Cato No. 5

What does Cato mean when he says that the people only enjoy “virtual representation” in the Senate?
How did James Madison respond to Cato’s argument for annual elections in Federalist 52? Does Madison disagree that frequent elections are important? Why does Madison argue, contrary to Cato, that two-year term lengths are acceptable?  

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One of the first and most profound critics of the Constitution (as proposed in 1787) was the author of the essays published under the pseudonym “Cato.” The true author of the Cato papers is most likely George Clinton of New York; however, scholars continue to dispute the true authorship of these essays. In the early-mid 1780s, Clinton supported the drive for a stronger national government, an idea most prominently articulated by Alexander Hamilton. During the states’ debates over ratification, however, Clinton opposed the ratification of the Constitution. Clinton’s greatest fears had to do with the potential of the united government to consolidate powers originally possessed by the states, therefore, leaving the members of the federal government prone to corruption, special interests, and eventually, despotism. Cato presents similar concerns about representation and the unprecedented appointment of temporary senators in this excerpt.

—Joseph Postell

Source: The New-York Journal, November 22, 1787.

But with respect to the first objection, it may be remarked that a well-digested democracy has this advantage over all others, to wit, that it affords to many the opportunity to be advanced to the supreme command, and the honors they thereby enjoy fill them with a desire of rendering themselves worthy of them: hence this desire becomes part of their education, is matured in manhood, and produces an ardent affection for their country, and it is the opinion of the great Sidney,[1] and Montesquieu[2] that this is in a great measure produced by annual election of magistrates.

If annual elections were to exist in this government, and learning and information to become more prevalent, you never will want men to execute whatever you could design—Sidney observes that a well governed state is as fruitful to all good purposes as the seven-headed serpent is said to have been in evil; when one head is cut off, many rise up in the place of it. He remarks further, that it was also thought, that free cities by frequent elections of magistrates became nurseries of great and able men, every man endeavoring to excel others, that he might be advanced to the honor he had no other title to, than what might arise from his merit, or reputation, but the framers of this perfect government, as it is called, have departed from this democratical principle, and established biennial elections for the house of representatives, who are to be chosen by the people, and sextennial for the senate, who are to be chosen by the legislatures of the different states,[3] and have given to the executive the unprecedented power of making temporary senators, in case of vacancies, by resignation or otherwise,[4] and so far forth establishing a precedent for virtual representation[5] (though in fact, their original appointment is virtual) thereby influencing the choice of the legislatures, or if they should not be so complaisant as to conform to his appointment—offence will be given to the executive and the temporary members will appear ridiculous by rejection; this temporary member, during his time of appointment, will of course act by a power derived from the executive, and for, and under his immediate influence.

  1. 1. Algernon Sidney (1623–1683) was an English member of the Long Parliament, the commissioner of the trial of King George I, and the author of Discourses on Government (published posthumously in 1698), a work that was founded upon ideas of natural rights and claimed that men and women have the right to establish and abolish their own forms of government. Radical for their time, the ideas contained within the Discourses cost Sidney his head. He was charged and convicted for treason under King Charles II.
  2. 2. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Bréde et de Montesquieu (referred to as Montesquieu, 1689–1755), was a French lawyer, political philosopher, and an extensive writer. In his The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu developed the theories of separation of powers and checks and balances, which would later influence the Revolutionary generation and the authors of the Constitution in their thinking.
  3. 3. See U.S. Constitution: Article 1 Section 3. Amended by the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  4. 4. See U.S. Constitution: Article 1 Section 3: The Senatorial and Vacancies Clause.
  5. 5. The term ‘virtual representation’ caused much concern for Americans, even before they could rightly claim that nationality. During their time within the domain of Great Britain’s empire, American colonists were refused direct representation in Parliament. Instead, they were entitled to a form of representation that George Grenville (the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1764–1765) defined as “virtual”; that is, the colonists could not elect their own representatives to Parliament, but nonetheless, purportedly had their best interests represented by those who legislated on behalf of the entire British empire.
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