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Ames's Motion to Reduce the Ratio of Representation is Strongly Opposed (14 August 1789)

by Nick Williford (NAWilliford)

Cite as: NAWilliford, ‘Ames's Motion to Reduce the Ratio of Representation is Strongly Opposed (14 August 1789)’ in Bill of Rights 2018 Editors' Commentary, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019), item 257.


Fisher Ames’s motion to revise the proposed amendment setting the proportion of representation at 1 to 40,000 drew a significant discussion on the floor.

The Constitution provided: ‘The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made…’ And then the Constitution set a preliminary number of representatives for each state pending the return of the first census (U.S. Const. Art. 1, sec. 2, par. 3).

Ames’s arguments relied in no small part on the fact that this preliminary representation was set on a ratio of 1 to 40,000. Thus, he argued that the people had reconciled themselves to this ratio of representation, and the smaller number would be more efficient and would encourage a cohort of representatives with better capabilities than if the number were increased. Ames’s own state of Massachusetts had proposed an amendment ‘[t]hat there shall be one representative to every thirty thousand persons, according to the census mentioned in the Constitution, until the whole number of the representatives amounts to two hundred’ (see Massachusetts Form of Ratification). Ames noted that the Massachusetts ratifying convention, which had proposed this amendment, sought not the increase of the ratio of representation, but certainty against Congress reducing the the whole number of representatives below ‘a point of security’ (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 748).

Madison immediately followed Ames and opposed his motion. Madison disagreed with Ames that the concerns of the people that called for amendment were simply to set a limitation, ‘because they have rather wished for an increase…’ (ibid. 749). He notes that some amendments calling for such a limitation have increased the floor of that limitation significantly beyond the number of representatives in the first Congress—‘some have required an increase as far as two hundred at least’ (ibid.). Therefore, Madison concludes, ’This does not look as if certainty was their sole object (ibid.).

While conceding certain advantages of a smaller body of representatives, Madison asserts that, with the rate of increase in the U.S. population, the issue would be moot following the second census, when the likelihood would be that the number of representatives would expand beyond the floor limitations proposed by the states. In this case the people’s desire for a more numerous body should not be sacrificed ‘for a momentary advantage’ (ibid.).

Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts next spoke opposing Ames’s motion. Sedgwick referred to Massachusetts’s proposed amendment and noted that the proposal was fully debated in the convention and afterwards was adopted by the legislature, which had recommended the proposals to the House delegation from that state: ‘From these two circumstances he was led to believe, that his and his colleague’s constituents were generally in favor of the amendment as stated in the [Committee of Eleven] report’ (ibid. 749-50). He thought, however, that the report’s floor of 175 too few, which accorded with the Massachusetts proposal’s recommendation of 200 (ibid. 750).

Elbridge Gerry then addressed the issue, also in opposition, rebutting Ames’s points in turn. Gerry contradicted Ames’s assertion that the present Congress, with its small ratio of representation, lacked adequate knowledge, either general or local. He stated that the difficulties in carrying through the revenue bill illustrated this fact. Moreover, Gerry asserted that Ames certainly could not contend that there was as much security from having fewer, rather than more, representatives. Further, as to Ames’s contention that fewer representatives would reduce expenses, Gerry notes that Congressional pay accounted for significantly less in the federal budget than the civil lists, and that an increase as slight as the one proposed would account for relatively little added expense. ‘Is this,' he queried, 'such an object as to induce the people to risk every security which they ought to have in a more numerous representation?’ (ibid.).

Ames had asserted that increasing the amount of representation would proportionally reduce the dignity of the individual representative. Ames contended that the greater the number of citizens that the legislator represented, a greater ‘risk’, and, thus, a greater sense of duty would be imposed upon that legislator. Consequently, the legislator would be induced to attend to the constituents’ needs with greater industry. Thus, he argued that such a representative much have ‘more dignity of character’ to work in the service (ibid. 748).

Gerry, however, took this argument to be one of aggrandisement: ‘One observation which I understood fell from him, was, that multiplying the number of representatives diminished the dignity and importance of the individuals who composed the House. Now I wish to know, whether he means that we should establish our own importance at the risk of the liberties of America; if so, it has been of little avail that we successfully opposed the lordly importance of a British Parliament’ (ibid. 750.) Accordingly, he hoped that ‘gentlemen will be inclined to give up some part of their consequence to secure the rights of their constituents’ (ibid.).

