Article the first.... After the first enumeration required by the first Article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which, the proportion shall be regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less that one hundred Representatives, not less that one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, not more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.
This proposed amendment was passed by the Congress and proposed to the States, but it fell one state short of the requisite three-fourths needed to ratify it. We shall examine why in a moment, but its failure to be ratified means it is obscure to many in this day and age. Nevertheless, its prominence on the list of so many weighty amendments reveals the importance the Founding generation placed on erecting proper safeguards in the government structure to ensure the liberty and rights of society. While we are used to the federal government, especially the courts, championing and advancing the rights and freedoms of the people, the federal government was still unproven in 1787. Anti-Federalist fears were centered around the small size of the House of Representatives and the lack of a Bill of Rights that would explicitly remove certain areas from Congress' purview of legislation.
Probably the deepest Anti-Federalist objection to the Constitution was that the document took the skimming principle too far: Congress was too small, too rich, too "refined." Indeed, this structural concern underlay most of the Anti-Federalists' other arguments. Because the legislature was so small, the Anti-Federalists feared that only great men with reputations spanning wide geographic areas could secure election. [Amar 10-11]
So the Anti-Federalists fell squarely in line with the views of traditional replublicanism, classically expressed by Montesquieu:
It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.
In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected. [Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, Book 8, Ch. 16]
The Federalists knew that this was a legitimate concern, and Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay, famed authors of The Federalist Papers, devoted the first section of their work to this topic. Madison's Federalist No. 10 is today a great treatise on the implementation of a Republic over a great mass of land and people, but extensive republics were untried in the eighteenth century, and it was far from certain that the scheme as laid out in the new Constitution would work. So Madison sought a compromise with the Anti-Federalists and proposed his First Amendment that increased the size of the House from that prescribed in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution: "the Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand" constituents.
So if the proposed amendment would increase the size of the House and this was such a burning concern, why did the amendment fail to obtain ratification? According to Amar, several reasons present themselves:
- The amendment's mathematical formula made little sense and introduced too great of a complexity. The word "more" was strangely substituted for the word "less" in the last sentence of the amendment: "not more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons." Unless the U.S. population rose from 8 to 10 million in the first decade, this provision would have proved inconsistent with the requirement preceding in the same clause, that there "not be less than two hundred Representatives".
- What the amendment gave in the short-run - a larger House - it took away in the longer run. The final clause established a maximum on the House's size, rather than a minimum. Whether Madison purposefully slipped in this language to enforce a maximum size, we can only speculate. His original wording did include a maximum size, but Congress had rejected that idea. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to reintroduce the maximum principle once he was on the conference committee for the twelve proposed amendments. After all, Madison was quite clear of his philosophy on the proper size of a legislative body in Federalist No. 10:
It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects.
- Small state like Delaware (which ratified the ten amendments that did pass) might have been seeking to preserve the advantage a smaller House provided them. Since every state is guaranteed at least one Representative in the House, increasing the size of the House would have diluted the voting power of a small state.
Regardless, if Madison's First Amendment had become our First Amendment, it would be harder for us to miss the fact that the original Bill of Rights was more concerned with governmental structure than it was about individual and minority rights. If that had been the case, the Bill would begin and end (in the form of our Tenth Amendment) with articles unmistakeably added to deal with structural issues.