Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 56


The initial size of the House of Representatives, before the first census, was to be 65 members total for all thirteen states.  As Madison asks in Federalist No. 55, is that too few persons to be “safely trusted with so much power”?  Well, for starters, the figure 65 is a temporary expedient, and the expansion of the House’s membership will naturally follow the census (required within three years).  But remember, this is the popularly elected chamber:

I am unable to conceive that the people of America in their present temper, or under any circumstances which can speedily happen, will chuse, and every second year repeat the choice of sixty-five or an hundred men, who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery.

This was part of the argument we considered yesterday–that “circumspection and distrust” have to be balanced with “esteem and confidence,” or republicanism itself is a lost cause.  Now Madison turns, in No. 56, to the question whether a relatively small legislative body will “possess a due knowledge of the interests of its constituents.”  Not bad faith but bad information is the question now under consideration.

Well, there is what might be called “extensive information” about the national interest, and there is “local knowledge” about the narrower interests of narrower constituencies in the states.  It is only with respect to the latter that we would worry whether we have enough representatives.  And the “objects of federal legislation” most concerning “local knowledge, are commerce, taxation, and the militia.”  Since, with respect to those objects, the interests of each state are “but little diversified,” then the numbers representing each need not be great: “A few men therefore will possess all the knowledge requisite for a proper representation of them.”  What will really be necessary is for each member of Congress to learn something about the other states’ interests–but that they will learn from each other.

Perhaps most interesting is Madison’s prediction that the passage of time will have “an assimilating effect” on all the states.  As their economies diversify over time, the states will be less distinctively different from each other.  Greater differences within the states will produce greater similarity across the states, gradually changing the character and the needs of democratic representation.  And don’t we see this in our own time?  Isn’t Georgia more like Indiana today than at any time in our history?

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)


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