Federalist No.56

The Same Subject Continued

(The Total Number Of The House Of Representatives)

Saturday, February 16, 1788

James Madison


In Federalist No.55 Madison raised four criticisms against the makeup of the House of Representatives which he intended to address:

  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.

This paper addresses the second of those criticisms.


Madison identifies three key areas which would be necessary for a representative to have a good knowledge, in order to effectively represent their local constituents: Commerce, Taxation and the Militia.


Madison has little to say about commerce. In fact, this is the entirety of what he says: as far as this information relates to the laws and local situation of each individual State, a very few representatives would be sufficient vehicles of it to the federal councils.


He has most to say about taxation, although this argument could be taken as a general argument for the other two areas, Commerce and Militia: The observations made on the subject of taxation apply with greater force to the case of the militia, he states.


Madison argues that when State laws are framed for taxation, they are best done by representatives who know their regions well. Typically, States are divided into districts for the purposes of framing laws that meet the people’s needs. Madison argues that Federal representatives do not need this level of minute understanding for each State, since Federal laws will be based upon State laws and will try to accommodate them. Therefore, a reading of State legislation will be sufficient understanding for Federal representatives to frame their laws.


Second, he argues, representatives would be expected to be familiar with their own State issues and laws, which they are elected to represent at a Federal level. Not only this, but Federal representatives may have worked in their State legislature, or may even be concurrently serving as State and Federal representatives, thereby deepening their contribution at a Federal level.


Madison admits that Federal representatives will have much information to acquire concerning all the other States, but he also recognises that some States are advanced in their economies and large populations, while others are little more than a society of husbandmen. Madison correctly predicts that not only will these States increase in population and the complexity of their economies, but their legislative needs will also develop in kind. Along with this, by being part of a Union, States working together at a federal level will become more alike over time, than had their identities and laws developed in isolation. As a result, the States’ legislations will become more similar than different over time. He calls this an assimilating effect.


Madison ends with the example of House of Commons in Great Britain. He quotes some figures:


Madison’s argument is that the British Parliament is less representative than the proposed American model, and many of the representatives have less knowledge of the issues facing their own constituents and are more concerned with representing the interests of the executive magistrate. Yet Britain has prospered under this system Madison judges to be less representative than the American model. This is a reassurance, he reasons, that America’s House will be both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it.

27 October 2019