Return the House of Representatives to the People
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Section I
The Promise: A Representative House
 

After the Constitution was drafted in September of 1787, whether or not it should be adopted was extensively debated in the state conventions. As a result of these lengthy and exhaustive discussions, numerous concerns were identified with the proposed document.
 

One of the greatest of these was the adequacy of the size of the House. A high degree of citizen participation in the government — via the House of Representatives — was believed crucial for protecting the citizenry from the government.
 
In the state conventions and in the press, many warned that an undersized House (with oversized districts) would emerge and thereby render the House an inadequate guardian of the people. They warned that a smaller House would be dominated by the “aristocratic” class and also be more vulnerable to corruption.

An additional concern was that, since only a majority of a quorum is required to pass legislation, a very small number could hold the fate of the nation in their hands. (For example, in our current House of 435, a quorum is 218, of which a majority of 110 Representatives could pass legislation.)

These issues (and many others) were addressed by a series of authoritative and influential articles — the Federalist Papers — that were published from October 1787 until August 1788. These articles provided an essential understanding of the framers’ intentions and they still serve as one of the fundamental statements of American political philosophy.

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“It will not be thought an extravagant conjecture that the first census will, at the rate of one for every thirty thousand, raise the number of representatives to at least one hundred. … At the expiration of twenty-five years, according to the computed rate of increase, the number of representatives will amount to two hundred, and of fifty years, to four hundred.”


  Federalist Paper No. 55
(February 13, 1788)
 

 
CONTENTS

In This Section:

A. Drafting the Constitution
On September 17, 1787 — the final day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia— a momentous last-minute revision was made to reduce the minimum from 40,000 to 30,000.
 

B. Selling the Constitution
In 1788, the Federalist Papers projected the size of the House would grow to 400 by 1840, yet over two centuries later we have been allowed only 35 more than that number.
 

C. The Ratification Debates
These are some of the principal arguments made for and against the Constitutional language that was intended to define the size of the House.
 

 

In This Web Pamphlet:

I. The Promise: A Representative House

II. Trying to Correct the Omission

III. The Congressional Principalities

IV.
Congress vs. the Constitution

V.
Our Imperial House

VI.


VII.

VIII.

IX.
The Electoral College

X.

Appendix.
Search & Additional Resources

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 A.  Drafting the Constitution


1) “...at the rate of one for every forty thousand.”

 
On August 6, 1787 (only six weeks before the Constitutional Convention ended), the draft language specified that the number of representatives would be regulated “at the rate of one for every forty thousand.”  

This language (quoted in the sidebar to the right) would have established an absolute requirement rather than a minimum one. Subsequently, this was revised to indicate a minimum of 40,000, which was later reduced to 30,000 as part of a dramatic last-minute revision.

2) The Last-Minute “Erazure”
 

The Debates in the Federal Convention
August 6, 1787

As the proportions of numbers in different States will alter from time to time; as some of the States may hereafter be divided; as others may be enlarged by addition of territory; as two or more States may be united; as new States will be erected within the limits of the United States, the Legislature shall, in each of these cases, regulate the number of representatives by the number of inhabitants, according to the provisions herein after made, at the rate of one for every forty thousand.
Reported by James Madison

Shown below are the words “thirty Thousand” from the sentence “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand...” Note the smudge around the word “thirty” (which stands out in an otherwise exquisitely drafted document).
 

This image was taken directly from the Constitution (National Archives)

On September 17, 1787 — the final day of the Constitutional Convention — a momentous last-minute revision was made to reduce the minimum from 40,000 to 30,000 (resulting in the smudge shown above). This modification provided a dramatic finale to the Philadelphia convention in which George Washington, for the first and last time, took center stage to address his fellow delegates on a substantive issue. (See The Dramatic Finale to the Constitutional Convention.)


The framers obviously did not make this significant reduction to 30,000 in expectation that someday the number would be allowed to exceed 500,000. Instead, this revision was made because a minimum district size of 40,000 was thought far too large to allow the House to be truly representative of the people.