Finally, Gerry rebutted Ames’s contention that large bodies are prone to excitement or confusion in their proceedings. This characteristic, Ames contended, made them more susceptible to falling prey to faction. The members would ‘cabal to carry measures which they would be unable to get through by fair and open argument’ (ibid. 748).

Gerry – building upon his previous point about aggrandising the dignity of members at the expense of representation, no doubt – noted that this point was true but could also be true of smaller bodies, especially when those small bodies were composed of ambitious members (ibid. 750). Large legislative bodies in America were most likely to be made up of ‘gentlemen who represent the landed interest of the country’, and such members ‘are generally more temperate in debate than in others, consequently, by increasing the representation we shall have less of this fermentation than on the present establishment.’ The other points that Ames raised were ‘not of sufficient weight to induce the House to refuse adopting the amendment recommended by so large a body of our constituents’ (ibid. 750-51).

Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire opposed the amendment stating that he had not heard a single person argue that the representation under the Constitution was too great, but many that thought the representation was too small. Many, he argued, felt that a proportion of 1 to 20,000 or 25,000 ought to be had. Thus, he said, such an amendment had no probability of being ratified (ibid. 751).

Ames intervened again. He hoped that this process of taking up amendments was with a design to improving the workings of the Constitution. Replying to Madison, he noted that if the process were simply limited to considering the proposals of the states, then they ought to simply read off those proposed amendments ‘without exercising our judgment upon them’ (ibid.). That his amendment would be an improvement was evident, if for no other reason than that it would facilitate deliberations. The House, however, would provide a better check upon the Senate ‘if filled with men of independent principles, integrity, and eminent abilities, than if consisting of a numerous body of inferior characters.’

As to the opposition from his fellow Massachusetts delegates, he noted that Massachusetts’s primary concern could not be simply increasing representation ‘because they were convinced of its impropriety in their own Legislature.’ This point was particularly salient because the state required extensive local knowledge, ‘for their deliberation extended to minute and local regulations.’ Congress, on the other hand, needed knowledge which touched only national subjects (ibid.).

As to the other points, Ames noted that increasing the ratio of representation would not insulate Congress from corruption (‘because no one will presume to think a body composed like this, and increased in a ratio of four to three, will be much less exposed to sale than we are’), nor could a greater number of representatives better secure the people’s rights. Indeed, he says, ‘the representative of a great body of people, is likely to be more watchful of [the people’s] interests than the representative of a lesser body’ (ibid. 751-52).

James Jackson of Georgia replied to Ames. Jackson had been one of the most vocal opponents of taking up amendments: ‘I have always been afraid of letting this subject come before the House, for I was apprehensive that something would be offered striking at the very foundation of the constitution, by lessening it in the good opinion of the people’ (ibid. 752). Ames’s motion would do just that. Ames’s argument, Jackson noted, could be used to justify giving the public business into the hands of ‘one, two, or three men, as to a body of sixty or a hundred.’ Such restriction of representation is incompatible, not only with the practicalities of governing so diverse a country, but with the spirit of the Constitution. People had complained that the current representation was too small, so no attempt should be made to reduce it. ‘In a republic,' he said, 'the laws should be founded upon the sense of the community…it is only in aristocracies, where the few are supposed to understand the general interests of the community better than the many. I hope I shall never live to see that doctrine established in the country’ (ibid.).

Michael Jenifer Stone of Maryland spoke, noting that the United States had an estimated population of three million. Under the ratio of 1 to 30,000 that made a House of 100 members. Fifty-one could form a quorum, and a mere 26 could carry a bill by majority. In the Senate, it required only seven members to form a majority on a bare quorum. Stone contended that this was a sufficiently small body: ‘He was satisfied that gentlemen, upon mature reflection, would deem it inexpedient to reduce that number one-fourth’ (ibid.).

The final speaker, Joshua Seney of Maryland, rose and simply noted that in regard to Ames’s contention about reducing the public expense of maintaining a greater body, ‘he considered this object very inconsiderable when compared with that of having a fair and full representation of the people of the United States’ (ibid.).

As the Annals dryly notes, ‘Mr. Ames’s motion was now put, and lost by a large majority’ (ibid. 753).

Approved for publication