Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1

Document 20

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 2:§§ 572--80


§ 572. First; the principle of representation. The American people had long been in the enjoyment of the privilege of electing, at least, one branch of the legislature; and, in some of the colonies, of electing all the branches composing the legislature. A house of representatives, under various denominations, such as a house of delegates, a house of commons, or, simply, a house of representatives, emanating directly from, and responsible to, the people, and possessing a distinct and independent legislative authority, was familiar to all the colonies, and was held by them in the highest reverence and respect. They justly thought, that as the government in general should always have a common interest with the people, and be administered for their good; so it was essential to their rights and liberties, that the most numerous branch should have an immediate dependence upon, and sympathy with, the people. There was no novelty in this view. It was not the mere result of a state of colonial dependence, in which their jealousy was awake to all the natural encroachments of power in a foreign realm. They had drawn their opinions and principles from the practice of the parent country. They knew the inestimable value of the house of commons, as a component branch of the British parliament; and they believed, that it had at all times furnished the best security against the oppressions of the crown, and the aristocracy. While the power of taxation, of revenue, and of supplies, remained in the hands of a popular branch, it was difficult for usurpation to exist for any length of time without check; and prerogative must yield to that necessity, which controlled at once the sword and the purse. No reasoning, therefore, was necessary to satisfy the American people of the advantages of a house of representatives, which should emanate directly from themselves; which should guard their interests, support their rights, express their opinions, make known their wants, redress their grievances, and introduce a pervading popular influence throughout all the operations of the government. Experience, as well as theory, had settled it in their minds, as a fundamental principle of a free government, and especially of a republican government, that no laws ought to be passed without the co-operation and consent of the representatives of the people; and that these representatives should be chosen by themselves without the intervention of any other functionaries to intercept, or vary their responsibility.

§ 573. The principle, however, had been hitherto applied to the political organization of the state legislatures only; and its application to that of the federal government was not without some diversity of opinion. This diversity had not its origin in any doubt of the correctness of the principle itself, when applied to simple republics; but, the propriety of applying it to cases of confederated republics was affected by other independent considerations. Those, who might wish to retain a very large portion of state sovereignty, in its representative character, in the councils of the Union, would naturally desire to have the house of representatives elected by the state in its political character, as under the old confederation. Those, on the other hand, who wished to impart to the government a national character, would as naturally desire an independent election by the people themselves in their primary meetings. Probably these circumstances had some operation upon the votes given on the question in the convention itself. For it appears, that upon the original proposition in the convention, "That the members of the first branch of the national legislature ought to be elected by the people of the several states, six states voted for it, two against it, and two were divided. And upon a subsequent motion to strike out the word "people," and insert in its place the word "legislatures," three states voted in the affirmative and eight in the negative. At a subsequent period a motion, that the representatives should be appointed in such manner as the legislature of each state should direct, was negatived, six states voting in the affirmative, three in the negative, and one being divided; and the final vote in favour of an election by the people was decided by the vote of nine states in the affirmative, one voting in the negative, and one being divided. The result was not therefore obtained without much discussion and argument; though at last an entire unanimity prevailed. It is satisfactory to know, that a fundamental principle of public liberty has been thus secured to ourselves and our posterity, which will for ever indissolubly connect the interests of the people with the interests of the Union. Under the confederation, though the delegates to congress might have been elected by the people, they were, in fact, in all the states except two, elected by the state legislature.

§ 574. We accordingly find, that in the section under consideration, the house of representatives is required to be composed of representatives chosen by the people of the several states. The choice, too, is to be made immediately by them; so that the power is direct; the influence direct; and the responsibility direct. If any intermediate agency had been adopted, such as a choice through an electoral college, or by official personages, or by select and specially qualified functionaries pro hac vice, it is obvious, that the dependence of the representative upon the people, and the responsibility to them, would have been far less felt, and far more obstructed. Influence would have naturally grown up with patronage; and here, as in many other cases, the legal maxim would have applied, causa proxima, non remota, spectatur. The select body would have been at once the patrons and the guides of the representative; and the people themselves have become the instruments of subverting their own rights and power.