 
The revision to thirty is also noted in an addendum
on the fourth page of the Constitution
(shown in the image below).
Reads as follows:
The Word “Thirty” being partly
written on an Erazure in the fiftenth Line of the first Page...
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 B.  Selling the Constitution


1) The Federalist Papers
 

The Federalist Papers were a series of articles written under the pen name of Publius by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Published from October 1787 until August 1788. The collective essays were then published in 1788 as The Federalist (right).

Regarding the authors, Madison was widely recognized as the Father of the Constitution and would later go on to become President of the United States. Jay would become the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Hamilton would serve in the Cabinet and become a major force in setting economic policy for the US.
 
The primary purpose of the Federalist Papers was to gain popular support for the proposed Constitution in order to obtain the ratification of the states. Consequently, they have been described as one of the most significant public-relations campaigns in history.
 
Through the years, the Federalist Papers have been widely read and respected for their masterly analysis and interpretation of the Constitution and the principles upon which our government was established.

 

Additional Links

The Selling of the Constitution
by William F. Swindler
 


2) The Promise: one Representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants

 “…it seems to give the fullest assurance, that a representative for every THIRTY THOUSAND INHABITANTS will render the [House of Representatives] both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it.”
 —
Federalist Paper No. 56 (February 19, 1788)

Explicit in the promise above is the formulation that there will be a single representative for every thirty-thousand, not “no more than” one representative for every thirty thousand. Presumably this reflects the intention of the framers. In any case, it was a promise made to we the people.

Also, note the capitalization of the words “THIRTY THOUSAND INHABITANTS.” This ratio was prominently emphasized in the original document in order to reinforce its significance.

Another Federalist Paper (No. 55) projected that the number of representatives in the House would reach 400 by the year 1840 (excerpt below).

EXCERPTED FROM
Federalist Paper No. 55:
“The Total Number of the House of Representatives”

(February 13, 1788)

“…let us weigh the objections which have been stated against the number of members proposed for the House of Representatives. It is said, in the first place, that so small a number cannot be safely trusted with so much power. The number of which this branch of the legislature is to consist, at the outset of the government, will be sixty five. Within three years a census is to be taken, when the number may be augmented to one for every thirty thousand inhabitants; and within every successive period of ten years the census is to be renewed, and augmentations may continue to be made under the above limitation. It will not be thought an extravagant conjecture that the first census will, at the rate of one for every thirty thousand, raise the number of representatives to at least one hundred. … At the expiration of twenty-five years, according to the computed rate of increase, the number of representatives will amount to two hundred, and of fifty years, to four hundred. This is a number which, I presume, will put an end to all fears arising from the smallness of the body. I take for granted here what I shall, in answering the fourth objection, hereafter show, that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution.”

It is interesting to consider that in 1788, the Federalist Papers projected the size of the House would grow to 400 by 1840, yet over two centuries later our Imperial House has granted us only 35 more than that number.
 
Later, Federalist № 58 (February 20, 1788) was devoted to discrediting the charge that “the number of members will not be augmented from time to time, as the progress of population may demand.”  Federalist 58 also acknowledges “...that this objection, if well supported, would have great weight.” Though these opening statements confirm (and promise) that the House is expected to continually grow with the population, further reading of Federalist 58 reveals assurances that depend entirely upon the good faith of future congressmen. With the benefit of hindsight, these suppositions and assumptions appear, at best, quite naive.
 
Keep in mind that, for many people, the Federalist Papers would be their primary (if not only) avenue for understanding the proposed Constitution. The Federalist Papers could be understood to properly reflect the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. The promise of a perpetual 30-thousand district was widely accepted at the time, as is evidenced by numerous statements made. For example, on November 30, 1787, James Wilson, a member of the Pennsylvania convention, stated that “...the House of Representatives will, within a single century, consist of more than six hundred members.”

