The Federalist Papers: No. 55
On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 55 is published. Publius continues his analysis of the House of Representatives. Is the number of House members too small? Will it “be an unsafe depositary of the public interests”? The first House was to start with only 65 members.
The states, Publius notes, have all relied upon different principles in determining the number of their representatives. Coming up with a “precise” solution is more difficult than it appears. If the ratio in Pennsylvania were applied to Delaware, it “would reduce the representative assembly of the latter to seven or eight members.” Virginia would have up to 500 if it relied on Rhode Island’s ratio—and as many as 1000 in a few decades!
No, the answer cannot be found in “arithmetical principles.” Instead, a representative body should consist of enough to “guard against too easy a combination for improper purposes.” On the other hand, the number should be small enough “to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude.” Such assemblies are inevitably ruled by a mob mentality.
“In all very numerous assemblies,” Publius concludes, “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.”
Another important safety can be found in “the genius of the people”! Here Publius gives a ringing endorsement for the people of America. His statements are interesting primarily because too many today think that the founding generation was full of elitists who did not trust average voters. To the contrary, Publius emphasizes “the present genius of the people of America, the spirit which actuates the State legislatures, and the principles which are incorporated with the political character of every class of citizens.” Given this state of affairs, Publius is “unable to conceive” that voters will repeatedly vote for 65 congressmen who are “disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery.” Moreover, he thinks the state legislatures, too, will leap to our defense if the national government steps out of its bounds.
“I am unable to conceive that the State legislatures,” Publius observes, “which must feel so many motives to watch, and which possess so many means of counteracting, the federal legislature, would fail either to detect or to defeat a conspiracy of the latter against the liberties of their common constituents.”
Publius has great confidence in the people of his time. After fighting such a Revolution as they had fought, why would a congressman be so easily corrupted now? At least that was the situation then. However, Publius concludes: “What change of circumstances, time, and a fuller population of our country may produce, requires a prophetic spirit to declare, which makes no part of my pretensions.”
Yeah, perhaps he couldn’t have predicted (and certainly would not understand) why so many voters and state legislatures are putting up with our massive, debt-ridden, out-of-control federal government. Would he?
Logistical note for those who care:
As with the last essay, the authorship of this paper is disputed, and it is included in both the Hamilton and the Madison papers. However, the editors of the Hamilton papers write that “Madison’s claim to the authorship of this essay outweighs” Hamilton’s claim. Thus, I have gone with Madison as the author in the attached picture. Please also note that different publication dates are given for this paper. I’ve gone with the date in the Madison papers.