An Abbreviated History of Constitutional Representaton

May 29, 1787

Prior to his arrival at the Constitutional Convention James Madison had penned "The Virginia Plan" and in that document he professed his desire for a House of Representatives in which the members were not allowed to stand for re-election. The Senate was selected by the House of Representatives from individuals nominated by the state legislatures and the (P)resident was appointed by the Congress.

The number of "votes" each state would have in the Senate and the House was to be based on population or contribution and not on simple statehood. James Madison's interest was the will of the people and the national objects such as the common defense and the common enforcement of liberty.

1. Resolved that the Articles of Confederation ought to be so corrected & enlarged as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution; namely, "common defence, security of liberty and general welfare."

2. Resolved therefore that the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned to the Quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants, as the one or the other rule may seem best in different cases.

3. Resolved that the National Legislature ought to consist of two branches.

4. Resolved that the members of the first branch of the National Legislature ought to be elected by the people of the several States every _______ for the term of ______ ;


to be incapable of reelection for the space of after the expiration of their term of service, and to be subject to recall.

5. Resolved that the members of the second branch of the National Legislature ought to be elected by those of the first, out of a proper number of persons nominated by the individual Legislatures [1]

We note the absence of any states rights in this plan. The electors of the first branch are drawn from the states according to population or property and thus the larger states have the power. But this is merely consistent with making the state legislatures invisible. It is consistent with dividing the whole country into equal sized districts without regard for state boundaries. The members of the second branch are elected by the first branch and there is no stipulation concerning state boundaries here either. It is assumed that the larger states would nominate more Senators than the smaller states.

June 15, 1787

In competition with Madison's Virginia plan there was the New Jersey Plan which described the states interposing themselves between the National government and the people. James Madison was forced to settle for the Connecticut Compromise, which gave control of the Senate to the state legislatures with no attempt at apportionment at all.

July 5, 1787

The compromise produced the first draft of the United States Constitution which can be seen here. The following excerpt Concerning the House of Representatives is of primary interest here:

As the proportions of numbers in different States will alter from time to time; as some States may hereafter be divided; as others may be enlarged by addition of territory; as two or more states may be united; as new state will be erected within the limits of the United States, the Legislature shall, in each of these cases, regulate the number of representatives by the number of inhabitants, according to the provisions herein after made, at a rate of one for every forty thousand.

Madison was forced to concede states rights in the Senate while retaining a popular form of government (a representative democracy) in the House of Representatives. It is important to note that the State Legislatures have no control whatever in the House of Representatives, and that there is no stipulation as to property ownership regarding the electors (people). In the original Virginia Plan Madison left very little to the control of the state legislatures. Note on Suffrage

Federalist 10 Thursday, November 22, 1787

Proper historical context is necessary here: When Madison is arguing for larger "spheres" of electors he is arguing for electoral districts of thirty thousand or even forty thousand. There was much resistance at the time to such large districts. In Britain and in the various states, representative government was based on groups of electors (districts) of less than 5 thousand.

Madison was also aware of inconveniences imposed by large legislative bodies, yet, as we will see later, he was not disposed to sacrifice adequate representation for fear of inconvenience.

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.

It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Federalist 55 Wednesday, February 13, 1788

The Anti-Fedralists attacked the proposed Constitution most successfully on the design (or rather the lack of design) in the House of Representatives, claiming it was not "representative" enough of the real people of the society. In Federalist 55 Madison attempts to convince us that all will be well. He see's "his" Constitution (an otherwise, quite workable plan) going up in flames because of this lack of representation. If Madison's words actually convey his true beliefs then his commitment to representation is clear and he was simply in error as regards the systematic assurance of it (see Federalist 58 below).

THE number of which the House of Representatives is to consist, forms another and a very interesting point of view, under which this branch of the federal legislature may be contemplated. Scarce any article, indeed, in the whole Constitution seems to be rendered more worthy of attention, by the weight of character and the apparent force of argument with which it has been assailed.


The number of which this branch of the legislature is to consist, at the outset of the government will be sixty-five. Within three years a census is to be taken, when the number may be augmented to one for every thirty thousand inhabitants; and within every successive period of ten years the census is to be renewed, and augmentations may continue to be made under the above limitation. It will not be thought an extravagant conjecture that the first census will, at the rate of one for every thirty thousand, raise the number to one hundred. Estimating the Negroes in the proportion of three fifths, it can scarcely be be doubted that the population of the Population of the United States will by that time, if it is not already, amount to three millions. 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. This is a number which, I presume, will put an end to all fears arising from the smallness of the body. I take for granted here what I shall, in answering the forth objection, hereinafter show, that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution. On a contrary supposition, I should admit the objection to have very great weight indeed.

Federalist 57 Tuesday, February 19, 1788

In this particular essay Madison is again defending a constituency size of thirty thousand. If we were to project a constituency of seven hundred thousand into what Madison has to say here, then Madison's error is easily revealed. In constituencies of such magnitude the amount of finance available to good men is wanting and the parrots of the rich will be the only persons who need apply. While Madison is correct in his regard for larger constituencies producing a better selection of capable people he overlooks his own warning from Federalist 10 above. "It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie."

