The Book of the Is (2013)
Today in George Washington's life: The Battle of Kip's Bay ~ 15 September 1776
Recall the Federalists supported ratification. Three of them, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, wrote a collection of essays called The Federalist Papers. At the time of ratification, the Federalists defended the concept of constitutional representation. They wrote essays to the people of New York to convince them to ratify the Constitution (which New York did). The documents make clear, and we will go into some detail below, that the Federalists believed one Representative for every 30,000 inhabitants would make the House safe, and also more importantly, keep it safe, in its role of balancing power.
The Convention designed the House to be a dynamic institution, bound to change, with an equal place in power. It was built to channel factionalism into representative government.
As the country grew in population, the ratifiers knew the number of Representatives would also grow. Writing in Federalist 55, Madison projected: “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.”
The Convention agreed that the Legislative Branch would represent the people and the states. This was one of the early key compromises – called the Connecticut Compromise. They agreed to divide the legislature into two sections to split the law-making power. State representation was set at two members for all, thus making large and small states equal. The House of Representatives is where size mattered: as a state’s population grew, so would representation. For example, Delaware and New York would be represented equally in the Senate with two members, and the difference in population would be represented in the House.
If we look at Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, we can find what was agreed to and ratified. This section included the most recognizable failure of the Constitution: the “three fifths” deal. At the Convention, Southern states wanted slaves to count toward representation; Northern states didn’t. The “compromise” was to count: “the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [slaves].” This aspect of Clause 3 was replaced by the 14th Amendment (1868).
Clause 3 also states that a census must be taken within three years of ratification – and it was – and that every ten years a census be taken for the purpose of representation – and it has been. Clause 3 also apportioned the first House based on agreement. Since there wasn’t a census to work with, they simply agreed to the number of Representatives for each state. These numbers were based on a state’s estimated population; for example, it was proposed that New York would begin with six Representatives and Delaware with one.
In the Senate the founders agreed to two Senators for each state; for the House they chose this wording: “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative.” At the time, this theory of representation – that one could represent 30,000 – it was a big deal. In the state legislatures of the period, the representation ratio was often much lower. For example, we read in Federalist 55, that in Pennsylvania the ratio was one for every four or five thousand, in Rhode Island one for a thousand, and in several Georgia districts they had an incredibly low ratio of one for ten.
People at the time realized, and we should also, that there is no magic number when it comes to ratios and representation. Madison knew this and said so in Federalist 55: “Nothing can be more fallacious than to found our political calculations on arithmetical principles.” One for every 30,000 isn’t a magical ratio that solves all of our problems and makes everyone happy. In fact, Madison warns us of thinking that a large assembly will make us a better nation. His fear of the mob was evident: “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.”
George Washington is our Socrates. He presided over the drafting of our Constitution as President of the Convention and chose not to speak during the deliberations. He was silent (during debates) until the last day, 17 September 1787. After the proposed Constitution had been read aloud, he rose and announced a request. He asked those gathered to make one change: he asked them to lower the ratio for representation from, “one for every forty Thousand,” to “one for every thirty Thousand.” The request was unanimously approved and the change was made – then they signed it.
Remember that moment: George Washington, war hero, deliverer and arguably the person most responsible for our revolution, he requested a lowering of the ratio to provide the House with more power. Yet every time since then, the Representatives have declined to keep the ratio lower: it’s in their interest, and not ours, to keep representation small. Twenty-one censuses in a row and you’d think just once we’d side with Washington’s leadership on We the People’s House.