The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 52–54 | Summary

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Summary

Essay 52: The House of Representatives

Madison now inaugurates a series of essays that consider each branch of the national government and the various subdivisions of each branch in turn. The first paper in this sequence, which will extend all the way to Essay 83, deals with the House of Representatives. Madison devotes brief attention to the constitutional qualifications for membership in the House. A representative must be at least 25 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and a resident of the state in which they are a candidate for election. Madison remarks these requirements are reasonable, and they open the door to young or old and poor or wealthy, without regard to profession of religious faith.

House members are to have a term of two years. Madison staunchly defends this relatively brief period, asserting that frequent elections are the only policy by which close bonds between representatives and the people may be forged and maintained. He surveys terms of office in Great Britain, Ireland, and the 13 American colonies before the revolution. In the latter, the periods of election varied between one and seven years. Madison quotes with approval the maxim that "the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration."

Essay 53: The Same Subject Continued (The House of Representatives)

In this paper, Madison continues his discussion of the term of office for members of the House of Representatives. He sets the tone for the paper right at the beginning, quoting an adage to the effect that "where annual elections end, tyranny begins." Madison finds this proverb somewhat arbitrary, however, and he notes election cycles vary throughout the different states without resulting in any appreciable differences in the quality of government or in the liberty of the people.

Madison prefers to consider on a practical basis whether biennial elections are necessary or useful. He introduces a number of practical factors and arguments. A representative in office for only one year, for example, would have very little time to acquaint himself with the local needs and conditions of his constituents. A representative far distant from the national capital would consume much of a single-year term in travel. And one year would not afford much time for the investigation and possible punishment of corrupt or fraudulent representatives. For all these reasons Madison favors a system of biennial elections for the House.

Essay 54: The Apportionment of Members among the States

In this essay, Madison tackles the knotty issue of apportionment in the House of Representatives. The new Constitution provides for proportional representation on the basis of population, which shall be determined by a census held every 10 years (Article 1, Section 2). As a result of a compromise at the Constitutional Convention, only three-fifths of a state's slaves are to be counted for the purpose of determining its total population.

Madison casts the arguments for this compromise in a hypothetical speech by "one of our Southern brethren." According to this reasoning, slaves are partly property and partly persons. The new Constitution thus acts with propriety in regarding slaves as a blend of both. Apportionment in the federal legislature, according to the hypothetical speaker, ought to bear some relationship to the relative wealth of each state.

Madison concedes that the reasoning presented by this advocate for southern interests may appear "a little strained" at some points. But he concludes by praising the Constitution's close conjunction of apportionment of representatives with that of taxes, saying the linkage will have a salutary effect by ensuring the mutual cooperation of the states.

Analysis

This essay is the first of 10 Federalist Papers devoted to the House of Representatives. Seven of these were composed by Madison, who clearly felt an affinity for the institution. After the ratification of the Constitution, Madison served in the House for eight years (1789–97), during George Washington's two terms as president. Early in this period, he shepherded the passage of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 constitutional amendments, enacted in 1791.

Curiously, for a writer so skilled in argumentation, the examples Madison produces to support his main idea in Essay 52—the safety and security offered by biennial elections—do not, in fact, contribute uniformly to Madison's purpose. The variations are so great, in fact, as to suggest chronological intervals in the election cycle are really not that important a factor in ensuring good government.

Madison is on safer ground in Essay 53, where he deploys a range of practical arguments to show biennial elections are prudent and useful.

Essay 54 resists definitive interpretation. From his comments in Essay 42 readers know Madison was personally repelled by the slave trade. Yet the famous "three-fifths compromise" at the Constitutional Convention—by which only some slaves were counted for purposes of apportionment and taxation—gained his support. Although Madison was a slaveholder, most historians consider that he was deeply conflicted about slavery. His support of the Three-Fifths Compromise was evidently another example of Madison's pragmatism. His primary objective was to secure a strong new Constitution for the United States. If that meant making a deal with the southern states, a deal which, in hindsight, is now regarded as less than credible, it must have seemed to Madison a necessary price to pay.

Why in Essay 54 does Madison place such an extended defense of the new Constitution's arrangements for apportionment in the mouth of "one of our Southern brethren"? Does Madison intend for readers to understand that he himself is the speaker? This seems an unlikely inference, and it is inconsistent with the word candid, which Madison uses when he introduces the hypothetical speech. It seems more likely that Madison drew on his copious notes of the debates at the convention to characterize a generic southern approach to the issue—distancing himself somewhat from the reasoning and even labeling it as "a little strained in some points" in the penultimate paragraph of his paper. The rationale, if that word can be applied to Essay 54, is that such an agreement was necessary to make the Constitution a reality.
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