Alexander Hamilton Papers

The Federalist No. 56, [16 February 1788]

The Federalist No. 561
By James Madison or Alexander Hamilton

[New York, February 16, 1788]

To the People of the State of New-York.

THE second charge against the House of Representatives is, that it will be too small to possess a due knowledge of the interests of its constituents.

As this objection evidently proceeds from a comparison of the proposed number of representatives, with the great extent of the United States, the number of their inhabitants, and the diversity of their interests, without taking into view at the same time the circumstances which will distinguish the Congress from other legislative bodies, the best answer that can be given to it, will be a brief explanation of these peculiarities.

It is a sound and important principle that the representative ought to be acquainted with the interests and circumstances of his constituents. But this principle can extend no farther than to those circumstances and interests, to which the authority and care of the representative relate. An ignorance of a variety of minute and particular objects, which do not lie within the compass of legislation, is consistent with every attribute necessary to a due performance of the legislative trust. In determining the extent of information required in the exercise of a particular authority, recourse then must be had to the objects within the purview of that authority.

What are to be the objects of federal legislation? Those which are of most importance, and which seem most to require local knowledge, are commerce, taxation, and the militia.

A proper regulation of commerce requires much information, as has been elsewhere remarked;2 but as far as this information relates to the laws and local situation of each individual state, a very few representatives would be very3 sufficient vehicles of it to the federal councils.

Taxation will consist, in great measure, of duties which will be involved in the regulation of commerce. So far the preceding remark is applicable to this object. As far as it may consist of internal collections, a more diffusive knowledge of the circumstances of the state may be necessary. But will not this also be possessed in sufficient degree by a very few intelligent men diffusively elected within the state. Divide the largest state into ten or twelve districts, and it will be found that there will be no peculiar local interest in either, which will not be within the knowledge of the representative of the district. Besides this source of information, the laws of the state framed by representatives from every part of it, will be almost of themselves a sufficient guide. In every state there have been made, and must continue to be made, regulations on this subject, which will in many cases leave little more to be done by the federal legislature, than to review the different laws, and reduce them into one general act. A skilful individual in his closet, with all the local codes before him, might compile a law on some subjects of taxation for the whole union, without any aid from oral information; and it may be expected, that whenever internal taxes may be necessary, and particularly in cases requiring uniformity throughout the states, the more simple objects will be preferred. To be fully sensible of the facility which will be given to this branch of federal legislation, by the assistance of the state codes, we need only suppose for a moment, that this or any other state were divided into a number of parts, each having and exercising within itself a power of local legislation. Is it not evident that a degree of local information and preparatory labour would be found in the several volumes of their proceedings, which would very much shorten the labours of the general legislature, and render a much smaller number of members sufficient for it? The federal councils will derive great advantage from another circumstance. The representatives of each state will not only bring with them a considerable knowledge of its laws, and a local knowledge of their respective districts; but will probably in all cases have been members, and may even at the very time be members of the state legislature, where all the local information and interests of the state are assembled, and from whence they may easily be conveyed by a very few hands into the legislature of the United States.

The observations made on the subject of taxation apply with greater force to the case of the militia. For however different the rules of discipline may be in different states; They are the same throughout each particular state; and depend on circumstances which can differ but little in different parts of the same state.4

The attentive reader will discern that the reasoning here used to prove the sufficiency of a moderate number of representatives, does not in any respect contradict what was urged on another occasion with regard to the extensive information which the representatives ought to possess, and the time that might be necessary for acquiring it.5 This information, so far as it may relate to local objects, is rendered necessary and difficult, not by a difference of laws and local circumstances within a single state; but of those among different states. Taking each state by itself, its laws are the same, and its interests but little diversified. A few men therefore will possess all the knowledge requisite for a proper representation of them. Were the interests and affairs of each individual state, perfectly simple and uniform, a knowledge of them in one part would involve a knowledge of them in every other, and the whole state might be competently represented, by a single member taken from any part of it. On a comparison of the different states together, we find a great dissimilarity in their laws, and in many other circumstances connected with the objects of federal legislation, with all of which the federal representatives ought to have some acquaintance. Whilst a few representatives therefore from each state may bring with them a due knowledge of their own state, every representative will have much information to acquire concerning all the other states. The changes of time, as was formerly remarked,6 on the comparative situation of the different states, will have an assimilating effect.7 The effect of time on the internal affairs of the states taken singly, will be just the contrary. At present some of the states are little more than a society of husbandmen. Few of them have made much progress in those branches of industry, which give a variety and complexity to the affairs of a nation. These however will in all of them be the fruits of a more advanced population; and will require on the part of each state a fuller representation. The foresight of the Convention has accordingly taken care that the progress of population may be accompanied with a proper increase of the representative branch of the government.

