The New York Debates
In Convention, Poughkeepsie, June 17, 1788
Excerpted From Elliot’s Debates [Volume 2], which is available from the Library of Congress’s American Memory Historical Collections for the National Digital Library
The convention of the state of New York on the adoption of the federal Constitution began on June 17, 1788 and lasted about six weeks, during which time the merits of and concerns with the newly proposed Constitution were debated at length.
The question of determing the size of the House was such a contentious issue even then, that approximately 30% of the 85,000-word debate was devoted exclusively to that subject (based on a word count). The full text of this portion of the debate — regarding the size of the house — should be read by anyone seeking a fuller understanding of this issue.
In the debate, the principal advocate for a larger House of Representatives was Melancton Smith, while Alexander Hamilton argued stridently against the concerns raised by Melancton Smith. Below are some of the quotes from that debate.
Below are some of the concerns raised by Melancton Smith regarding the small size of the House of Representatives.
Leaving it to the discretion of the rulers to determine the number of representatives of the people is a power inconsistent with a free government:
“the first Congress that met might reduce the number below what it now is a power inconsistent with every principle of a free government, to leave it to the discretion of the rulers to determine the number of representatives of the people. There was no kind of security except in the integrity of the men who were entrusted; and if you have no other security, it is idle to contend about constitutions.” [Melancton Smith]
A smaller House is more susceptible to corruption:
There was another objection to the clause: if great affairs of government were trusted to few men, they would be more liable to corruption. Corruption, he knew, was unfashionable amongst us, but he supposed that Americans were like other men; and though they had hitherto displayed great virtues, still they were men; and therefore such steps should be taken as to prevent the possibility of corruption. We were now in that stage of society in which we could deliberate with freedom; how long it might continue, God only knew! Twenty years hence, perhaps, these maxims might become unfashionable. We already hear, said he, in all parts of the country, gentlemen ridiculing that spirit of patriotism, and love of liberty, which carried us through all our difficulties in times of danger. When patriotism was already nearly hooted out of society, ought we not to take some precautions against the progress of corruption? [Melancton Smith]
Because men are unwilling to relinquish power, we can not expect the House of Representatives to enlarge its numbers:
“To me it appears clear, that the relative weight of influence of the different states will be the same, with the number of representatives at sixty-five as at six hundred, and that of the individual members greater; for each member’s share of power will decrease as the number of the House of Representatives increases. If, therefore, this maxim be true, that men are unwilling to relinquish powers which they once possess, we are not to expect the House of Representatives will be inclined to enlarge the numbers. The same motive will operate to influence the President and Senate to oppose the increase of the number of representatives; for, in proportion as the House of Representatives is augmented, they will feel their own power diminished. It is, therefore, of the highest importance that a suitable number of representatives should be established by the Constitution.” [Melancton Smith]
On the relative expense of securing liberty:
“The difference of expense, between supporting a House of Representatives sufficiently numerous, and the present proposed one, would be twenty or thirty thousand dollars per annum. The man who would seriously object to this expense, to secure his liberties, does not deserve to enjoy them. Besides, by increasing the number of representatives, we open a door for the admission of the substantial yeomanry of our country, who, being possessed of the habits of economy, will be cautious of imprudent expenditures, by which means a greater saving will be made of public money than is sufficient to support them.” [Melancton Smith]
The Representatives should resemble those they represent:
“To determine whether the number of representatives proposed by this Constitution is sufficient, it is proper to examine the qualifications which this house ought to possess, in order to exercise their power discreetly for the happiness of the people. The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives, is, that they resemble those they represent. They should be a true picture of the people, possess a knowledge of their circumstances and their wants, sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests. The knowledge necessary for the representative of a free people not only comprehends extensive political and commercial information, such as is acquired by men of refined education, who have leisure to attain to high degrees of improvement, but it should also comprehend that kind of acquaintance with the common concerns and occupations of the people, which men of the middling class of life are, in general, more competent to than those of a superior class.” [Melancton Smith]
