Federalists 52 and 53

Some days I feel like John Jay. My apologies for the excessive lay-off.

Federalist 52 and 53 dealt with the House of Representatives and in particular the length of terms for Representatives. In Federalist 52*, Madison explored the history of British and Irish parliamentary terms, noting that the length of terms could be anywhere between three and seven years in Great Britain. The House of Commons was constitutionally required to sit more frequently, but the duration of terms was actually quite long. Closer to home in Virginia, before the war elections were septennial.

Here Madison laid the groundwork justifying the two-year length of terms for representatives, a duration considered too long by many opponents of the proposed Constitution. Madison addressed this concern more directly in the next essay, but first he wanted to provide historical context for his audience.

He concluded the essay thusly:

The conclusion resulting from these examples will be not a little strengthened by recollecting three circumstances. The first is, that the federal legislature will possess a part only of that supreme legislative authority which is vested completely in the British Parliament; and which, with a few exceptions, was exercised by the colonial assemblies and the Irish legislature. It is a received and well-founded maxim, that where no other circumstances affect the case, the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration; and, conversely, the smaller the power, the more safely may its duration be protracted. In the second place, it has, on another occasion, been shown that the federal legislature will not only be restrained by its dependence on its people, as other legislative bodies are, but that it will be, moreover, watched and controlled by the several collateral legislatures, which other legislative bodies are not. And in the third place, no comparison can be made between the means that will be possessed by the more permanent branches of the federal government for seducing, if they should be disposed to seduce, the House of Representatives from their duty to the people, and the means of influence over the popular branch possessed by the other branches of the government above cited. With less power, therefore, to abuse, the federal representatives can be less tempted on one side, and will be doubly watched on the other.

As usual, Madison portrayed the constitutional provisions as striking just the right balance. Due to the limited reach of the federal government, it was unnecessary to provide for annual elections. On the other hand, it was useful to have frequent elections in order to keep members of the House from being unduly influenced.

In Federalist 53, Madison attacked the maxim “that where annual election end, tyranny begins.” First, he noted that this is an arbitrary cut-off, remarking, “No man will subject himself to the ridicule of pretending that any natural connection subsists between the sun or the seasons, and the period within which human virtue can bear the temptations of power.” He added that it would be just as possible to argue that elections should be held even more frequently. Why not weekly elections? Indeed some states did have legislative elections every six months.

Madison argued that the obsession with annual elections stemmed in part from the experience in Great Britain, which he had discussed in the previous essay. Madison noted the distinction between the American and British experiences.  Americans had a constitution “established by the people and unalterable” and the latter had “a law established by the government and alterable by the government.” In other words, America enjoyed a fixed, written constitution that guaranteed liberty to a far greater extent than the permeable and unwritten British constitution. Americans did not need to rely on annual elections in order to keep their representatives in check. The British had to institute annual elections because Parliament had “transcendent and uncontrollable authority,” changing fundamental articles of the government by legislative fiat, changing the duration of terms, and even sitting for four years longer than the term originally prescribed. The U.S. House of Representatives lacked the power to do any of this.

A longer length of term also provides the legislator with greater experience and knowledge.

No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate. A part of this knowledge may be acquired by means of information which lie within the compass of men in private as well as public stations. Another part can only be attained, or at least thoroughly attained, by actual experience in the station which requires the use of it. The period of service, ought, therefore, in all such cases, to bear some proportion to the extent of practical knowledge requisite to the due performance of the service. The period of legislative service established in most of the States for the more numerous branch is, as we have seen, one year. The question then may be put into this simple form: does the period of two years bear no greater proportion to the knowledge requisite for federal legislation than one year does to the knowledge requisite for State legislation? The very statement of the question, in this form, suggests the answer that ought to be given to it.

Federal legislators needed slightly longer terms than state representatives because their subject matter will be much broader and encompass a greater amount of territory. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be dealing with foreign trade and other items requiring more extensive knowledge, thus they will need longer length of terms to acquire the requisite expertise to make informed decisions.

Madison especially harped on the topic of foreign affairs:

A branch of knowledge which belongs to the acquirements of a federal representative, and which has not been mentioned is that of foreign affairs. In regulating our own commerce he ought to be not only acquainted with the treaties between the United States and other nations, but also with the commercial policy and laws of other nations. He ought not to be altogether ignorant of the law of nations; for that, as far as it is a proper object of municipal legislation, is submitted to the federal government. And although the House of Representatives is not immediately to participate in foreign negotiations and arrangements, yet from the necessary connection between the several branches of public affairs, those particular branches will frequently deserve attention in the ordinary course of legislation, and will sometimes demand particular legislative sanction and co-operation. Some portion of this knowledge may, no doubt, be acquired in a man’s closet; but some of it also can only be derived from the public sources of information; and all of it will be acquired to best effect by a practical attention to the subject during the period of actual service in the legislature.

Frequent elections would also only serve to make the longer-serving members even more powerful.

A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents; will, by frequent reelections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members, and the less the information of the bulk of the members the more apt will they be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them. This remark is no less applicable to the relation which will subsist between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Madison also noted that annual elections would pave the way for more corruption. With annual elections, there is not enough time for “spurious elections” to be investigated and annulled in time. This happened all too often in state elections, and could be a more regular occurrence in federal elections because of the distance various members would have to travel. There would simply be very little time to allow for investigating election improprieties, so a longer term would presumably reduce this inducement to corruption.

*: There is some dispute over the authorship of Federalists 52 and 53, but the general  consensus is that James Madison penned both of these essays.

Published in: on July 9, 2012 at 4:00 pm  Comments Off on Federalists 52 and 53  
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