Ratification Timeline
 
The chronology below lists the first fourteen states that ratified the Constitution along with other key events.

Sep. 17, 1787 — Final draft of the Constitution approved by the Federal Convention

Dec. 7, 1787—
Delaware ratifies
 
Dec. 12, 1787 —
Pennsylvania ratifies
 
Dec. 18, 1787 —
New Jersey ratifies
 
Jan. 2, 1788 —
Georgia ratifies
 
Jan. 9, 1788 —
Connecticut ratifies
 
Feb. 6, 1788 —
Massachusetts ratifies
 
Feb. 13, 1788 — Federalist No. 55 “The Total Number of the House of Representatives”
 
Feb. 19, 1788 — Federalist No. 56
“The Same Subject Continued (The Total Number of the House of Representatives)”
 
Feb. 19, 1788 — Federalist No. 57
“The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many...”
 
Feb. 20, 1788 — Federalist No. 58
“Objection That The Number of Members Will Not Be Augmented as the Progress of Population Demands....”
 
April 28, 1788 — Maryland ratifies
 
May 23, 1788
— South Carolina ratifies

 
June 21, 1788
— New Hampshire ratifies
 
June 25, 1788
— Virginia ratifies
 
July 26, 1788 —
New York ratifies
 
March 4, 1789
The First Federal Congress convenes.
 
August 24, 1789
Article the first...” was passed by the House specifically to prevent the problem of oversized and unequal House districts. 
 
Nov. 21, 1789 —
North Carolina ratifies
 
May 29, 1790 —
Rhode Island ratifies
 
March 4, 1791 —
Vermont ratifies
 

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 C.  The Ratification Debates
 
1) Many Opposed the Proposed Constitution
 

Whether or not the proposed Constitution should be ratified by the states was an extremely contentious subject in 1787 through 1789. After all, many of the states comprising the new world were virtual nations which, by then, were already over a century old (see table to the right). At that time, the term “Congress” was used to describe a meeting of representatives of various nations.
 
These debates took place both in the press and in the state conventions that met to consider this. Fortunately for us, a substantial amount of these debates were recorded and preserved. For those who seek a better understanding of the arguments made for or against any aspect of the Constitution, these debates provide invaluable insights.
  
An excellent compilation of this important historical information is located at The Founder’s Constitution.

 

        State

Year
settled

Entered
Union

1. Delaware

1638

1787

2. Pennsylvania

1682

1787

3. New Jersey

1660

1787

4. Georgia

1733

1788

5. Connecticut

1634

1788

6. Massachusetts

1620

1788

7. Maryland

1634

1788

8. South Carolina

1670

1788

9. New Hampshire

1623

1788

10. Virginia

1607

1788

11. New York

1614

1788

12. North Carolina

1660

1789

13. Rhode Island

1636

1790

Congress:
“A formal meeting or assembly of delegates or representatives for the discussion or settlement of some question; spec. (in politics) of envoys, deputies, or plenipotentiaries representing sovereign states, or of sovereigns themselves, for the settlement of international affairs.”
Congress definition #6,
Oxford English Dictionary (1971)

 

2) Pro & Con

This section outlines some of the arguments made during the New York ratification convention both in support of and opposition to the language defining the size of the House of Representatives. These arguments are very informative to our understanding and can now be evaluated with the benefit of over 200 years of experience. 
 

Below are some of the principal arguments in support of the proposed language:
  1. A poor or middle class man is no less eligible to be a Representative than a rich one. “Does the new government render a rich man more eligible than a poor one? No. It requires no such qualification. It is bottomed on the broad and equal principle of your state constitution.” [Alexander Hamilton]
     
  2. Internal taxation would warrant greater representation, but that is not probable. “The subject on which this argument of a small representation has been most plausibly used, is taxation. As to internal taxation, in which the difficulty principally rests, it is not probable that any general regulation will originate in the national legislature.” [Alexander Hamilton]
     
