The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 55–57 | Summary

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Summary

Essay 55: The Total Number of the House of Representatives

How large ought the House of Representatives to be? In the First Congress, there were 65 representatives; at the present day, House membership is fixed at 435.

Madison thought political judgment should not be founded on arithmetic. The House should be large enough so the body may avoid cabals (conspiracies of plotters), but it should not be so large as to become unwieldy. A survey of the composition of state legislatures shows great variation, ranging from 21 in Delaware to 300–400 in Massachusetts. Considerable disparities even exist between states that are nearly equal in population. Madison warns that very numerous assemblies commonly unleash people's passions, and he drily remarks, with reference to the pure democracy of ancient Athens and to one of her most noted philosophers, "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."

Essay 56: The Same Subject Continued (The Total Number of the House of Representatives)

Madison here considers another objection to the size of the House of Representatives: that it will be too small to accumulate an accurate knowledge of the people's interests and needs.

For Madison the three most important areas of federal legislation that require local knowledge are commerce, taxation, and the militia. A moderate number of representatives should be sufficient to master the requisite local information pertaining to these areas.

Madison bolsters his argument with some numerical calculations based on membership and representation in the British House of Commons. There he finds a population of eight million (in England and Scotland) is effectively represented in Parliament in the ratio of one member for every 28,670 constituents. This is very close to the number mentioned in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which provides that "the number of representative shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand."

Essay 57: The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many Considered in Connection with Representation

Madison now deals with the objection that the House of Representatives will be an elitist oligarchy, consisting of members who will have "least sympathy with the mass of the people." Madison replies the electors of House members will be "the great body of the people" of the United States. These voters are the same citizens who elect the members of each state legislature. The candidates will come from a broad spectrum, with no qualification of wealth, birth, religious faith, or civil profession. A variety of psychological, social, and political factors will work together for a favorable outcome. Candidates will typically be people of achievement who have deserved the regard of their fellow citizens. Public service will have the effect of binding their affections to their constituents. Their own pride and vanity will impel them to preserve the people's favor. Finally, and perhaps most important, the frequent occurrence of elections will serve as a habitual reminder that a representative depends on the people for his position.

Thus the motives of duty, gratitude, interest, and ambition coalesce to ensure representatives will feel fidelity to, and sympathy for, the great mass of the people. Madison concludes the essay with a range of specific illustrations of representation from the various states.

Analysis

Although the discussion in Essay 55 of the optimal size for the House of Representatives may seem rather esoteric today, Madison was savvy and experienced enough to know that size was a major consideration for every political body. It is probably not accidental, for example, that the framers chose an arrangement resulting in a membership of 65 House members in the first Congress (later to be augmented, of course, in accordance with the decennial census). Signers of the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress (1776) numbered 56. There were 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention (1787). Madison points out in Essay 55 that "passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason" in very numerous assemblies.

Toward the end of this essay, Madison leavens his typically guarded view of human nature with a dash of optimism. The degree of depravity in mankind that justifies caution and distrust, he says, is balanced by other qualities in human nature that justify "a certain portion of esteem and confidence."

In Essay 56, Madison presents a straightforward appraisal of the likely ability of House members to acquire enough knowledge to perform their job effectively. Madison lists three areas as essential: commerce, taxation, and the militia.

Contemporary readers might object that Madison seems highly optimistic about the restraints he envisions on House members in Essay 57. Madison's goal in the essay is to refute apprehensions that representatives will resemble oligarchs, spurning the interests of the many in favor of their own aggrandizement. Among the restraints Madison lists is the frequency of elections—a factor that, he claims, will pressure representatives to be responsive to their constituents. One might ask whether this factor continues to play a significant role in the performance of Congress. Among the developments Madison could not foresee were the overwhelming role of campaign contributions, the role of campaign advertisements (especially on television), and the lopsided power of incumbency. (In the 1998 off-year elections, for example, more than 98% of incumbents seeking reelection to the House held on to their seats.)

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