The Total Number of the House of Representatives
For the Independent Journal.
Wednesday, February 13, 1788.


To the People of the State of New York:

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 charges exhibited against it are, first, that
so small a number of representatives will be an unsafe depositary of the
public interests; secondly, that they will not possess a proper
knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents;
thirdly, that they will be taken from that class of citizens which will
sympathize least with the feelings of the mass of the people, and be
most likely to aim at a permanent elevation of the few on the depression
of the many; fourthly, that defective as the number will be in the first
instance, it will be more and more disproportionate, by the increase of
the people, and the obstacles which will prevent a correspondent
increase of the representatives.

In general it may be remarked on this subject, that no political problem
is less susceptible of a precise solution than that which relates to the
number most convenient for a representative legislature; nor is there
any point on which the policy of the several States is more at variance,
whether we compare their legislative assemblies directly with each
other, or consider the proportions which they respectively bear to the
number of their constituents. Passing over the difference between the
smallest and largest States, as Delaware, whose most numerous branch
consists of twenty-one representatives, and Massachusetts, where it
amounts to between three and four hundred, a very considerable
difference is observable among States nearly equal in population. The
number of representatives in Pennsylvania is not more than one fifth of
that in the State last mentioned. New York, whose population is to that
of South Carolina as six to five, has little more than one third of the
number of representatives. As great a disparity prevails between the
States of Georgia and Delaware or Rhode Island. In Pennsylvania, the
representatives do not bear a greater proportion to their constituents
than of one for every four or five thousand. In Rhode Island, they bear
a proportion of at least one for every thousand. And according to the
constitution of Georgia, the proportion may be carried to one to every
ten electors; and must unavoidably far exceed the proportion in any of
the other States.

Another general remark to be made is, that the ratio between the
representatives and the people ought not to be the same where the latter
are very numerous as where they are very few. Were the representatives
in Virginia to be regulated by the standard in Rhode Island, they would,
at this time, amount to between four and five hundred; and twenty or
thirty years hence, to a thousand. On the other hand, the ratio of
Pennsylvania, if applied to the State of Delaware, would reduce the
representative assembly of the latter to seven or eight members. Nothing
can be more fallacious than to found our political calculations on
arithmetical principles. Sixty or seventy men may be more properly
trusted with a given degree of power than six or seven. But it does not
follow that six or seven hundred would be proportionably a better
depositary. And if we carry on the supposition to six or seven thousand,
the whole reasoning ought to be reversed. The truth is, that in all
cases a certain number at least seems to be necessary to secure the
benefits of free consultation and discussion, and to guard against too
easy a combination for improper purposes; as, on the other hand, the
number ought at most to be kept within a certain limit, in order to
avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude. In all very
numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails
to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a
Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.

It is necessary also to recollect here the observations which were
applied to the case of biennial elections. For the same reason that the
limited powers of the Congress, and the control of the State
legislatures, justify less frequent elections than the public safely
might otherwise require, the members of the Congress need be less
numerous than if they possessed the whole power of legislation, and were
under no other than the ordinary restraints of other legislative bodies.

With these general ideas in our mind, let us weigh the objections which
have been stated against the number of members proposed for the House of
Representatives. It is said, in the first place, that so small a number
cannot be safely trusted with so much power.

The number of which this branch of the legislature is to consist, at the
outset of the government, will be sixtyfive. 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 of representatives to at least one
hundred. Estimating the negroes in the proportion of three fifths, it
can scarcely be doubted that the population of the United States will by
that time, if it does 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 fourth objection,
hereafter 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.

The true question to be decided then is, whether the smallness of the
number, as a temporary regulation, be dangerous to the public liberty?
Whether sixty-five members for a few years, and a hundred or two hundred
for a few more, be a safe depositary for a limited and well-guarded
power of legislating for the United States? I must own that I could not
give a negative answer to this question, without first obliterating
every impression which I have received with regard to the present genius
of the people of America, the spirit which actuates the State
legislatures, and the principles which are incorporated with the
political character of every class of citizens I am unable to conceive
that the people of America, in their present temper, or under any
circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second
year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be
disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. I am
unable to conceive that the State legislatures, which must feel so many
motives to watch, and which possess so many means of counteracting, the
federal legislature, would fail either to detect or to defeat a
conspiracy of the latter against the liberties of their common
constituents. I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this
time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five
or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the
people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space
of two years, to betray the solemn trust committed to them. What change
of circumstances, time, and a fuller population of our country may
produce, requires a prophetic spirit to declare, which makes no part of
my pretensions. But judging from the circumstances now before us, and
from the probable state of them within a moderate period of time, I must
pronounce that the liberties of America cannot be unsafe in the number
of hands proposed by the federal Constitution.

From what quarter can the danger proceed? Are we afraid of foreign gold?
If foreign gold could so easily corrupt our federal rulers and enable
them to ensnare and betray their constituents, how has it happened that
we are at this time a free and independent nation? The Congress which
conducted us through the Revolution was a less numerous body than their
successors will be; they were not chosen by, nor responsible to, their
fellowcitizens at large; though appointed from year to year, and
recallable at pleasure, they were generally continued for three years,
and prior to the ratification of the federal articles, for a still
longer term. They held their consultations always under the veil of
secrecy; they had the sole transaction of our affairs with foreign
nations; through the whole course of the war they had the fate of their
country more in their hands than it is to be hoped will ever be the case
with our future representatives; and from the greatness of the prize at
stake, and the eagerness of the party which lost it, it may well be
supposed that the use of other means than force would not have been
scrupled. Yet we know by happy experience that the public trust was not
betrayed; nor has the purity of our public councils in this particular
ever suffered, even from the whispers of calumny.

Is the danger apprehended from the other branches of the federal
government? But where are the means to be found by the President, or the
Senate, or both? Their emoluments of office, it is to be presumed, will
not, and without a previous corruption of the House of Representatives
cannot, more than suffice for very different purposes; their private
fortunes, as they must allbe American citizens, cannot possibly be
sources of danger. The only means, then, which they can possess, will be
in the dispensation of appointments. Is it here that suspicion rests her
charge? Sometimes we are told that this fund of corruption is to be
exhausted by the President in subduing the virtue of the Senate. Now,
the fidelity of the other House is to be the victim. The improbability
of such a mercenary and perfidious combination of the several members of
government, standing on as different foundations as republican
principles will well admit, and at the same time accountable to the
society over which they are placed, ought alone to quiet this
apprehension. But, fortunately, the Constitution has provided a still
further safeguard. The members of the Congress are rendered ineligible
to any civil offices that may be created, or of which the emoluments may
be increased, during the term of their election. No offices therefore
can be dealt out to the existing members but such as may become vacant
by ordinary casualties: and to suppose that these would be sufficient to
purchase the guardians of the people, selected by the people themselves,
is to renounce every rule by which events ought to be calculated, and to
substitute an indiscriminate and unbounded jealousy, with which all
reasoning must be vain. The sincere friends of liberty, who give
themselves up to the extravagancies of this passion, are not aware of
the injury they do their own cause. As there is a degree of depravity in
mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,
so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain
portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the
existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.
Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of
some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference
would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for
self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can
restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.