Have you ever wondered what the last change to the U.S. Constitution was, before the delegates at Philadelphia signed it?
It was actually pretty momentous.
The Constitution provides that in the lower house of Congress “the Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative.” The last change was from “one for every forty Thousand” to “one for every thirty Thousand.”
Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts explained that “if it was not too late he could wish [this change], for the purpose of lessening objections to the Constitution.” His request was soon seconded by Daniel Carrol of Maryland and Rufus King of Massachusetts — and then a really important person took a position on this proposal.
George Washington had been elected president of the Constitutional Convention at the very beginning, reflecting the enormous respect that the delegates — and nearly all Americans — held him in. Consequently, he had been careful to take no particular positions on the questions that arose. He explained, as he put this question to the delegates for a vote, that “although his situation had hitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House, and it might be thought, ought now to impose silence on him, yet he could not forbear expressing his wish that the alteration proposed might take place.” Why? “The smallness of the proportion of Representatives had been considered by many members of the Convention, an insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people.”
This was too important a change for Washington to stay silent.
The more people that a legislator represents, the easier it is for him to disregard the interests and concerns of his district — simply because he knows that no single person’s irritation or upset is likely to lead to his removal at the next election. In addition, the more voters there are in a district, the less likely it is that they will know the character of a candidate — because you are not likely to know him.
For more than a century, we stuck with that ratio. The first House of Representatives had 65 members. Every ten years, a growing population meant a growing House — until in 1911, there were 438 members, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for such a large legislative body to operate. Congress went ahead and set the maximum size at 435 members.