Federalist No.53

The Same Subject Continued

(The House Of Representatives)

Saturday, February 9, 1788

James Madison


Federalist 53 is devoted to the question of the appropriate length of terms for members of the House of Representatives. Madison quotes a current observation which he calls proverbial, to discuss the two year terms proposed for the House of Representatives: that where annual elections end, tyranny begins. Clearly, Madison was using this essay to answer anti-Federalist criticisms. To do this, Madison begins with two points: first, there is no natural law which shows a specific period of time in which elected representatives will succumb to the temptations of power; second, he points out that State constitutions have various periods of service in their constitutions, ranging from six months to two years in the case of South Carolina. He points out that South Carolinian representatives govern no worse than other state representatives, or that liberty is poorer in South Carolina.


To address the concern of tyranny Madison argues that there needs to be an understanding of the difference between legislative power and the power to amend the Constitution, which are not the same. The power to amend a term’s length is more concerning, he argues, than any specific length, per se. As an example, he uses the British parliament which introduced septennial terms to replace triennial elections, thereby giving its members four years longer than they had been elected to serve by the people. In America, he argues, lawmakers will not have the power to change the Constitution like this.


He next argues that it is advantageous for federal representatives to serve a two-year term rather than a one-year term. Madison reasons that the period of one year was an easy duration to point to when the need to limit terms was recognised. And while a one-year term may be appropriate in some States where the breadth and complexity of service was more limited than federal service, a longer period is justified at a federal level where members may be dealing with various State legislatures or even foreign bodies within the scope of their federal duties. Basically, Madison argues that a representative needs the time to build knowledge and experience to serve effectively. Added to this, it is not advantageous for too many representatives to be new to their position. Madison argues there is a danger that inexperienced representatives may fall into the snares that may be laid for them.


He makes two other arguments in the latter part of his essay. The first is less relevant today, given modern travel. He argues that a short term of office will make it more difficult for members living far from the centre of government to serve, due to the problems of travel and making arrangements for their personal affairs.


Secondly, Madison raises the issue of spurious elections: instances where a candidate has in some way gained a seat by corrupt means. Madison argues that the processes for identifying, investigating and overturning such an election would take long enough that a spurious candidate would have already achieved their ends by the time they were found out, leaving little time left to serve for a legitimate candidate. Madison argues that a two-year term would not only be fairer, but would make electoral corruption much less advantageous, and therefore less tempting.


For these reasons, Madison supports a two-year term for representatives in the House.

15 July 2019