On the importance of middle class participation in the House:
“But I may be asked, Would you exclude the first class in the community from any share in legislation? I answer, By no means. They would be factious, discontented, and constantly disturbing the government. It would also be unjust. They have their liberties to protect, as well as others, and the largest share of property. But my idea is, that the Constitution should be so framed as to admit this class, together with a sufficient number of the middling class to control them. You will then combine the abilities and honesty of the community, a proper degree of information, and a disposition to pursue the public good. A representative body, composed principally of respectable yeomanry, is the best possible security to liberty. When the interest of this part of the community is pursued, the public good is pursued, because the body of every nation consists of this class, and because the interest of both the rich and the poor are involved in that of the middling class.” [Melancton Smith]
On the greater risk of corruption in a small House:
“In so small a number of representatives, there is great danger from corruption and combination. A great politician has said that every man has his price. I hope this is not true in all its extent; but I ask the gentleman to inform me what government there is in which it has not been practised.” [Melancton Smith]
The size of the House and liberty:
“We certainly ought to fix, in the Constitution, those things which are essential to liberty. If any thing falls under this description, it is the number of the legislature. To say, as this gentleman does, that our security is to depend upon the spirit of the people, who will be watchful of their liberties, and not suffer them to be infringed, is absurd. It would equally prove that we might adopt any form of government. I believe, were we to create a despot, he would not immediately dare to act the tyrant; but it would not be long before he would destroy the spirit of the people, or the people would destroy him.” [Melancton Smith]
The gradual deprivation of the people in sharing in the government:
“If this government becomes oppressive, it will be by degrees: it will aim at its end by disseminating sentiments of government opposite to republicanism, and proceed from step to step in depriving the people of a share in the government.” [Melancton Smith]
On the size of the House vs. the size of Government:
“It appears to me that, had economy been a motive for making the representation small, it might have operated more properly in leaving out some of the offices which this Constitution requires. I am sensible that a great many of the common people, who do not reflect, imagine that a numerous representation involves a great expense; but they are not aware of the real security it gives to an economical management in all the departments of government.” [Melancton Smith]
On the desire of the small states to minimize the number of Representatives:
The Hon. Mr. SMITH… said it appeared to him probable that it would be the interest of the state having the least number of inhabitants to make its whole number the measure of the representation; that it would be the interest of Delaware, supposing she has forty thousand, and consequently only one vote, to make this whole number the ratio; so if she had fifty thousand, or any number under sixty thousand. The interest also of some other of the small states would correspond with hers; and thus the representation would be reduced in proportion to the increase of Delaware. He still insisted that the number of representatives might be diminished. [Melancton Smith]
The people would not be oppressed by a government’s “not doing”:
He would make one observation more upon the gentleman’s idea of corruption. His reasoning, he said, went only to prove that the present Congress might be restrained from doing good by the willful absence of two or three members. It was rare, he said, that the people were oppressed by a government’s not doing; and little danger to liberty could flow from that source. [Melancton Smith]
Below are some of the statements made by Alexander Hamilton in defense of the size of the House of Representatives.
The promise of a fixed ratio:
“One representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants is fixed as the standard of increase; till, by the natural course of population, it shall become necessary to limit the ratio.” [Alexander Hamilton]
The promise that the House would always grow with the population, and that the small states’ interest in limiting it:
“On one hand, it ought to be considered that a small number will act with more facility, system, and decision; on the other, that a large one may enhance the difficulty of corruption. The Congress is to consist, at first, of ninety-one members. This, to a reasonable man, may appear as near the proper medium as any number whatever, at least for the present. There is one source of increase, also, which does not depend upon any constructions of the Constitution; it is the creation of new states. Vermont, Kentucky, and [Tennessee], will probably become independent. New members of the Union will also be formed from the unsettled tracts of western territory.”
