The Debate Over the House of Representatives

During the Revolution all of the American states established republican forms of government in which the people chose representatives to attend state legislatures. Eleven states had bicameral legislatures in which the lower houses were more numerous and exercised more power. (Pennsylvania and Georgia had unicameral legislatures.)

The Constitution called for a bicameral Congress composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate. Representation in the House was proportionately based on population, including 3/5s of all slaves, while the states were equally represented in the Senate. Small-state Antifederalists opposed proportional representation in the House. They maintained that the states had always been distinct and sovereign political units, as such, they should be represented equally. Large-state Antifederalists favored the proportional representation in the House but opposed the equal state representation in the Senate. Antifederalists also maintained that the House of Representatives was too small to adequately represent all segments of American society because (according to Article I of the Constitution) the first U.S. House of Representatives would be composed of only 65 members (if all 13 states ratified). Critics cited the fact that many of the lower houses of the state legislatures had more members than would serve in the U.S. House under the proposed Constitution. Antifederalists also attacked the biennial elections of representatives. Under the Articles of Confederation, delegates to Congress had one-year terms, were subject to recall, and could only serve three years within a six-year period. The Constitution did not have recall or rotation in office provisions. The Constitution was also criticized for neglecting to grant treaty-making powers to the House of Representatives even though treaties would be the law of the land. Although they liked the requirement that money bills would originate in the lower house, Antifederalists criticized the Senate’s power to amend money bills. In Parliament, the House of Lords could only accept or reject money bills. Antifederalists belittled the House’s power to impeach government officials, saying no convictions and removals would take place in trials held in the Senate.

Federalists countered these criticisms forcefully. Under the Articles of Confederation, state legislatures determined how their delegates to Congress were elected. All but Rhode Island and Connecticut opted that the state legislatures did the electing. Under the Constitution, voters qualified to vote for members of their state assemblies could vote for U.S. Representatives. Federalists argued that this meant the House of Representatives was more democratic than the Confederation Congress.

In countering Antifederalist qualms about representation, An American Citizen III noted that proportional representation in the proposed Constitution “accords with reason and the true principles of liberty… and is one more great step towards the perfection of equal liberty and genuine republicanism in America.” Federalists also countered concerns that the House was too small by pointing out that it would enlarge as the nation’s population increased. Federalists argued that the two-year term would create some degree of continuity. Representatives from distant states would find a one-year term difficult simply because much of their time would be spent in transit or running for office, distracting them from pressing national affairs. Federalists also argued that although the House of Representatives had no direct involvement in treaty-making, it still had influence through its control over the appropriation of funds. In addition, its impeachment powers gave it considerable powers in all governmental affairs.

The following documents are taken from The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and have been grouped into sub-categories to better understand the nuances of the debate over the House of Representatives during the ratification period.

(F) Federalist Essays/Speeches
(AF) Antifederalist Essays/Speeches

Election to House of Representatives

General Criticism of House of Representatives

General Praise of House of Representatives

Powers of House of Representatives

Representation in House of Representatives

Size of House of Representatives

Term of Office of House of Representatives