§ 575. The indirect advantages from this immediate agency of the people in the choice of their representatives are of incalculable benefit, and deserve a brief mention in this place, because they furnish us with matter for most serious reflection, in regard to the actual operations and influences of republican governments. In the first place, the right confers an additional sense of personal dignity and duty upon the mass of the people. It gives a strong direction to the education, studies, and pursuits of the whole community. It enlarges the sphere of action, and contributes, in a high degree, to the formation of the public manners, and national character. It procures to the common people courtesy and sympathy from their superiors, and diffuses a common confidence, as well as a common interest, through all the ranks of society. It awakens a desire to examine, and sift, and debate all public proceedings, and thus nourishes a lively curiosity to acquire knowledge, and, at the same time, furnishes the means of gratifying it. The proceedings and debates of the legislature; the conduct of public officers from the highest to the lowest; the character and conduct of the executive and his ministers; the struggles, intrigues, and conduct of different parties; and the discussion of the great public measures and questions, which agitate and divide the community, are not only freely canvassed, and thus improve and elevate conversation; but they gradually furnish the mind with safe and solid materials for judgment upon all public affairs; and check that impetuosity and rashness, to which sudden impulses might otherwise lead the people, when they are artfully misguided by selfish demagogues, and plausible schemes of change.

§ 576. But this fundamental principle of an immediate choice by the people, however important, would alone be insufficient for the public security, if the right of choice had not many auxiliary guards and accompaniments. It was indispensable, secondly, to provide for the qualifications of the electors. It is obvious, that even when the principle is established, that the popular branch of the legislature shall emanate directly from the people, there still remains a very serious question, by whom and in what manner the choice shall be made. It is a question vital to the system, and in a practical sense decisive, as to the durability and efficiency of the powers of government. Here, there is much room for doubt, and ingenious speculation, and theoretical inquiry; upon which different minds may arrive, and indeed have arrived, at very different results. To whom ought the right of suffrage, in a free government, to be confided? Or, in other words, who ought to be permitted to vote in the choice of the representatives of the people? Ought the right of suffrage to be absolutely universal? Ought it to be qualified and restrained? Ought it to belong to many, or few? If there ought to be restraints and qualifications, what are the true boundaries and limits of such restraints and qualifications?

§ 577. These questions are sufficiently perplexing and disquieting in theory; and in the practice of different states, and even of free states, ancient as well as modern, they have assumed almost infinite varieties of form and illustration. Perhaps they do not admit of any general, much less of any universal answer, so as to furnish an unexceptionable and certain rule for all ages and all nations. The manners, habits, institutions, characters, and pursuits of different nations; the local position of the territory, in regard to other nations; the actual organizations and classes of society; the influences of peculiar religious, civil, or political institutions; the dangers, as well as the difficulties, of the times; the degrees of knowledge or ignorance pervading the mass of society; the national temperament, and even the climate and products of the soil; the cold and thoughtful gravity of the north; and the warm and mercurial excitability of tropical or southern regions; all these may, and probably will, introduce modifications of principle, as well as of opinion, in regard to the right of suffrage, which it is not easy either to justify or to overthrow.

§ 578. The most strenuous advocate for universal suffrage has never yet contended, that the right should be absolutely universal. No one has ever been sufficiently visionary to hold, that all persons, of every age, degree, and character, should be entitled to vote in all elections of all public officers. Idiots, infants, minors, and persons insane or utterly imbecile, have been, without scruple, denied the right, as not having the sound judgment and discretion fit for its exercise. In many countries, persons guilty of crimes have also been denied the right, as a personal punishment, or as a security to society. In most countries, females, whether married or single, have been purposely excluded from voting, as interfering with sound policy, and the harmony of social life. In the few cases, in which they have been permitted to vote, experience has not justified the conclusion, that it has been attended with any correspondent advantages, either to the public, or to themselves. And yet it would be extremely difficult, upon any mere theoretical reasoning, to establish any satisfactory principle, upon which the one half of every society has thus been systematically excluded by the other half from all right of participating in government, which would not, at the same time, apply to and justify many other exclusions. If it be said, that all men have a natural, equal, and unalienable right to vote, because they are all born free, and equal; that they all have common rights and interests entitled to protection, and therefore have an equal right to decide, either personally or by their chosen representatives, upon the laws and regulations, which shall control, measure, and sustain those rights and interests; that they cannot be compelled to surrender, except by their free consent, what, by the bounty and order of Providence, belongs to them in common with all their race;--what is there in these considerations, which is not equally applicable to females, as free, intelligent, moral, responsible beings, entitled to equal rights, and interests, and protection, and having a vital stake in all the regulations and laws of society? And if an exception, from the nature of the case, could be felt in regard to persons, who are idiots, infants, and insane; how can this apply to persons, who are of more mature growth, and are yet deemed minors by the municipal law? Who has an original right to fix the time and period of pupilage, or minority? Whence was derived the right of the ancient Greeks and Romans to declare, that women should be deemed never to be of age, but should be subject to perpetual guardianship? Upon what principle of natural law did the Romans, in after times, fix the majority of females, as well as of males, at twenty-five years? Who has a right to say, that in England it shall, for some purposes, be at fourteen, for others, at seventeen, and for all, at twenty-one years; while, in France, a person arrives, for all purposes, at majority, only at thirty years, in Naples at eighteen, and in Holland at twenty-five? Who shall say, that one man is not as well qualified, as a voter, at eighteen years of age, as another is at twenty-five, or a third at forty; and far better, than most men are at eighty? And if any society is invested with authority to settle the matter of the age and sex of voters, according to its own view of its policy, or convenience, or justice, who shall say, that it has not equal authority, for like reasons, to settle any other matter regarding the rights, qualifications, and duties of voters?