“These must be represented, and will all contribute to swell the federal legislature. If the whole number in the United States be, at present, three millions, as is commonly supposed, according to the ratio of one for thirty thousand, we shall have, on the first census, a hundred representatives. In ten years, thirty more will be added; and in twenty-five years, the number will be double. Then, sir, we shall have two hundred, if the increase goes on in the same proportion. The Convention of Massachusetts, who made the same objections, have fixed upon this number as the point to which they chose to limit the representation. But can we pronounce, with certainty, that it will not be expedient to go beyond this number? We cannot. Experience alone must determine. This matter may, with more safety, be left to the discretion of the legislature, as it will be the interest of the large and increasing states of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, &c., to augment the representation. Only Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Maryland, can be interested in limiting it. We may, therefore, safely calculate upon a growing representation, according to the advance of population, and the circumstances of the country.” [Alexander Hamilton]
More assurances regarding the continued growth of the House:
“At present we have three millions of people; in twenty-five years, we shall have six millions; and in forty years, nine millions. And this is a short period, as it relates to the existence of states. Here, then, according to the ratio of one for thirty thousand, we shall have, in forty years, three hundred representatives. If this be true, and if this be a safe representation, why be dissatisfied?” [Alexander Hamilton]
The promise that a rich man would be no more eligible than the poor:
“Does the new government render a rich man more eligible than a poor one? No. It requires no such qualification. It is bottomed on the broad and equal principle of your state constitution.” [Alexander Hamilton]
Taxation & representation:
“The subject on which this argument of a small representation has been most plausibly used, is taxation. As to internal taxation, in which the difficulty principally rests, it is not probable that any general regulation will originate in the national legislature.” [Alexander Hamilton]
State legislatures as powerful guardians of the people’s rights:
“Sir, the most powerful obstacle to the members of Congress betraying the interest of their constituents, is the state legislatures themselves, who will be standing bodies of observation, possessing the confidence of the people, jealous of federal encroachments, and armed with every power to check the first essays of treachery. They will institute regular modes of inquiry. The complicated domestic attachments, which subsist between the state legislators and their electors, will ever make them vigilant guardians of the people’s rights.” [Alexander Hamilton]
The promise of the Federal government’s limited penetration of domestic life precludes the need for a larger House:
“The powers of the new government are general, and calculated to embrace the aggregate interests of the Union, and the general interest of each state, so far as it stands in relation to the whole.” [Alexander Hamilton]
“Were the laws of the Union to new-model the internal police of any state; were they to alter, or abrogate at a blow, the whole of its civil and criminal institutions; were they to penetrate the recesses of domestic life, and control, in all respects, the private conduct of individuals,—there might be more force in the objection; and the same Constitution, which was happily calculated for one state, might sacrifice the welfare of another.” [Alexander Hamilton]
John Williams on the need for a larger House.
“In forming a constitution for a free country like this, the greatest care should be taken to define its powers, and guard against an abuse of authority. The constitution should be so formed as not to swallow up the state governments: the general government ought to be confined to certain national objects; and the states should retain such powers as concern their own internal police. We should consider whether or not this system is so formed, as, directly or indirectly, to annihilate the state governments. If so, care should be taken to check it in such a manner as to prevent this effect. Now, sir, with respect to the clause before us, I agree with the gentlemen from Albany and Duchess, who spoke yesterday. The number of representatives is, in my opinion, too small to resist corruption. Sir, how guarded is our state Constitution on this head! The number of the Senate and House of Representatives proposed in the Constitution does not surpass those of our state. How great the disparity, when compared with the aggregate number of the United States! The history of representation in England, from which we have taken our model, is briefly this: Before the institution of legislating by deputies, the whole free part of the community usually met for that purpose: when this became impracticable by increase of numbers, the people were divided into districts, from each of which was sent a number of deputies, for a complete representation of the various orders of the citizens within them. Can it be supposed that six men can be a complete representation of the various orders of the people of this state?”
John Lansing on the imprudence of trusting a matter of such “infinite importance” to possibilities or the “uncertain operations of interest.”
“…in the course of the observations made on the paragraph under consideration, it had been shown that the democratic branch ought to possess the feelings of the people, and be above corruption. It was, therefore, with propriety contended that the House of Representatives ought to be large. This had been objected to, he said, because it was difficult to ascertain the precise number proper for this end. But though we could not always hit the exact medium, yet we could generally avoid the extremes. Allowing that it was the interest of the larger states to increase the representation, yet it would be imprudent to trust a matter of such infinite importance to possibilities, or the uncertain operations of interest. …we had it now in our power to fix and provide for the operations of this government; and we ought to embrace the opportunity.”
“What, then, is to control the general government? If I understand the gentlemen right, they grant that, by the plain Construction of the clause, Congress may fix the ratio as high as they please: if so, they will have no other control than the precarious operation of interest.”
The full text of the debates can be found at The Debates in the Convention of the State of New Your, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (from Elliot’s Debates).