Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3

Document 18

Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention

4--5 June 1788Elliot 3:11--14, 29--35, 64

[4 June]

[Wilson Nicholas.] I come now, sir, to consider that part of the Constitution which fixes the number of representatives. It is first necessary for us to establish what the number of representatives is to be. At present it only consists of sixty-five; but let us consider that it is only to continue at that number till the actual enumeration shall be made, which is to be within three years after the first meeting of Congress; and that the number of representatives will be ascertained, and the proportion of taxes fixed, within every subsequent term of ten years. Till this enumeration be made, Congress will have no power to lay direct taxes: as there is no provision for this purpose, Congress cannot impose it; as direct taxation and representation are to be regulated by the enumeration there directed, therefore they have no power of laying direct taxes till the enumeration be actually made. I conceive no apportionment can be made before this enumeration, there being no certain data to go on. When the enumeration shall be made, what will be the consequence? I conceive there will be always one for every thirty thousand. Many reasons concur to lead me to this conclusion. By the Constitution, the allotment now made will only continue till the enumeration be made; and as a new enumeration will take place every ten years, I take it for granted that the number of representatives will be increased, according to the progressive increase of population, at every respective enumeration; and one for every thirty thousand will amount to one hundred representatives, if we compute the number of inhabitants to be only three millions in the United States, which is a very moderate calculation. The first intention was only to have one for every forty thousand, which was afterwards estimated to be too few, and, according to this proportion, the present temporary number is fixed; but as it now stands, we readily see that the proportion of representatives is sufficiently numerous to answer every purpose of federal legislation, and even soon to gratify those who wish for the greatest number. I take it that the number of representatives will be proportioned to the highest number we are entitled to; and that it never will be less than one for every thirty thousand. I formed this conclusion from the situation of those who will be our representatives. They are all chosen for two years; at the end of which term they are to depend on the people for their reëlection. This dependence will lead them to a due and faithful discharge of their duty to their constituents: the augmentation of their number will conciliate the affections of the people at large; for the more the representatives increase in number, the greater the influence of the people in the government, and the greater the chance of reëlection to the representatives.

But it has been said, that the Senate will not agree to any augmentation of the number of representatives. The Constitution will entitle the House of Representatives to demand it. Would the Senate venture to stand out against them? I think they would not, sir. Were they ready to recede from the evident sense of the Constitution, and grasp at power not thereby given them, they would be compelled to desist. But, that I may not be charged with urging suppositions, let us see what ground this stands upon, and whether there be any real danger to be apprehended. The first objection that I shall consider is, that, by paucity of numbers, they will be more liable to depart from their duty, and more subject to influence. I apprehend that the fewer the number of representatives, the freer the choice, and the greater the number of electors, the less liable to the unworthy acts of the candidates will they be; and thus their suffrage, being free, will probably fall on men of the most merit. The practice of that country, which is situated more like America than any other country in the world, will justify this supposition. The British House of Commons consists, I believe, of five hundred and fifty-eight members; yet the greater number of these are supposed to be under the undue influence of the crown. A single fact from the British history illustrates these observations,--viz., that there is scarcely an instance, for a century past, of the crown's exercising its undoubted prerogative of rejecting a bill sent up to it by the two houses of Parliament: it is no answer to say, that the king's influence is sufficient to prevent any obnoxious bills passing the two houses; there are many instances, in that period, not only of bills passing the two houses, but even receiving the royal assent, contrary to the private wish and inclination of the prince.