§ 579. The truth seems to be, that the right of voting, like many other rights, is one, which, whether it has a fixed foundation in natural law or not, has always been treated in the practice of nations, as a strictly civil right, derived from, and regulated by each society, according to its own circumstances and interests. It is difficult, even in the abstract, to conceive how it could have otherwise been treated. The terms and conditions, upon which any society is formed and organized, must essentially depend upon the will of those, who are associated; or at least of those, who constitute a majority, actually controlling the rest. Originally, no man could have any right but to act for himself; and the power to choose a chief magistrate or other officer to exercise dominion or authority over others, as well as himself, could arise only upon a joint consent of the others to such appointment; and their consent might be qualified exactly according to their own interests, or power, or policy. The choice of representatives to act in a legislative capacity is not only a refinement of much later stages of actual association and civilization, but could scarcely occur, until the society had assumed to itself the right to introduce such institutions, and to confer such privileges, as it deemed conducive to the public good, and to prohibit the existence of any other. In point of fact, it is well known, that representative legislative bodies, at least in the form now used, are the peculiar invention of modern times, and were unknown to antiquity. If, then, every well organized society has the right to consult for the common good of the whole, and if, upon the principles of natural law, this right is conceded by the very union of society, it seems difficult to assign any limit to this right, which is compatible with the due attainment of the end proposed. If, therefore, any society shall deem the common good and interests of the whole society best promoted under the particular circumstances, in which it is placed, by a restriction of the right of suffrage, it is not easy to state any solid ground of objection to its exercise of such an authority. At least, if any society has a clear right to deprive females, constituting one half of the whole population, from the right of suffrage, (which, with scarcely an exception, has been uniformly maintained,) it will require some astuteness to find upon what ground this exclusion can be vindicated, which does justify, or at least excuse, many other exclusions. Government (to use the pithy language of Mr. Burke) has been deemed a practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind, and not to furnish out a spectacle of uniformity to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians.

§ 580. Without laying any stress upon this theoretical reasoning, which is brought before the reader, not so much because it solves all doubts and objections, as because it presents a view of the serious difficulties attendant upon the assumption of an original and unalienable right of suffrage, as originating in natural law, and independent of civil law, it may be proper to state, that every civilized society has uniformly fixed, modified, and regulated the right of suffrage for itself, according to its own free will and pleasure. Every constitution of government in these United States has assumed, as a fundamental principle, the right of the people of the state to alter, abolish, and modify the form of its own government, according to the sovereign pleasure of the people. In fact, the people of each state have gone much farther, and settled a far more critical question, by deciding, who shall be the voters, entitled to approve and reject the constitution framed by a delegated body under their direction. In the adoption of no state constitution has the assent been asked of any but the qualified voters; and women, and minors, and other persons, not recognised as voters by existing laws, have been studiously excluded. And yet the constitution has been deemed entirely obligatory upon them, as well as upon the minority, who voted against it. From this it will be seen, how little, even in the most free of republican governments, any abstract right of suffrage, or any original and indefeasible privilege, has been recognised in practice. If this consideration does not satisfy our minds, it at least will prepare us to presume, that there may be an almost infinite diversity in the established right of voting, without any state being able to assert, that its own mode is exclusively founded in natural justice, or is most conformable to sound policy, or is best adapted to the public security. It will teach us, that the question is necessarily complex and intricate in its own nature, and is scarcely susceptible of any simple solution, which shall rigidly apply to the circumstances and conditions, the interests and the feelings, the institutions and the manners of all nations. What may best promote the public weal, and secure the public liberty, and advance the public prosperity in one age or nation, may totally fail of similar results under local, physical, or moral predicaments essentially different.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 20
The University of Chicago Press

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.

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