The experience of Great Britain which presents to mankind so many political lessons, both of the monitory and exemplary kind, and which has been frequently consulted in the course of these enquiries, corroborates the result of the reflections which we have just made. The number of inhabitants in the two kingdoms of England and Scotland, cannot be stated at less than eight millions. The representatives of these eight millions in the House of Commons, amount to five hundred fifty eight. Of this number one ninth are elected by three hundred and sixty four persons, and one half by five thousand seven hundred and twenty three persons.* It cannot be supposed that the half thus elected, and who do not even reside among the people at large, can add any thing either to the security of the people against the government; or to the knowledge of their circumstances and interests, in the legislative councils. On the contrary it is notorious that they are more frequently the representatives and instruments of the executive magistrate, than the guardians and advocates of the popular rights. They might therefore with great propriety be considered as something more than a mere deduction from the real representatives of the nation. We will however consider them, in this light alone, and will not extend the deduction, to a considerable number of others, who do not reside among their constituents, are very faintly connected with them, and have very little particular knowledge of their affairs. With all these concessions two hundred and seventy nine persons only will be the depository of the safety, interest and happiness of eight millions; that is to say: There will be one representative only to maintain the rights and explain the situation of twenty eight thousand six hundred and seventy constituents, in an assembly exposed to the whole force of executive influence, and extending its authority to every object of legislation within a nation whose affairs are in the highest degree diversified and complicated. Yet it is very certain not only that a valuable portion of freedom has been preserved under all these circumstances, but that the defects in the British code are chargeable in a very small proportion, on the ignorance of the legislature concerning the circumstances of the people. Allowing to this case the weight which is due to it: And comparing it with that of the House of Representatives as above explained, it seems to give the fullest assurance that a representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants will render the latter both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it.

PUBLIUS.

The [New York] Independent Journal: or, the General Advertiser, February 16, 1788. This essay appeared in New-York Packet on February 19. In the McLean description begins The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, As Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. In Two Volumes (New York: Printed and Sold by J. and A. McLean, 1788). description ends edition this essay is numbered 56, in the newspapers it is numbered 55.

1For background to this document, see “The Federalist. Introductory Note,” October 27, 1787–May 28, 1788.

Essay 56 is one of those disputed essays the authorship of which cannot be assigned on the basis of internal evidence to either Madison or H. Edward G. Bourne (“The Authorship of the Federalist,” The American Historical Review, II [April, 1897], 453) gives the following example to demonstrate Madison’s authorship:

Essay 56 Madison
Divide the largest state into ten or twelve districts, and it will be found that there will be no peculiar local interest in either, which will not be within the knowledge of the representative of the district. [In the Virginia Convention, Madison said:] Could not ten intelligent men chosen from ten districts from this State lay direct taxes on a few objects in the most judicious manner? Can any one divide this state into ten districts so as not to contain men of sufficient information?

Bourne argues that because the Constitution assigned Virginia ten representatives and New York six, Madison would be more likely than H to use the figure ten as an example. He further states that some months later in the New York Ratifying Convention H in illustrating the adequacy of the representation provided by the Constitution spoke of a state as being divided into six districts. The argument is not convincing because the author of essay 56 spoke of “ten or twelve districts” which might mean, using the same kind of logic employed by Bourne, that H, unlike Madison, did not remember the exact number of districts into which Virginia was divided; also, in the same paragraph in essay 56 it is stated, “suppose … that this or any other state were divided into a number of parts …,” a statement which suggests that the author arbitrarily had selected his figures. Bourne also adduces as evidence of Madison’s authorship the fact that in the closing paragraph of this essay the word “monitory … almost a favorite word with Madison,” is used. For an example of H’s use of the same word, see note 36 to “The Federalist. Introductory Note,” October 27, 1787–May 28, 1788.

J. C. Hamilton (The Federalist, I, cxxviii), also using internal evidence, gives the following example to prove that essay 56 was written by H:

Essay 56 Hamilton
What are to be the objects of federal legislation? Those which are of most importance, and which seem most to require local knowledge, are commerce, taxation, and the militia … the representatives of each State will not only bring with them, a considerable knowledge of its laws, and a local knowledge of their respective districts. Knowledge of local circumstances—Objects to be considered: These—Commerce-Taxation. As to taxation—State Systems (“New York Ratifying Convention. Notes for a Speech,” June 20, 1788).

One might give as further evidence of H’s authorship the fact that in revising the essays for publication by McLean he deleted paragraph seven and substituted another paragraph for it. Although in the McLean description begins The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, As Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. In Two Volumes (New York: Printed and Sold by J. and A. McLean, 1788). description ends edition H occasionally altered or changed a word in Madison’s essays, in no other instance did he make a major change. Had he not believed that he was the author of the essay, one might argue, it is unlikely he would have made the substitution.