It is objected, however, as a defect in the Constitution, that it does not prohibit the House of Representatives from giving their powers, particularly that respecting the support &c., of armies, out of their hands for a longer term than two years. Here, I think, the enemies to the plan reason unfairly; they first suppose that Congress, from a love of power natural to all, will, in general, abuse that with which they are invested; and then they would make us apprehend that the House of Representatives, notwithstanding their love of power, (and it must be supposed as great in a branch of Congress as in the whole,) will give out of their hands the only check which can insure to them the continuance of the participation of the powers lodged in Congress in general. In England, there is no restraint of this kind on the Parliament; and yet there is no instance of a money bill being passed for a longer term than one year; the proposed plan, therefore, when it declares that no appropriation for the support of an army shall be made for a longer term than two years, introduces a check unknown to the English constitution, and one which will be found very powerful when we reflect that, if the House of Representatives could be prevailed on to make an appropriation for an army for two years, at the end of that time there will be a new choice of representatives. Thus I insist that security does not depend on the number of representatives: the experience of that country also shows that many of their counties and cities contain a greater number of souls than will be entitled to a representation in America; and yet the representatives chosen in those places have been the most strenuous advocates of liberty, and have exerted themselves in the defence of it, even in opposition to those chosen by much smaller numbers. Many of the senatorial districts in Virginia also contain a greater number of souls; and yet I suppose no gentleman within these walls will pay the senators chosen by them so poor a compliment as to attribute less wisdom and virtue to them than to the delegates chosen from single counties; and as there is greater probability that the electors in a large district will be more independent, so I think the representatives chosen in such districts will be more so too; for those who have sold themselves to their representatives will have no right to complain, if they, in their turn, barter away their rights and liberties; but those who have not themselves been bought, will never consent to be sold. Another objection made to the small number of representatives, is, that, admitting they were sufficient to secure their integrity, yet they cannot be acquainted with the local situation and circumstances of their constituents. When we attend to the object of their jurisdiction, we find this objection insupportable. Congress will superintend the great national interests of the Union. Local concerns are left to the state legislatures. When the members compare and communicate to one another their knowledge of their respective districts and states, their collective intelligence will sufficiently enable them to perform the objects of their cognizance. They cannot extend their influence or agency to any objects but those of a general nature; the representatives will, therefore, be sufficiently acquainted with the interests of their states, although chosen by large districts. As long as the people remain virtuous and uncorrupted, so long, we may fairly conclude, will their representatives, even at their present number, guard their interests, and discharge their duty with fidelity and zeal: when they become otherwise, no government can possibly secure their freedom.

. . . . .

Mr. George Mason. Mr. Chairman, whether the Constitution be good or bad, the present clause clearly discovers that it is a national government, and no longer a Confederation. I mean that clause which gives the first hint of the general government laying direct taxes. The assumption of this power of laying direct taxes does, of itself, entirely change the confederation of the states into one consolidated government. This power, being at discretion, unconfined, and without any kind of control, must carry every thing before it. The very idea of converting what was formerly a confederation to a consolidated government, is totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the state governments. Will the people of this great community submit to be individually taxed by two different and distinct powers? Will they suffer themselves to be doubly harassed? These two concurrent powers cannot exist long together; the one will destroy the other: the general government being paramount to, and in every respect more powerful than the state governments, the latter must give way to the former. Is it to be supposed that one national government will suit so extensive a country, embracing so many climates, and containing inhabitants so very different in manners, habits, and customs? It is ascertained, by history, that there never was a government over a very extensive country without destroying the liberties of the people: history also, supported by the opinions of the best writers, shows us that monarchy may suit a large territory, and despotic governments ever so extensive a country, but that popular governments can only exist in small territories. Is there a single example, on the face of the earth, to support a contrary opinion? Where is there one exception to this general rule? Was there ever an instance of a general national government extending over so extensive a country, abounding in such a variety of climates, &c., where the people retained their liberty? I solemnly declare that no man is a greater friend to a firm union of the American states than I am; but, sir, if this great end can be obtained without hazarding the rights of the people, why should we recur to such dangerous principles? Requisitions have been often refused, sometimes from an impossibility of complying with them; often from that great variety of circumstances which retards the collection of moneys; and perhaps sometimes from a wilful design of procrastinating. But why shall we give up to the national government this power, so dangerous in its nature, and for which its members will not have sufficient information? Is it not well known that what would be a proper tax in one state would be grievous in another? The gentleman who hath favored us with a eulogium in favor of this system, must, after all the encomiums he has been pleased to bestow upon it, acknowledge that our federal representatives must be unacquainted with the situation of their constituents. Sixty-five members cannot possibly know the situation and circumstances of all the inhabitants of this immense continent. When a certain sum comes to be taxed, and the mode of levying to be fixed, they will lay the tax on that article which will be most productive and easiest in the collection, without consulting the real circumstances or convenience of a country, with which, in fact, they cannot be sufficiently acquainted.

