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The Federalist Papers: No. 53

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 53 is published. Publius continues his examination of the House of Representatives.

The previous paper addressed the question of biennial elections of congressmen: Is the designated frequency of elections “safe”? Put another way, do they protect liberty? This paper continues with the same topic. Then it turns to a second, but related, question: Are biennial elections “necessary or useful”?

Publius begins by noting a proverbial saying: “[W]here annual elections end, tyranny begins.” This rule is not always exactly observed, however. Some states hold elections more often than once a year. Why not deviate in the other direction? “No man will subject himself to the ridicule of pretending,” Publius observes, “that any natural connection subsists between the sun or the seasons, and the period within which human virtue can bear the temptations of power.”

After running through several examples in the states and other countries, Publius concludes that the new Constitution distinguishes itself because it creates a limited government and because the timing of the election is fixed by the Constitution (as opposed to ordinary legislation).

“[W]ho will pretend,” he asks, “that the liberties of the people of America will not be more secure under biennial elections, unalterably fixed by such a Constitution, than those of any other nation would be, where elections were annual, or even more frequent, but subject to alterations by the ordinary power of the government?”

But are biennial elections “necessary or useful”? Most states were then holding annual elections for their representatives. Why double the length of time that a federal representative serves?

Legislators, Publius notes, must have “a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate.” A state legislator need only be familiar with the circumstances and law in his own state. By contrast, a federal legislator will need to be familiar with the many various laws across the nation. Longer service will help legislators to gain more familiarity with the subjects entrusted to them. Moreover, federal legislators generally have further to travel. (Or at least they did back then.) These travel difficulties will interrupt congressional service more if the term in office is shorter than if it is longer.

Interestingly, Publius thinks all these issues will affect the first groups of legislators more than later groups. The first legislators have the task of setting up the government and providing the structure of a federal code. But additions to that code, he thinks, will “become both easier and fewer” over time.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful if the additions to our federal code were fewer and fewer each and every year?

Logistical note for those who care:

As with the last essay, the authorship of this paper is sometimes disputed. However, the essay is not included in the Papers of Alexander Hamilton. The editors of that project state that “there can be no doubt that [#53] was written by James Madison.”



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