As suggested by the research of Bourne and J. C. Hamilton, however, the evidence is contradictory. One could, for example, indicate passages that are remarkably similar to statements made by H in essay 36; one could, on the other hand, point out statements which are almost the same as statements made by Madison in essay 53. An example of these similarities follows:

Essay 56 Essay 36 [Hamilton]
As far as it may consist of internal collections, a more diffusive knowledge of the circumstances of the state may be necessary. But will not this also be possessed in sufficient degree by a very few intelligent men diffusively elected within the state. Divide the largest state into ten or twelve districts, and it will be found that there will be no peculiar local interest in either, which will not be within the knowledge of the representative of the district. It has been asserted that a power of internal taxation in the national Legislature, could never be exercised with advantage, as well from the want of a sufficient knowledge of local circumstances, as from an interference between the revenue laws of the Union, and of the particular States. The supposition of a want of proper knowledge, seems to be entirely destitute of foundation. If any question is depending in a State Legislature, respecting one of the counties, which demands a knowledge of local details, how is it acquired? No doubt from the information of the members of the county. Cannot the like knowledge be obtained in the national Legislature, from the representatives of each State?
To be fully sensible of the facility which will be given to this branch of federal legislation, by the assistance of the state codes.… there could be no difficulty in ascertaining the revenue system of each. This could always be known from the respective codes of laws.
Essay 56 Essay 53 [Madison]
Were the interests and affairs of each individual state, perfectly simple and uniform, a knowledge of them in one part would involve a knowledge of them in every other, and the whole state might be competently represented, by a single member taken from any part of it. On a comparison of the different states together, we find a great dissimilarity in their laws, and in many other circumstances connected with the objects of federal legislation, with all of which the federal representatives ought to have some acquaintance. Whilst a few representatives therefore from each state may bring with them a due knowledge of their own state, every representative will have much information to acquire concerning all the other states. In a single state the requisite knowledge, relates to the existing laws which are uniform throughout the state, and with which all the citizens are more or less conversant; and to the general affairs of the state, which lie within a small compass, are not very diversified, and occupy much of the attention and conversation of every class of people. The great theatre of the United States presents a very different scene. The laws are so far from being uniform, that they vary in every state; whilst the public affairs of the union are spread throughout a very extensive region, and are extremely diversified by the local affairs connected with them, and can with difficulty be correctly learnt in any other place, than in the central councils, to which a knowledge of them will be brought by the representatives of every part of the empire.
[Speaking of knowledge requisite for enactment of national taxes:] A skilful individual in his closet, with all the local codes before him.… [Speaking of knowledge requisite for legislation on foreign affairs:] Some portion of this knowledge may, no doubt, be acquired in a man’s closet.
The changes of time, as was formerly remarked, on the comparative situation of the different states, will have an assimilating effect. It is true that all these difficulties will, by degrees, be very much diminished.

Examples might be multiplied, but they would all lead to the same question: Did Madison borrow from essay 36, or did H borrow from essay 53? The question, it seems, is not susceptible of an answer. Both Bourne and Douglass Adair (“The Authorship of the Disputed Federalist Papers,” Part II, The William and Mary Quarterly, I [July, 1944], 260) give as evidence for Madison’s authorship a reference to James Burgh’s Political Disquisitions. They argue that because the Virginian took notes from Burgh in his “Additional Memorandum for the Convention of Virginia” (Madison, Letters description begins James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (Philadelphia, 1867). description ends , I, 393, note), and because no reference to Burgh can be found in the writings of H, Madison must have written essay 56. The argument is based on the erroneous assumption that because H did not again refer to Burgh in other writings he could not have read him. In the first place, there is no positive evidence that H had not read Burgh and, in the second place, H referred in The Federalist to many authors who are not mentioned in his other writings. For example, in essay 71, definitely written by H, there is a reference to “the celebrated Junius,” the famous English letter writer of the eighteenth century. So far as can be determined, H made no other reference to Junius.

Since one can demonstrate the authorship of either man by carefully looking for parallels in his other writings, it is obvious that internal evidence cannot decide the problem of authorship. For the reasons why Madison’s claim to the authorship of this essay outweighs (but does not necessarily obviate) that of H, see “The Federalist. Introductory Note,” October 27, 1787–May 28, 1788.

2See essay 53.

3“very” omitted in Hopkins description begins The Federalist On The New Constitution. By Publius. Written in 1788. To Which is Added, Pacificus, on The Proclamation of Neutrality. Written in 1793. Likewise, The Federal Constitution, With All the Amendments. Revised and Corrected. In Two Volumes (New York: Printed and Sold by George F. Hopkins, at Washington’s Head, 1802). description ends .

4The following was substituted in McLean description begins The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, As Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. In Two Volumes (New York: Printed and Sold by J. and A. McLean, 1788). description ends and Hopkins for this paragraph:

“With regard to the regulation of the militia, there are scarcely any circumstances in reference to which local knowledge can be said to be necessary. The general face of the country, whether mountainous or level, most fit for the operations of infantry or cavalry, is almost the only consideration of this nature that can occur. The art of war teaches general principles of organization, movement, and discipline, which apply universally.”

5See essay 53.

6See essay 53.

7“tendency” substituted for “effect” in Hopkins.

8The reference is to James Burgh, Political Disquisitions: Or, an Enquiry into public Errors, Defects, and Abuses … (London, 1774), I, 45, 48.

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

* Burgh’s polit. disquis.8

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