The mode of levying taxes is of the utmost consequence; and yet here it is to be determined by those who have neither knowledge of our situation, nor a common interest with us, nor a fellow-feeling for us. The subject of taxation differs in three fourths, nay, I might say with truth, in four fifths of the states. If we trust the national government with an effectual way of raising the necessary sums, it is sufficient: every thing we do further is trusting the happiness and rights of the people. Why, then, should we give up this dangerous power of individual taxation? Why leave the manner of laying taxes to those who, in the nature of things, cannot be acquainted with the situation of those on whom they are to impose them, when it can be done by those who are well acquainted with it? If, instead of giving this oppressive power, we give them such an effectual alternative as will answer the purpose, without encountering the evil and danger that might arise from it, then I would cheerfully acquiesce; and would it not be far more eligible? I candidly acknowledge the inefficacy of the Confederation; but requisitions have been made which were impossible to be complied with--requisitions for more gold and silver than were in the United States. If we give the general government the power of demanding their quotas of the states, with an alternative of laying direct taxes in case of non-compliance, then the mischief would be avoided; and the certainty of this conditional power would, in all human probability, prevent the application, and the sum necessary for the Union would be then laid by the states, by those who know how it can best be raised, by those who have a fellow-feeling for us. Give me leave to say, that the sum raised one way with convenience and ease, would be very oppressive another way. Why, then, not leave this power to be exercised by those who know the mode most convenient for the inhabitants, and not by those who must necessarily apportion it in such manner as shall be oppressive? With respect to the representation so much applauded, I cannot think it such a full and free one as it is represented; but I must candidly acknowledge that this defect results from the very nature of the government. It would be impossible to have a full and adequate representation in the general government; it would be too expensive and too unwieldy. We are, then, under the necessity of having this a very inadequate representation. Is this general representation to be compared with the real, actual, substantial representation of the state legislatures? It cannot bear a comparison. To make representation real and actual, the number of representatives ought to be adequate; they ought to mix with the people, think as they think, feel as they feel,--ought to be perfectly amenable to them, and thoroughly acquainted with their interest and condition. Now, these great ingredients are either not at all, or in a small degree, to be found in our federal representatives; so that we have no real, actual, substantial representation: but I acknowledge it results from the nature of the government. The necessity of this inconvenience may appear a sufficient reason not to argue against it; but, sir, it clearly shows that we ought to give power with a sparing hand to a government thus imperfectly constructed. To a government which, in the nature of things, cannot but be defective, no powers ought to be given but such as are absolutely necessary. There is one thing in it which I conceive to be extremely dangerous. Gentlemen may talk of public virtue and confidence; we shall be told that the House of Representatives will consist of the most virtuous men on the continent, and that in their hands we may trust our dearest rights. This, like all other assemblies, will be composed of some bad and some good men; and, considering the natural lust of power so inherent in man, I fear the thirst of power will prevail to oppress the people. What I conceive to be so dangerous, is the provision with respect to the number of representatives: it does not expressly provide that we shall have one for every thirty thousand, but that the number shall not exceed that proportion. The utmost that we can expect (and perhaps that is too much) is, that the present number shall be continued to us;--"the number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand." Now, will not this be complied with, although the present number should never be increased--nay, although it should be decreased? Suppose Congress should say that we should have one for every forty thousand; will not the Constitution be complied with?--for one for every forty thousand does not exceed one for every thirty thousand. There is a want of proportion that ought to be strictly guarded against. The worthy gentleman tells us that we have no reason to fear; but I always fear for the rights of the people. I do not pretend to inspiration; but I think it is apparent as the day, that the members will attend to local, partial interests, to prevent an augmentation of their number. I know not how they will be chosen, but, whatever be the mode of choosing, our present number will be ten; and suppose our state is laid off in ten districts,--those gentlemen who shall be sent from those districts will lessen their own power and influence in their respective districts if they increase their number; for the greater the number of men among whom any given quantum of power is divided, the less the power of each individual. Thus they will have a local interest to prevent the increase of, and perhaps they will lessen their own number. This is evident on the face of the Constitution: so loose an expression ought to be guarded against, for Congress will be clearly within the requisition of the Constitution, although the number of representatives should always continue what it is now, and the population of the country should increase to an immense number. Nay, they may reduce the number from sixty-five to one from each state, without violating the Constitution; and thus the number, which is not too small, would then be infinitely too much so. But my principal objection is, that the Confederation is converted to one general consolidated government, which, from my best judgment of it, (and which perhaps will be shown, in the course of this discussion, to be really well founded,) is one of the worst curses that can possibly befall a nation. Does any man suppose that one general national government can exist in so extensive a country as this? I hope that a government may be framed which may suit us, by drawing a line between the general and state governments, and prevent that dangerous clashing of interest and power, which must, as it now stands, terminate in the destruction of one or the other. When we come to the judiciary, we shall be more convinced that this government will terminate in the annihilation of the state governments: the question then will be, whether a consolidated government can preserve the freedom and secure the rights of the people.

