Is America too big?

Since the 1970s, voter participation in the United States has hovered around 55% in presidential elections and around 37% in midterm elections. Historians, political scientists, grassroots organizers, campaign strategists and others have generally attributed this low rate of voter participation to the twentieth-century expansion of voting rights, candidates’ poor campaign strategies and voter apathy.

They may very well be on to something, but I think there’s another factor at work: many Americans believe that their votes don’t count, that the political class in Washington is unresponsive to perceived problems and that the choices given are often not choices but the famed “lesser of two evils.” What these Americans are unknowingly suggesting is that the central government is too big to represent the people, either collectively or individually. As Professor Donald Livingston said in a newly released video from The Abbeville Institute, “Size matters for a lawmaking body.” That’s something the founders were acutely aware of when they were drafting and ratifying the Constitution in the 1780s.

As late as September 1787, just days before its final approval at the Philadelphia Convention, drafts of the Constitution had the representative ratio in the House of Representatives set at 40,000 to 1. George Washington, the president of the convention, said that such a ratio did not secure “the rights and interests of the people” and suggested that it be reduced to 30,000 to 1. Washington’s recommendation was added to the final draft, but even that reduced number did not please several members of the ratifying conventions in the powerful states of Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.

New Yorker Melancton Smith remarked that such a ratio would exclude the “respectable yeomanry” from the government. George Clinton, one of the most powerful men in New York, thought that such a ratio opened the government to “the influence of corruption and the temptation to treachery.” In Pennsylvania, the minority opposed to ratification argued that the House of Representatives as designed in the Constitution was inadequate to handle the “sense and views of 3 or 4 millions of people diffused over so extensive a territory comprising such various climates, products, habits, interests and opinions.” And in Massachusetts, several men proposed that the ratio be dropped to 20,000 to 1 in order to secure good government.

These attacks warranted a response. James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 58 that there had to be a limit on the size of the legislative body or else “the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic.” His words have always been the standard defense for the set number of representatives in Washington today, codified by the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929. Madison’s defense is the most conspicuous but not the most interesting.

Proponents of the Constitution contended that a large representative body was unnecessary for the general government. Why? Because as James Wilson of Pennsylvania said in 1787 during his state’s ratifying convention, “In the general government, its objects are enumerated, and are not confined, in their causes or operations, to a county, or even to a single state.” Because the general government was intended to legislate for “general” purposes such as commerce and defense and leave all else to the states, and because its powers were circumscribed by the Constitution, the Congress did not need to understand “the situation of every county, town and district” in the United States. “To support, with vigor, a single government over the whole extent of the United States,” he said, “would demand a system of the most unqualified and the most unremitted despotism.” Francis Dana of Massachusetts simply opined that if the Constitution abolished the states and created a single consolidated government, then attacks on the representative ratio would be just, but because the general government “springs out of, and can alone be brought into existence by, the state governments,” there was no reason to fear a small representative body for enumerated, general purposes.