Following the submission of the proposed Constitution to the thirteen state legislatures, one question that generated considerable controversy had to do with the term length for members of the House of Representatives. The Anti-Federalists feared that extended distances and prolonged terms would estrange representatives from their constituency, allowing them to pursue their own interests. The Federalists, on the other hand, trusted the electoral process to produce representatives whose character was credible. In this paper, Publius James Madison discusses the qualifications necessary for citizens to be elected to the House of Representatives, arguing that because they are very broad, the representatives chosen will be more likely to be selected for their merit on grounds specific to their constituencies—and thus, will be incentivized to remain sensitive to their constituents’ interests. Further, he rejects the idea that two-year term lengths are too long to keep representatives connected to their constituents, in part by reminding his readers of state governments whose representatives are elected for lengthier terms than two years.
Source: George W. Carey and James McClellan, eds., The Federalist: The Gideon Edition, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001)
To the people of the state of New York:
FROM the more general inquiries pursued in the four last papers, I pass on to a more particular examination of the several parts of the government. I shall begin with the House of Representatives. . . . The first view to be taken of this part of the government [the House of Representatives] relates to the qualifications of the electors and the elected. Those of the former are to be the same with those of the electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures. The definition of the right of suffrage is very justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government. It was incumbent on the convention, therefore, to define and establish this right in the Constitution. To have left it open for the occasional regulation of the Congress, would have been improper for the reason just mentioned. To have submitted it to the legislative discretion of the states, would have been improper for the same reason; and for the additional reason that it would have rendered too dependent on the state governments that branch of the federal government which ought to be dependent on the people alone. To have reduced the different qualifications in the different states to one uniform rule, would probably have been as dissatisfactory to some of the states as it would have been difficult to the convention. The provision made by the convention appears, therefore, to be the best that lay within their option.
It must be satisfactory to every state, because it is conformable to the standard already established, or which may be established, by the state itself. It will be safe to the United States, because, being fixed by the state constitutions, it is not alterable by the state governments, and it cannot be feared that the people of the states will alter this part of their constitutions in such a manner as to abridge the rights secured to them by the federal Constitution. . . . The qualifications of the elected, being less carefully and properly defined by the state constitutions, and being at the same time more susceptible of uniformity, have been very properly considered and regulated by the convention. A representative of the United States must be of the age of twenty-five years; must have been seven years a citizen of the United States; must, at the time of his election, be an inhabitant of the state he is to represent; and, during the time of his service, must be in no office under the United States. Under these reasonable limitations, the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.
The term for which the representatives are to be elected falls under a second view which may be taken of this branch. In order to decide on the propriety of this article, two questions must be considered: first, whether biennial elections will, in this case, be safe; secondly, whether they be necessary or useful. First. As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people. Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured. But what particular degree of frequency may be absolutely necessary for the purpose, does not appear to be susceptible of any precise calculation, and must depend on a variety of circumstances with which it may be connected.
Let us consult experience, the guide that ought always to be followed whenever it can be found. . . .
The example of these states, when British colonies, claims particular attention, at the same time that it is so well known as to require little to be said on it. The principle of representation, in one branch of the legislature at least, was established in all of them. But the periods of election were different. They varied from one to seven years. Have we any reason to infer, from the spirit and conduct of the representatives of the people, prior to the Revolution, that biennial elections would have been dangerous to the public liberties? The spirit which everywhere displayed itself at the commencement of the struggle, and which vanquished the obstacles to independence, is the best of proofs that a sufficient portion of liberty had been everywhere enjoyed to inspire both a sense of its worth and a zeal for its proper enlargement. This remark holds good, as well with regard to the then colonies whose elections were least frequent, as to those whose elections were most frequent Virginia was the colony which stood first in resisting the parliamentary usurpations of Great Britain; it was the first also in espousing, by public act, the resolution of independence.
In Virginia, nevertheless, if I have not been misinformed, elections under the former government were septennial. This particular example is brought into view, not as a proof of any peculiar merit, for the priority in those instances was probably accidental; and still less of any advantage in septennial elections, for when compared with a greater frequency they are inadmissible; but merely as a proof, and I conceive it to be a very substantial proof, that the liberties of the people can be in no danger from biennial elections. . . .
- 1. See U.S. Constitution Article I Section 2