If such amendments be introduced as shall exclude danger, I shall most gladly put my hand to it. When such amendments as shall, from the best information, secure the great essential rights of the people, shall be agreed to by gentlemen, I shall most heartily make the greatest concessions, and concur in any reasonable measure to obtain the desirable end of conciliation and unanimity. An indispensable amendment in this case is, that Congress shall not exercise the power of raising direct taxes till the states shall have refused to comply with the requisitions of Congress. On this condition it may be granted; but I see no reason to grant it unconditionally, as the states can raise the taxes with more ease, and lay them on the inhabitants with more propriety, than it is possible for the general government to do. If Congress hath this power without control, the taxes will be laid by those who have no fellow-feeling or acquaintance with the people. This is my objection to the article now under consideration. It is a very great and important one. I therefore beg gentlemen to consider it. Should this power be restrained, I shall withdraw my objections to this part of the Constitution; but as it stands, it is an objection so strong in my mind, that its amendment is with me a sine qua non of its adoption. I wish for such amendments, and such only, as are necessary to secure the dearest rights of the people.

Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman, it would give me great pleasure to concur with my honorable colleague in any conciliatory plan. The clause to which the worthy member alludes is only explanatory of the proportion which representation and taxation shall respectively bear to one another. The power of laying direct taxes will be more properly discussed, when we come to that part of the Constitution which vests that power in Congress. At present, I must endeavor to reconcile our proceedings to the resolution we have taken, by postponing the examination of this power till we come properly to it. With respect to converting the confederation to a complete consolidation, I think no such consequence will follow from the Constitution, and that, with more attention, we shall see that he is mistaken; and with respect to the number of representatives, I reconcile it to my mind, when I consider that it may be increased to the proportion fixed, and that, as it may be so increased, it shall, because it is the interest of those who alone can prevent it, who are representatives, and who depend on their good behavior for their reëlection. Let me observe, also, that, as far as the number of representatives may seem to be adequate to discharge their duty, they will have sufficient information from the laws of particular states, from the state legislatures, from their own experience, and from a great number of individuals; and as to our security against them, I conceive, sir, that the general limitation of their powers, and the general watchfulness of the states, will be a sufficient guard. As it is now late, I shall defer any further investigation till a more convenient time.

[5 June]

[Patrick Henry.] Remember, sir, that the number of our representatives is but ten, whereof six is a majority. Will those men be possessed of sufficient information? A particular knowledge of particular districts will not suffice. They must be well acquainted with agriculture, commerce, and a great variety of other matters throughout the continent; they must know not only the actual state of nations in Europe and America, the situations of their farmers, cottagers, and mechanics, but also the relative situations and intercourse of those nations. Virginia is as large as England. Our proportion of representatives is but ten men. In England they have five hundred and fifty-eight. The House of Commons, in England, numerous as they are, we are told, are bribed, and have bartered away the rights of their constituents: what, then, shall become of us? Will these few protect our rights? Will they be incorruptible? You say they will be better men than the English commoners. I say they will be infinitely worse men, because they are to be chosen blindfolded: their election (the term, as applied to their appointment, is inaccurate) will be an involuntary nomination, and not a choice.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, Document 18
The University of Chicago Press

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.

Easy to print version.