On Sept. 25, 1789, an Earth-shattering series of amendments to the Constitution, forever known as the Bill of Rights, were passed by the newly created U.S. Congress.
Contrary to popular belief, there were not merely 10 Amendments; there were actually 12, one of the most important of which being “Article the First.” However, as incredible as it may seem, Article the First was not about free speech, religious liberty, or freedom of the press, and largely due to a last-minute alteration prior to its passage, it was never ratified by the states.
The story of Article the First has been shrouded in mystery for over two centuries, and the truth about this incredible amendment has largely been ignored by historians and constitutional scholars. While Article the First has now become little more than a footnote in U.S. history, the powerful reasons why it was initially proposed still remain valid. In fact, as the modern political environment proves, it’s needed now more than ever.
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America’s true first amendment to the Constitution was passed by the House of Representatives on Aug. 24, 1789, after months of contentious debates between those who wanted to limit the power of the newly centralized government, the Anti-Federalists, and those who felt the Bill of Rights was largely unnecessary, the Federalists.
The proposed amendment intended to deal with the number of legislators that ought to be in the House of Representatives. Many of America’s Founding Fathers were concerned that if the size of Congress is too small, far too much power is placed in a limited number of people, making it easy for the rights of the people to be trampled.
On the other side was the concern that a legislature composed of too many people would be unable to accomplish anything at all and would, in essence, become a mob subject to whatever passion of the day happened to sweep the nation.
[sharequote align="center"]Article the First was not about free speech, religious liberty, or freedom of the press.[/sharequote]
In what would later be known as Federalist Paper No. 55, James Madison, an intellectual giant of the period and a future president, wrote concerning the issue about the size of Congress:
“Scarce any article, indeed, in the whole Constitution seems to be rendered more worthy of attention, by the weight of character and the apparent force of argument with which it has been assailed.”
The crux of the debate focused on if there ought to be a limit on the number of people each representative, in general, should represent and precisely how many people that should be. What Congress eventually settled on was that there should be about one representative in the House for every 50,000 citizens. The official language passed by the House in August 1789 indicates that this ratio should be absolute and a guaranteed right of the people:
“... the proportion [of Representatives in the House] shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.”
From the end of August to September 1789, the House and Senate argued over the particulars of Article the First, until they essentially ran out of time. With only a few days left before the final version of the Bill of Rights had to be submitted for a vote and then on to the states for ratification, an incredible thing happened: The language of the amendment inexplicably changed despite countless of hours heated debate during which the vast majority of people involved agreed that a firm ratio, whatever it ought to be, was needed for the long-term health of the nation.
In the final version of the Bill of Rights passed by Congress in September, the guaranteed right promised to the People in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere that the House would, at the very least, provide one representative for every 50,000 people was done away with. The new language would instead read [emphasis added]:
“... there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.”
The changing of “less” in the House version to “more” rendered the amendment essentially useless and contrary to its original purpose.
Jeff Quidam, the founder Thirty-Thousand.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated toward improving representative democracy in America, says some scholars believe the change occurred because of the frantic pace of the final days leading up to the Bill of Rights’ passage. He says others have suggested the possibility of sabotage (more on this in another article).
In any case, the version of Article the First that was sent to the states, and remains before them today for consideration, fails to protect voters the way it was always intended.
Although it’s impossible to predict how the House’s version of Article the First would have changed American history, the reasons for it being such an important issue at the time the Bill of Rights was being debated remain valid today.
If congressional districts are limited to 50,000 people, compared to the 500,000–700,000 population sizes in most districts today, it would be far easier to hold legislators accountable. Regular, middle-income people would finally be able to run for Congress and have a legitimate chance of winning, and as your neighbors, they would be far less likely to cast votes against your interests or eliminate your rights.
“One of my biggest challenges are conservatives who view this as bigger government,” said Quidam. “Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the difference between governance and government. The data show enlarging governance actually reduces the size of government.”
If the American people want good governance, we need more politicians who understand the problems average Americans face. What better way to have that happen then to fundamentally reform a system that insists 435 people can adequately represent a nation of 300 million?
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