The first census did produced one representative for thirty three thousand and this has not been noted as being inconvenient to the producing class. The real inconveniences occur later as the government refuses to enlarge the membership to keep pace with the growing population and as the size of the constituencies exceed one hundred thousand.

Let me now ask what circumstance there is in the constitution of the House of Representatives that violates the principles of republican government, or favors the elevation of the few on the ruins of the many? Let me ask whether every circumstance is not, on the contrary, strictly conformable to these principles, and scrupulously impartial to the rights and pretensions of every class and description of citizens?

Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? 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. They are to be the same who exercise the right in every State of electing the corresponding branch of the legislature of the State.

Who are to be the objects of popular choice? 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.

In answer to Madison's questions we see that in constituencies of seven hundred thousand that the last quoted paragraph is simply untrue; that not "Every citizen whose merit may recommend him" is eligible. We know that the finance necessary to become an "object of popular choice" is a barrier to entry into an election by the people. And thus, the claim that such large constituencies will be "scrupulously impartial to the rights and pretensions of every class and description of citizens" is falsified as this financial necessity does in fact, favor "the elevation of the few on the ruins of the many".

Federalist 58 Wednesday, February 20, 1788

In this essay Madison describes his own logic in projecting that the growth of the House of Representatives would take place in respect of the growth of the national population and the addition of larger states.

THE remaining charge against the House of Representatives, which I am to examine, is grounded on a supposition that the number of members will not be augmented from time to time, as the progress of population may demand.

It has been admitted, that this objection, if well supported, would have great weight. The following observations will show that, like most other objections against the Constitution, it can only proceed from a partial view of the subject, or from a jealousy which discolors and disfigures every object which is beheld.

1. Those who urge the objection seem not to have recollected that the federal Constitution will not suffer by a comparison with the State constitutions, in the security provided for a gradual augmentation of the number of representatives. The number which is to prevail in the first instance is declared to be temporary. Its duration is limited to the short term of three years.

Within every successive term of ten years a census of inhabitants is to be repeated. The unequivocal objects of these regulations are, first, to readjust, from time to time, the apportionment of representatives to the number of inhabitants, under the single exception that each State shall have one representative at least; secondly, to augment the number of representatives at the same periods, under the sole limitation that the whole number shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand inhabitants. If we review the constitutions of the several States, we shall find that some of them contain no determinate regulations on this subject, that others correspond pretty much on this point with the federal Constitution, and that the most effectual security in any of them is resolvable into a mere directory provision.

2. As far as experience has taken place on this subject, a gradual increase of representatives under the State constitutions has at least kept pace with that of the constituents, and it appears that the former have been as ready to concur in such measures as the latter have been to call for them.

3. There is a peculiarity in the federal Constitution which insures a watchful attention in a majority both of the people and of their representatives to a constitutional augmentation of the latter. The peculiarity lies in this, that one branch of the legislature is a representation of citizens, the other of the States: in the former, consequently, the larger States will have most weight; in the latter, the advantage will be in favor of the smaller States. From this circumstance it may with certainty be inferred that the larger States will be strenuous advocates for increasing the number and weight of that part of the legislature in which their influence predominates. And it so happens that four only of the largest will have a majority of the whole votes in the House of Representatives. Should the representatives or people, therefore, of the smaller States oppose at any time a reasonable addition of members, a coalition of a very few States will be sufficient to overrule the opposition; a coalition which, notwithstanding the rivalship and local prejudices which might prevent it on ordinary occasions, would not fail to take place, when not merely prompted by common interest, but justified by equity and the principles of the Constitution.

It may be alleged, perhaps, that the Senate would be prompted by like motives to an adverse coalition; and as their concurrence would be indispensable, the just and constitutional views of the other branch might be defeated. This is the difficulty which has probably created the most serious apprehensions in the jealous friends of a numerous representation. Fortunately it is among the difficulties which, existing only in appearance, vanish on a close and accurate inspection. The following reflections will, if I mistake not, be admitted to be conclusive and satisfactory on this point.

Notwithstanding the equal authority which will subsist between the two houses on all legislative subjects, except the originating of money bills, it cannot be doubted that the House, composed of the greater number of members, 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.

This advantage must be increased by the consciousness, felt by the same side of being supported in its demands by right, by reason, and by the Constitution; and the consciousness, on the opposite side, of contending against the force of all these solemn considerations.

It is farther to be considered, that in the gradation between the smallest and largest States, there are several, which, though most likely in general to arrange themselves among the former are too little removed in extent and population from the latter, to second an opposition to their just and legitimate pretensions. Hence it is by no means certain that a majority of votes, even in the Senate, would be unfriendly to proper augmentations in the number of representatives.

It will not be looking too far to add, that the senators from all the new States may be gained over to the just views of the House of Representatives, by an expedient too obvious to be overlooked. As these States will, for a great length of time, advance in population with peculiar rapidity, they will be interested in frequent reapportionments of the representatives to the number of inhabitants. The large States, therefore, who will prevail in the House of Representatives, will have nothing to do but to make reapportionments and augmentations mutually conditions of each other; and the senators from all the most growing States will be bound to contend for the latter, by the interest which their States will feel in the former.

And we see that Madison is not Nastradamus