Skip to comments.George Mason and our Aristocratic House of Representatives.
Posted on 07/31/2012 10:58:22 AM PDT by Jacquerie
On June 11th 1788 at the Virginia Ratifying Convention to the Constitution of the United States, Anti-Federalist George Mason remarked in reference to the House of Representatives, They must form an aristocracy, and will not regard the interest of the people. Experience tells us that men pay most regard to those whose rank and situation are similar to their own. Certainly he did not mean the British definition of aristocracy, of artificial distinctions, where men were granted special rights, duties and privileges along perhaps with land from a centuries long gone monarch. What did Mr. Mason refer to?
In the revolutionary, radical Whig, American vernacular he meant two groups of men within an indistinct and fluid (outside of Virginia) order, the order of the natural aristocracy. This natural aristocracy forms in all free societies. Men of various levels of intelligence, ability, daring and sometimes inherited wealth, distinguish themselves from others by their wealth and property. By their distinction they are asked to perform civic duties in perhaps their church, charitable groups, and commonly public office. While naturally occurring, they were not always appreciated and were sometimes reviled.
The first group was typified in Virginia, where tobacco Planters could hardly avoid civic responsibilities. Virginia was governed since early colonial times by those who owned the lands and were scrappy enough to hold on to them and prosper. When fellow Planters thought one of their own possessed the requisite maturity and judgment, he would be asked to run for a seat in the House of Burgesses. Honor and law required he serve if elected, no matter his objections.
The second were, in general terms the businessmen, professional men, merchants and ship owners of the northern States, such as John Hancock, John Adams, James Bowdoin, Benjamin Franklin.
Americans instinctively chose men of means and local stature to govern them. Where a respected, small farmer could be elected town commissioner, he would be hard pressed to be away from his farm for a typical 30-90 day session of the State legislature. There were no distinct lines between the subsistence farmer and the wealthy Planter or ship owner, but more of a gradation, a sliding scale between the two that composed our society of voluntary civil and religious interactions. The further up the political scale from town to State levels, the more wealth was required just to deal with the personal inconvenience and burdens of the office. Those who rose in a republic, it was assumed, must first acquire the attributes of at least some social superiority wealth, education, experience and connections - before they could be considered for political leadership. Yet, should higher government be turned over solely to such men, only to those who could afford the office at the permanent displacement of those who could not?
Pennsylvania did not think so. Among the features of its 1776 Constitution as well as the Articles of Confederation was rotation in office, i.e. term limits which were designed to prevent an aristocracy from taking hold and to regularly make room for others of equal or perhaps superior merit. Let men remain in power long enough and they will regard the offices as their own. Rotation in office was an idea discussed and unfortunately rejected at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Term limits for elected officials would have largely neutralized Mr. Masons concerns.
So, in George Masons view, what clauses in the Constitution lent themselves toward an aristocratical government? To my surprise, it wasnt the absence of term limits.
It was the minimum of 30,000 people per Congressman of Article I, Section 2. It meant that ONLY men of means could afford to grip and grin, mix and mingle with enough people to achieve enough name recognition with any sizeable portion of their district. The average man whom the Federalists said were to be represented in the House of Reps would not have the resources. As time went on, there was no theoretical limit by the Constitution as to how many people would be represented in each district, and Mr. Mason assumed a practical, political aristocracy would grow.
George Mason was a Virginia delegate to the Federal Convention in Philadelphia over the summer of 1787. He arrived a week before it commenced and was present as his delegation drafted the Virginia Plan, which was the framework for what more or less emerged as our Constitution four months later. The 62 year old Planter was no wallflower. On May 30th he supported discarding the Articles of Confederation and forming a government that acted upon individuals instead of just the States. It was important that the Constitution provide no less carefully for the rights and happiness of the lowest than of the highest orders of Citizens." It was of primary importance that Congressmen should relate to their constituents, think as they think, & feel as they feel; and that for these purposes (should) be residents among them. In short, Mr. Mason wholly supported republican, representative government.
Late in the Convention, as his opposition to the Constitution grew and became evident to others, he said, In the House of Representatives there is not the substance but the shadow only of representation; which can never produce proper information in the legislature, or inspire confidence in the people; the laws will therefore be generally made by men little concerned in, and unacquainted with their effects and consequences. This government will commence a moderate aristocracy: it is at present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a monarchy, or a corrupt, tyrannical and oppressive aristocracy; it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other.
America had to have a popularly elected house in its legislature. Mr. Mason feared districts composed of too many constituents would dilute the average mans input to the point that only the wealthy would run for office, disregard the peoples interests, conduct themselves independent of their constituents and take on the trappings and attitude of those accustomed to lord over others. What was his solution for a nation expected to grow to hundreds of millions? He never said, yet nonetheless predicted the outcome of increasingly large Congressional districts.