  3. Broader representation is not necessary because the powers of the federal government are general and do not penetrate domestic life. “The powers of the new government are general, and calculated to embrace the aggregate interests of the Union, and the general interest of each state, so far as it stands in relation to the whole. ... Were the laws of the Union to new-model the internal police of any state; were they to alter, or abrogate at a blow, the whole of its civil and criminal institutions; were they to penetrate the recesses of domestic life, and control, in all respects, the private conduct of individuals,—there might be more force in the objection; and the same Constitution, which was happily calculated for one state, might sacrifice the welfare of another.” [Alexander Hamilton]
     
  4. There will be 300 Representatives in 40 years. “...according to the ratio of one for thirty thousand, we shall have, in forty years, three hundred representatives. If this be true, and if this be a safe representation, why be dissatisfied?” [Alexander Hamilton]
     
  5. The large and growing states will force the continued growth of the house. It will be the interest of the large and growing states (i.e., Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania) to augment the representation. Only the small states (e.g., Rhode Island, Delaware), can be interested in limiting it. This factor would assure “a growing representation, according to the advance of population, and the circumstances of the country.” [Alexander Hamilton]

Below are some of the principal arguments advanced in opposition to the language in the proposed Constitution:

  1. It should not be left to the discretion of the rulers to determine the number of Representatives. This would be “a power inconsistent with every principle of a free government, to leave it to the discretion of the rulers to determine the number of representatives of the people. There was no kind of security except in the integrity of the men who were intrusted; and if you have no other security, it is idle to contend about constitutions.” [Melancton Smith]
     
  2. A smaller House is more susceptible to corruption. “In so small a number of representatives, there is great danger from corruption and combination. A great politician has said that every man has his price. I hope this is not true in all its extent; but I ask the gentleman to inform me what government there is in which it has not been practised.” [Melancton Smith]
     
  3. Because men are unwilling to relinquish power, we can not expect the House to enlarge its numbers. “To me it appears clear, that the relative weight of influence of the different states will be the same, with the number of representatives at sixty-five as at six hundred, and that of the individual members greater; for each member’s share of power will decrease as the number of the House of Representatives increases. If, therefore, this maxim be true, that men are unwilling to relinquish powers which they once possess, we are not to expect the House of Representatives will be inclined to enlarge the numbers. The same motive will operate to influence the President and Senate to oppose the increase of the number of representatives; for, in proportion as the House of Representatives is augmented, they will feel their own power diminished. It is, therefore, of the highest importance that a suitable number of representatives should be established by the Constitution.” [Melancton Smith]
     
  4. Representatives should resemble those they represent. “The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives, is, that they resemble those they represent. They should be a true picture of the people, possess a knowledge of their circumstances and their wants, sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests. The knowledge necessary for the representative of a free people not only comprehends extensive political and commercial information, such as is acquired by men of refined education, who have leisure to attain to high degrees of improvement, but it should also comprehend that kind of acquaintance with the common concerns and occupations of the people, which men of the middling class of life are, in general, more competent to than those of a superior class.” [Melancton Smith]
     
  5. It is important to ensure middle class participation in the House along with that of the “first class.” “Would you exclude the first class in the community from any share in legislation? I answer, By no means. They would be factious, discontented, and constantly disturbing the government. It would also be unjust. They have their liberties to protect, as well as others, and the largest share of property. But my idea is, that the Constitution should be so framed as to admit this class, together with a sufficient number of the middling class to control them. You will then combine the abilities and honesty of the community, a proper degree of information, and a disposition to pursue the public good. A representative body, composed principally of respectable yeomanry, is the best possible security to liberty. When the interest of this part of the community is pursued, the public good is pursued, because the body of every nation consists of this class, and because the interest of both the rich and the poor are involved in that of the middling class.” [Melancton Smith]

For additional quotes from the ratification debates, see:
The Ratification Debates Regarding the Size of the House”.


“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... 
     it expects what never was and never will be.”

– Thomas Jefferson

Last updated: 13July2004
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