The previous paper covered in this series – and I’m sure you all remember back four years ago when I discussed Federalist 55 – dealt with the size of the House of Representatives. Madison continued on the theme in the 56th Federalist Paper. Once again Madison was at pains to strike a careful balance, arguing that the House was large enough to accomodate representatives who would have adequate knowledge of their constituency, but not so large as to become an over-crowded mess, unable to accomplish anything ofg substance.
At the time of the Constitution’s ratification, a House district was designed to encompass approximately 30,000 people. Madison thinks this is a suitable size for a representative to understand the complexities of the district he represents. As he puts it:
It is a sound and important principle that the representative ought to be acquainted with the interests and circumstances of his constituents. But this principle can extend no further than to those circumstances and interests to which the authority and care of the representative relate. An ignorance of a variety of minute and particular objects, which do not lie within the compass of legislation, is consistent with every attribute necessary to a due performance of the legislative trust. In determining the extent of information required in the exercise of a particular authority, recourse then must be had to the objects within the purview of that authority.
The implicit argument is the purview of the federal government will be quite limited, therefore a representative need only acquite expertise in subject matters that will directly impact his constituents. The representative did not need to be on a first-name basis with each of his constituents, nor did he need to be aware of every little bit of minutiae affecting them. He had to attain a general knowledge of those matters, and only those matters in which the federal government might have a say over the lives of the people he represents. Therefore he would not be spread too thin according to the original constitutional design.
So what are the areas of particular interest?
What are to be the objects of federal legislation? Those which are of most importance, and which seem most to require local knowledge, are commerce, taxation, and the militia.
A good representative will have to have some particular insight when it comes to regulation and taxation, but Madison did not think this required each state to have more than a handful of representatives, depending of course on the size of the state.
As far as it may consist of internal collections, a more diffusive knowledge of the circumstances of the State may be necessary. But will not this also be possessed in sufficient degree by a very few intelligent men, diffusively elected within the State? Divide the largest State into ten or twelve districts, and it will be found that there will be no peculiar local interests in either, which will not be within the knowledge of the representative of the district. Besides this source of information, the laws of the State, framed by representatives from every part of it, will be almost of themselves a sufficient guide. In every State there have been made, and must continue to be made, regulations on this subject which will, in many cases, leave little more to be done by the federal legislature, than to review the different laws, and reduce them in one general act. A skillful individual in his closet with all the local codes before him, might compile a law on some subjects of taxation for the whole union, without any aid from oral information, and it may be expected that whenever internal taxes may be necessary, and particularly in cases requiring uniformity throughout the States, the more simple objects will be preferred. To be fully sensible of the facility which will be given to this branch of federal legislation by the assistance of the State codes, we need only suppose for a moment that this or any other State were divided into a number of parts, each having and exercising within itself a power of local legislation. Is it not evident that a degree of local information and preparatory labor would be found in the several volumes of their proceedings, which would very much shorten the labors of the general legislature, and render a much smaller number of members sufficient for it?
Madison adds that the national legislature will include a number of individuals who will have already served as state legislators, and therefore they will be able to convey local information into national debates over legislation. As for the militia, differences in discipline may differ from state-to-state, but will not differ within each state, so a representative does need to possess a specialized understanding of local circumstances on this subject.
In the next paragraph, Madison asserts that the intra-state similarities justify a smaller number of representatives. Districts will not vary significantly. Over time states will diversify, growing larger in population and in the types of people occupying it. The constitution addresses this by granting an increase in the number of representatives as the population grows and becomes more diffuse.
Whether Madison’s logic still holds 238 years later considering the manifold increase in both the issues over which the federal government claims dominion and in the population, where average district sizes are now over 20 times greater than at the time of ratification, is a subject worthy of debate. In a sense the logic still holds, even if the federal government oversees many more matters of interest, and even if the districts are much larger. Districts may be larger in population size, but a representative’s ability to gather information is also dramatically improved. And though we lament the decline in the number of “swing” districts, it does mean a representative is likely reflecting the will of most of his or her constituents, if nothing else.