Is representative federal government possible? American colonists said no

Posted on September 27, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 in our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the transformation of American political understanding in the 13 colonies in the 1760s and 70s. We left off in part 2 talking about the impossibility of 1:1 political representation and Americans’ growing discomfort with the idea that the ever-increasing size and diversity (read new immigrants) of their population meant that the old days of towns being peopled by four generations of a dozen families, and governed pretty representationally by representatives of those families, were over. As we say in one post in our earlier series on the Federalist Papers:

The idea of equal numbers of Senators for all states, and proportional representation in the House did not pit Federalists and Anti-Federalists against each other. But the reality of defining “proportional representation” did. Anti-Federalists pointed out the impossibility of one person capably and honestly representing the wants and needs of 30,000 people. The Federalists replied that lowering the number (1 Rep for every 1,000 people, for example) would not solve the problem of one person representing multiple constituents—any time one person represents a group there is no way that person can fully represent their wants and needs unless that group is fully united. Since it is very rare for any group to be fully united, no representative can ever do justice to that group. But as usual, the Federalists used this flaw of human nature as a strength: the one thing that can give a Representative some authority to say that he accurately represents his many constituents is elections themselves. In elections, the people are forced to choose someone they think will do the best possible job representing their basic wants and needs. Not everyone will be happy, but the majority of the people will be satisfied, and if too many people are not satisfied, then they elect someone new. Elections will also force the people to focus their wants and needs into a few main issues, on which candidates will campaign. What the people really want most will come out during election campaigns, and the person who best represents what the people think is most important will go to the House.

The Federalists also pointed out, yet again, that the growing nation would soon have so many millions of citizens that it would be impossible to have 1:1 or even 1:1,000 or 1:100,000 representation in the House. The House had to be a figurative representation of the nation; it could not be a literal one.

This kind of thinking was over a decade away in the 1760s. It was the cauldron of political crisis that boiled through the 1760s and 1770s, and the Revolution it led to, that melted down traditional colonial thinking about government and reshaped it into virtual representation to Congress.

Part of that cauldron of crisis was the ever-stronger reaction against the wholesale rejection of virtual representation. This came mostly from Tories in America. Bailyn quotes one who complained that

…by the patriots’ reasoning, “every man, woman, boy, girl, child, infant, cow, horse, hog, dog, and cat who now live, or ever did live, or ever shall live in this province [must be] fully, freely, and sufficiently represented in this present glorious and august Provincial Congress.”

Traditionalists responded vigorously, insisting that the old American way of giving explicit, limited instructions to local reps in writing was the only way to avoid the trap of federal corruption. It’s really interesting to read how very, very strongly the majority of American colonists were against giving a federal government power. It could be Parliament in London, it could be Boston in Massachusetts, it could be Williamsburg in Virginia. Give a legislative body in one town a general mandate to make laws and it became suspect. (It’s also interesting to note that Americans did not feel this way about courts, and spent a great deal of time in their courts, persistently pursuing and appealing to higher and higher courts whenever possible.) Bailyn spends the earlier part of his book dissecting this fear of federal corruption in colonial America, and it’s fascinating to see him locate it ultimately in a fear of unchecked power that remained strong in America for centuries. It’s worth noting that it lives on today in a common hatred or disdain for the federal government in Washington, while the unchecked power of Wall Street is celebrated and protected by the same people who would dismantle Congress. Some unchecked powers are better, it seems, than others.

Giving reps explicit instructions from which they could not vary also underlined that politics was a job. Representatives were not young idealists who wanted to make a better nation. They were men chosen to get something specific–that bridge or mill–from an outside source and that was it. Politics were remorselessly practical. The idea that men in a legislature sought “the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole”, as Edmund Burke put it, was nonsense. Because it’s such a part of our Constitution and our political tradition as the United States, it’s hard for us to realize today that colonial Americans had very little sense of “common good”. A sense of politics serving humanity as a whole, of existing to provide liberty and justice for all, was hard-won from the cauldron of crisis. Until then, most American colonists agreed with Arthur Lee’s assessment that elected reps were “trustees for their constituents to transact for them the business of government… and for this service only the, like all other agents, were paid by their constituents”; Lee complained bitterly that these paid employees had come to find it “more advantageous to sell their voices in Parliament and [become] independent of the People.” [Bailyn 171]

So we have most Americans firm in the belief that reps are basically hired to do a specific job obtaining concrete items for their constituents in the colonial legislature, after which they return home as soon as possible. Reps were not to make decisions about philosophical issues concerning the greater good or the American colonies as a whole. They were not to make decisions about other towns, let alone other colonies. They were not “the representatives fo the whole kingdom” but of “a particular part.” They were not to know better than the people who elected them, but to be an invisible delivery system through which their electors’ voices were heard. They were, as James Wilson said, the “creatures” of their constituents”. [171]

Bailyn goes into the practical effects of this belief next, and we will go with him.

 

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