Each Congressmen now represents over 700,000 Americans and illegal aliens. Despite oppressive laws, horrible and unconstitutional regulations from the EPA, Homeland Security, and illegal, unconstitutional, impeachable offenses by Obama, the average reelection rate of these people is over 95%.
Awesome per usual.
Thanks for the ping. That is a good read. I don’t know what the answer is.
The short of it is that while the Virginia Anti-Federalists were not very adept at offering many decent solutions to the problems they found in the Constitution, they actually did in this case, near the close of the VA Convention in their proposed Bill of Rights and Amendments.
Sloppy research on my part. Sorry for mostly wasting your time. See below.
Proposed Bill of Rights: 5th. “That the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government should be separate and distinct; and, that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression by feeling and participating the public burdens, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into the mass of the people, and the vacancies be supplied by certain and regular elections, in which all or any part of the former members to be eligible or ineligible, as the rules of the Constitution of government, and the laws, shall direct.”
Proposed Amendment: #2 “That there shall be one representative for every thirty thousand, according to the enumeration or census mentioned in the Constitution, until the whole number of representatives amounts to two hundred; after which, that number shall be continued or increased, as Congress shall direct, upon the principles fixed in the Constitution, by apportioning the representatives of each state to some greater number of people, from time to time, as population increases.”
In regards to balancing the power of the people, their representatives, and the senate:
(nearly a moot point since passage of the 17th)
Originally, representatives were about 2 1/2 times in number as senators (65 vs 26)...
now they are about 4 1/2 times in number (435 vs 100).
The original 2 1/2 to 1 ratio would now translate to 250 representatives.
Originally, representatives were 1 per 30,000 in population...
(now that would be equal to 10,000 members in the house of representatives).
I'm not sure 10,000 reps would be that bad an idea. In this mobile age, it would not be out of the question to knock on 3,000 or so front doors and meet most of the people in one’s district. THAT would mean representation.
Build barracks to house them in Washington. Sorry, no wives or kids. It would certainly tend to cut down on the length of legislative sessions and less time for them to harass us and eat out our substance. It would mean true public service and not a means to private wealth.
Just kidding about the Senate. Like you, James Madison originally proposed proportional representation in the Senate, but his nationalist team blinked when DE, NJ threatened to walk out of the Philly convention.
In any event, over 700,000 per Congressman is way too much and has led to aristocratic jerks lording over us.
The General Court, or State Legislature of New Hampshire, has 424 members (House 400, Senate 24).
You can bet they don't get much of a salary in the House. It's an amateur, citizen legislature (the funny thing is State Senators don't get paid any more, so they're non-professionals too).
Now, if you were a professional politician, your goal would be to increase your salary and benefits, and your first step would be to cut the number of Reps down to a number that you could use to justify your salary and perks.
Vermont is heading in that direction. If I've got the facts right, it already looks like Vermont reps get more in a week when the legislature is in session than New Hampshire reps get in an entire 2 year term.
Massachusetts has gone further along towards full-time professional politicians. There were 635 members of the lower house in the 1830s, 240 in the 1960s, 160 today. As the population has grown the size of the General Court has shrunk. The salaries are higher and reps don't have to support themselves with jobs in the private sector.
A larger legislature closer to the people might be a good idea, but it's something professional politicians will fight tooth and nail. Like the idea of state legislatures again electing US Senators as they once did, the idea of citizen-legislators goes against powerful currents and interests.
In spite of this, though, only 10 states have full-time legislatures who get full-time salaries, so at the state level at least, there is still some reality to the idea of the citizen-legislator. It won't happen at the national level, though -- too much prestige and hunger for power and perks in Washington.
“...Like you, James Madison originally proposed proportional representation in the Senate...”
I proposed no such thing.
But like I said, since passage of the 17th, discussions of the original balance seem moot.
I read your link from a couple of weeks ago (Ulysses at the Mast) regarding the reasons behind the 17th.
From what I get out of the analysis, the author pretty much shot down the commonly given:
reason #1 (corruption in naming senators) and
reason #2 (long lasting vacancies in the senate) and identified
reason #3 as the main push that “the people” wanted to have their voices heard.
Further evidence of the evolution from a representative republic to a full mob rule democracy.
I can't say I read very closely the link I sent you a couple weeks ago. You are more familiar with it than I am, but your points ring true.
I do recall that under the Confederation the states had trouble with both legislative houses being derived from the same source, i.e. the people. So our own history taught us that popularly elected houses of reps as well as senates was a bad idea, and we went ahead and did it anyway with the 17th.
Yes, full circle as you say, all the way back to mob rule democracy.
No insult was taken, I was only trying to clarify.
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