferson was not criticizing the very nature of democracy. Jefferson was merely warning that a legislature governed by despots would be in no way preferable to an authoritarian regime. He was not implying that all legislative assemblies would turn into despotic regimes. Yet Madison clearly signaled his belief that all large assemblies would collapse into turmoil.
It is necessary also to recollect here the observations which were applied to the case of biennial elections. For the same reason that the limited powers of the Congress, and the control of the State legislatures, justify less frequent elections than the public safely might otherwise require, the members of the Congress need be less numerous than if they possessed the whole power of legislation, and were under no other than the ordinary restraints of other legislative bodies.
This is another important point. The very nature of the constitutional structure guards against any one institution having too much power. Therefore there is no great need for Congress to be especially large.
Madison then argued against the notion that the number originally fixed for the House of Representatives – 65 – would be too small. In time, Madison explained, the population would greatly expand. Within a short period of time, at the rate of population growth, there would be over one hundred representatives, and in another quarter-century the number would grow beyond 250. Madison’s predictions about population growth proved to be correct, and the number of representatives did expand. Over time, of course, the ratio of representatives to people greatly expanded. If the ratio in 1788 were in force today, the number of representatives would exceed 6,000. Does any rational person think that such a large number would be manageable?
In a passage that shows that Madison was not completely pessimistic about human nature, Madison defended the relative smallness of the number of legislators by alluding to the good character of the American people.
I must own that I could not give a negative answer to this question, without first obliterating every impression which I have received with regard to the present genius of the people of America, the spirit which actuates the State legislatures, and the principles which are incorporated with the political character of every class of citizens I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under any circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. 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. I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solemn trust committed to them. What change of circumstances, time, and a fuller population of our country may produce, requires a prophetic spirit to declare, which makes no part of my pretensions. But judging from the circumstances now before us, and from the probable state of them within a moderate period of time, I must pronounce that the liberties of America cannot be unsafe in the number of hands proposed by the federal Constitution.
Maybe Madison the pessimist was the clearer thinker.
Madison proceeded to scoff at the notion that foreign interests would pervert the House’s proceedings. Nor would the other branches prove to be a threat against the House.
Is the danger apprehended from the other branches of the federal government? But where are the means to be found by the President, or the Senate, or both? Their emoluments of office, it is to be presumed, will not, and without a previous corruption of the House of Representatives cannot, more than suffice for very different purposes; their private fortunes, as they must allbe American citizens, cannot possibly be sources of danger. The only means, then, which they can possess, will be in the dispensation of appointments. Is it here that suspicion rests her charge? Sometimes we are told that this fund of corruption is to be exhausted by the President in subduing the virtue of the Senate. Now, the fidelity of the other House is to be the victim. The improbability of such a mercenary and perfidious combination of the several members of government, standing on as different foundations as republican principles will well admit, and at the same time accountable to the society over which they are placed, ought alone to quiet this apprehension. But, fortunately, the Constitution has provided a still further safeguard. The members of the Congress are rendered ineligible to any civil offices that may be created, or of which the emoluments may be increased, during the term of their election. No offices therefore can be dealt out to the existing members but such as may become vacant by ordinary casualties: and to suppose that these would be sufficient to purchase the guardians of the people, selected by the people themselves, is to renounce every rule by which events ought to be calculated, and to substitute an indiscriminate and unbounded jealousy, with which all reasoning must be vain. The sincere friends of liberty, who give themselves up to the extravagancies of this passion, are not aware of the injury they do their own cause. 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. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.
I find this final portion to be rather ingenious political ploy. Most of the individuals who opposed the proposed plan for the House of Representatives were ardent democratic champions, thus those individuals who would be most trusting of human nature. Yet he throws their logic against them and charges them with being far too pessimistic regarding their fellow men. It’s not that Madison was being disingenuous, but it was a rather crafty bit of rhetoric.