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The Federalist Papers: No. 57

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 57 is published. Publius addresses a third concern raised against the House of Representatives: “[T]hat it will be taken from that class of citizens which will have least sympathy with the mass of the people, and be most likely to aim at an ambitious sacrifice of the many to the aggrandizement of the few.”


The attack, if true, “strikes at the very root of republican government.” Can we choose our own elected representatives – or can’t we?

Nothing about the House “favors the elevation” of a select few. “Who are to be the electors,” Publius asks, “Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.” Who can be elected? “Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgement or disappoint the inclination of the people.”


Moreover, frequent elections will be held for House members. It will remind congressmen of “their dependence on the people.” Moreover, Publius reminds his readers, Congress can “make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society.”

Hmmm. Congressmen living under regular laws like we do. Is this last part really working anymore?!


At the end of the day, Publius once again looks to an educated and attentive people to hold their own government in line.


He asks: “[W]hat is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society?” The answer, he thinks, is simple: “[T]he genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.”


Publius concludes with words that are a bit depressing, given where we are today: “If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.”


In other words, if the people are so far gone that will allow Congress to pass tyrannical laws, then the real problem is not Congress. The problem is that the people themselves no longer want their freedom.

His words are almost prophetic, aren’t they?


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. The editors of the Hamilton papers note that internal evidence might “suggest[ ] H’s authorship,” but they think that “evidence is weak.” Meanwhile, external evidence “supports (but does not conclusively demonstrate) Madison’s claim.” Thus, I have gone with Madison as the author in the attached picture.

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