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The Federalist Papers: No. 58

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 58 is published. It addresses the last of the four objections made to the composition of the House of Representatives: That the number of representatives will be too small and that this problem will get worse over time.

Such an objection, Publius notes, assumes that the number of representatives will never be increased. Yet the Constitution provides that the initial number is to be temporary. It also provides for a decimal Census. The object of these two provisions is to “readjust, from time to time, the apportionment of representatives to the number of inhabitants.”

Similar provisions in the states have enabled a “gradual increase of representatives” that “has at least kept pace with that of the constituents.”

Having said all that, Publius acknowledges one “peculiarity in the federal Constitution” which requires “watchful attention” by the people: One branch of Congress (the House) represents the people, whereas the other (the Senate) represents the states. For this reason, the smaller states may be more reluctant to increase the number of congressmen. But the larger states appear to have enough of an advantage in the House that they should be able to overrule the smaller states if the latter become unreasonable in this regard.

But what if the Senate becomes a roadblock? Publius thinks that the House “when supported by the more powerful States, and speaking the known and determined sense of a majority of the people, will have no small advantage in a question depending on the comparative firmness of the two houses.” Nevertheless, he spends some time discussing how this might play out in the Senate. Then, curiously, he discusses one tactic that the House might use to get its way: Congressmen, he says, “hold the purse”!

Gasp! Does he mean that the House could hold revenue bills hostage until such time as the Senate begins to act more reasonably? Yes, actually, he seems to view it as a good (albeit perhaps a last) resource. He describes it as a “constitutional and infallible resource [that] still remains with the larger States, by which they will be able at all times to accomplish their just purposes.”

Quite interesting, isn’t it, in light of discussions in recent years?

To be fair, he does also discuss the “prospect of public danger, or of dishonorable stagnation in public affairs” from certain uses of the power. But he seems to think that the SENATE will work to avoid such disgrace.

Interesting that he mentions these tactics at all.

Publius ends by noting that, if the number of congressmen gets too large, then it is no longer a good safeguard anyway. “[I]n all legislative assemblies,” Publius notes, “the greater the number composing them may be, the fewer will be the men who will in fact direct their proceedings.”

Given the degree to which our Congress tends to be run by the Republican or Democrat leadership, it is easy to see the truth in this statement.

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.

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