Federalist No.55

The Total Number Of The House Of Representatives

Wednesday, February 13, 1788

James Madison


55.1

The new United States Constitution stipulated that its legislative branch should represent states with sixty-five men. In this first paper on the subject of the total number of representatives in the House, Madison identifies four arguments made against the constitution on this matter. They are:

  1. That so few representatives would be less trustworthy than a larger body;
  2. They would not have a good knowledge of the local concerns of their constituents;
  3. That they would be from a class of citizens out of touch with the concerns of the many and more likely concerned with their own power;
  4. That the House would become less representative over time as the population increased.
55.2

Madison addresses some of these concerns with a few different arguments. First, is that there is no agreed upon formula for the number of representatives in proportion to the population. Madison uses the figures from state legislatures to show that each state had solved this problem on their own, and that there were huge disparities between states. In other words, there is no natural and right ratio demonstrated through practice that the constitution should adhere to.

55.3

Madison rejects the notion that different states should be apportioned different ratios, arguing that arithmetical principles would in time elevate the representation of some states to thousands, while others would only have seven or eight members. Instead, Madison is more concerned with addressing the intention of the House of Representatives rather than settling on a number that would please some and not others:

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 the multitude.
55.4

The discussion over the numbers in the House, Madison is pointing out, is really a compromise between tyranny and mob rule. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob Madison quips, suggesting that simply increasing the representation is no panacea against the fear that so small a number cannot be safely trusted with so much power.

55.5

The sixty-five representatives is the small number to which Madison refers. It was an initial number, to be raised after another census in the first three years of the constitution, and thereafter revised every ten years. Madison calculates that this would give four hundred representatives within fifty years. (Of course, the total number in the House of Representatives was later limited to 435 members, apportioned to the states through census). Interestingly, Madison refers to the Three-Fifths Compromise in this paper, in which only three in every five slaves were counted for the purposes of representation. In the previous Federalist Paper, Madison suggested a two fifths compromise.

55.6

The remainder of the paper addresses the concern that too small a number of representatives in the House will potentially lead to corruption, collusion or even tyranny. He makes three key arguments about this, all related to character: the character of the people of America; the character of the representatives; and the character of republican government.

The People

55.7

Madison argues that the people of America, especially since they have just fought a war to escape tyrannous rule, would be unlikely to vote for men of poor characters who would scheme against them, nor would they continue to vote for their representation every two years if this was shown to be their character.

The Representatives

55.8

Madison suggests that the same applies to America’s leaders. That after the War of Independence, there is no mood for tyranny and that finding sixty-five men whose intentions leaned towards tyranny is not a realistic scenario. He also uses the example of their leaders prior to this constitution and during the war, who were not corrupted by foreign wealth and fought for the ideals of American independence. He points out that in reality, those leaders had a greater potential for corruption or tyrannous behaviour than the proposed constitution would allow: they had longer periods in power (even though they were technically appointed year to year) and negotiated in secret even with foreign powers.

55.9

Added to this is the restrictions on civil offices open to representatives, thereby guarding against corruption through the benefit of offices and appointments.

Republican Government

55.10

Finally, Madison argues that republicanism is inherently an optimistic form of government. That while it recognises the weaknesses and vagaries of humanity, for which it sets in place safeguards, it also assumes qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Madison suggests that were human nature as corrupt as suggested by the worst fears of the anti-Federalists, there would not be 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.

21 October 2019