The First Presidential Veto

April 8, 2013

On April 5, 1792, George Washington cast the first presidential veto determining that an apportionment bill passed by Congress violated the constitutional guidelines for determining the number of delegates that should comprise the House of Representatives.

The proposed apportionment bill violated the constitutional principle that no state should receive more than one delegate to the House of Representatives for every 30,000. The bill in question had attempted to find a common divisor in order to establish the number of delegates which would be sent to the House. But, in attempting to find this mechanism, the eight states which had the highest number of their population “unrepresented,” (since not every state’s population is perfectly divisible by 30,000) had received an extra delegate, which would have arbitrarily given those eight states an unfair advantage over those states who were not accorded an extra delegate.

This offense would be felt more acutely in the South since, because of the nature of the plantation South, that segment of the country had fewer representatives anyway. Thus, not only were there significant constitutional barriers to the passage of the law, but also significant political ramifications which would have only served to heighten the perceived disparity and governmental authority which was thought to exist between the North and the South.

However, even in his decision to veto the bill of questionable constitutionality, Washington was unsure that his actions would not be interpreted as him “taking the side of the south” since the vote for and against the bill in Congress had been split along geographical lines, with the North in support of the measure and the South in opposition. Thus, years before the advent of the Civil War, there was a division between the agricultural South and the industrial North. As the years wore on, the story of American union is really the story of attempting to unite these two competing segments of the country in order to form a strong political union between all of the states.

–Mariah Dunsing is a senior Ashbrook Scholar majoring in History and Political Science.

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