John Parillo On: Federalist 52 and 53

It is worth remembering that “The People’s House” is the only branch of our government that was designed to be directly elected by the people. Senators and the president were to be chosen by the various state legislatures in order to keep those branches from being too beholden to direct democracy, a condition that our founders rightly feared. Madison uses Federalist 52 to discuss the nature of this body.

While the founders did not trust democracy for the same reason as Plato and Aristotle, they recognized that, for the new constitution to be a republican government, the people must have some direct voice because “right of suffrage is very justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government.[1] The states would likely object to more direct voting, and they would absolutely not accept “one uniform rule” for how to conduct elections. The Constitution clearly leaves the process for conducting elections to the individual states with no federal involvement. The only limits the proposed constitution places on representatives of the states are that the individual be at least 25 years of age, a citizen for seven years, a resident of the state that they represent, and not an officeholder in any other capacity in the United States.

In order to ensure that the House of representatives remains beholden to the citizens, the founders specified that elections be held biannually. The founders specified this interval because other representative bodies in history had a habit of deciding the length of terms in ways that limited turnover. Madison cites the British House of Commons as an example, where the shortest term ever agreed upon was three years. If three years was good enough for the British, then the proposed two-year cycle would be even better. By keeping the cycle short, the founders sought to “extend the influence of the people” on that particular branch. Again, we see here that the concept of people serving term after term in the House was never the intent of our founders. The anticipated turnover would be critical in maintaining the republican form of our government because “the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration”.

Federalist 53 continues to explore the people’s house of representatives and Madison uses the variation in terms of the various state legislatures for comparison. He points out that Connecticut and Rhode Island have very short terms, other states longer, but that they cannot say those with shorter or longer terms are better governed. In Britain, parliament used its legislative power to extend its term. The structure of the proposed constitution prevents that from happening by fixing terms in law. Madison warns “Where no Constitution, paramount to the government, either existed or could be obtained, no constitutional security, similar to that established in the United States, was to be attempted.”

In other words, governments had, until this point, reined supreme. They could make and change laws at their discretion. It took our founders to realize that this was a recipe for tyranny. For that to be avoided, the law must take precedence over the government, another concept that we owe to Aristotle. Much of the rest of this paper is dedicated to the idea that the compromise of two years is based on the need for legislators to gain some experience in order to be effective. There are arguments for and against and some, like the difficult of travel, have been mitigated with time. That said, Madison remains concerned that there be sufficient turnover in the house. Whatever the states decide, the one thing that must not happen is that representatives be re-elected “almost as a matter of course.” That would defeat the purpose of the people’s house.

Regardless of what method is used to select representatives, Madison points out that their opportunity for mischief would be limited. It is likely that the most difficult task this new body would face would be “the proper inauguration of the government and the primeval formation of a federal code” because it did not, as yet, exist. The writing of this first federal code might be difficult but further changes to the federal code would “every year become both easier and fewer” because the limited role of the federal government would not require a great deal of work.

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4 thoughts on “John Parillo On: Federalist 52 and 53”

  1. As to turnover in the House and while much has been talked about for term limits, my proposal would be TIME Limits, as in yearly elections. The pace of action is greater these days and more damage is done when one has two years to do it in. Yearly elections would serve the People better.

    Now, as to the number of reps. in the House, it’s extremely too small in number. We’re at almost 20 times less than the original design. But, 11,000 in the House might be too many, but 435 is far too little.

  2. For sure Maddison got this right, “It is likely that the most difficult task this new body would face would be “the proper inauguration of the government and the primeval formation of a federal code” because it did not, as yet, exist. ” – which turned into the deep state.

  3. but further changes to the federal code would “every year become both easier and fewer”

    if only that were true (the “fewer” part).

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