Every ten years the United States engages in the process of re-apportionment, wherein each state with more than one House seat redraws their Congressional districts. Simultaneously, every re-districting cycle partisans, activists, and pundits alike all bewail the harmful effects of gerrymandering on the process. Far from a modern phenomenon, partisan politics has always had a significant influence on the re-districting process. Indeed, the Framers of our Constitution designed our system of republican government with the understanding that “party spirit” would be a constant feature in its operation—particularly in redistricting. Nor would it take long for these effects to become a mainstay in the redistricting process. Even before the First Congress assembled in Philadelphia, the partisan quarrels between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists colored the debates over the first election laws and which form of Congressional district was intended by the Constitution.
The Intention of the Framers
The Constitution is vague on how members of the House of Representatives are to be elected. The only guidance provided is in Article 1, Section 4, which gives a general pronouncement of the power of state legislatures to determine the “times, places, and manner” of holding congressional elections and the authority of Congress to “at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” The choice to allow state legislatures the freedom to regulate their congressional elections as they pleased was deliberate. As explained by James Madison during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “whether the electors should vote by ballot or vivâ voce, should assemble at this place or that place; should be divided into districts or all meet at one place, shd all vote for all the representatives; or all in a district vote for a number allotted to the district . . . would depend on the Legislatures.” For this reason, Madison believed Congress’ authority to intervene in the regulation of elections was necessary. Meanwhile, other framers implied that though states were granted the freedom to regulate their elections as they pleased, they nonetheless expected states to adopt single-member districts. For example, Rufus King in the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention predicted that “this State [would be] thrown into eight districts, and a member apportioned to each,” then as the population increased, “the representatives and districts will be increased.” Combined, these two statements suggest that the framers largely expected that the election laws of the United States would vary between states until the adoption of some future national standard enforced by Congress, presumably based around the single-member district model.
This assumption, or at least the preference for single-member districts, was collaborated by Madison in the Federalist. Madison argued that the purpose of representation in the extended sphere is to create a system in which the representatives will “refine and enlarge the public views.” It was essential to this scheme that representatives have “an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.” Madison argues that the best way to accomplish this is through single-member districts. To this point, in defending the House against the charge that “it will be too small to possess a due knowledge of the interests of its constituents,” he described such a system. “Divide the largest state into ten or twelve districts,” Madison explained, “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.”
Nevertheless, the authors of the Federalist also understood that partisan considerations would greatly influence laws regulating congressional elections. As noted by Madison in Federalist 10, the “latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” meaning that “the spirit of party and faction” would always be a part of the “ordinary operations of government.” All that it required was the impulse to do so, which one of Madison’s co-authors, John Jay in Federalist 3, aptly identified as “the prospect of present loss or advantage,” which would “often tempt the governing party in one or two states to swerve from good faith and justice.”
Madison’s and Jay’s expectation of partisan motives influencing the operations of state governments would prove prescient during the creation of the laws, which governed the elections for the First Congress. Madison himself expressed the justification for the partisan machinations that would soon play out in the election laws of several pro-Federalist states. In a letter to George Washington, Madison predicted that with ratification secured, the Antifederalist “plan will be to engage ⅔ of the Legislatures in the task of undoing the work [of ratification]; or to get a Congress appointed in the first instance that will commit suicide on their own Authority.” Agreeing with Madison’s assessment, Washington urged “all the advocates of the Constitution . . . to combine their exertions . . . in order that the Republic may avail itself of the opportunity for escaping from Anarchy, Division, and the other great national calamities that impended.” Madison’s and Washington’s concerns would prove representative of Federalists in general, and Federalist legislatures across the young nation would respond to this shared fear by passing election laws that would ensure their victory.
The State Election Laws
Pennsylvania was the first state to pass a law regulating their elections for the First Congress. Motivated by the proceedings of the Harrisburg Convention within their own state, the state’s Federalists met in Philadelphia in the fall of 1788 to deliberate on the best mode for electing Federalist congressional representatives and presidential electors before the next state elections could threaten their majority. Within several days, the Federalist majority legislature rushed through an elections bill. The impetus of this law was expressed months earlier by one of the soon-to-be Federalist Congressman, Thomas Fitzsimons, who explained that the “representation of this state in the new Congress will in great measure depend upon the plan that may be adopted for choosing them. A good mode might now, I believe, be obtained, which in another Assembly would not be practicable.” Accordingly, rather than adopt the single-member district model, the legislature chose to elect its members of Congress through a general ticket, with the people submitting a written ballot with eight names and the eight individuals with the most votes receiving the appointment to the First Congress. In conjunction, Pennsylvania Federalists also engaged in an early form of party organization, reconvening a second time to nominate a slate of Congressional candidates and Presidential electors under what was likely the first party ticket in United States history.
Further evidence of the partisan motives behind the legislature’s election law was expressed by Benjamin Rush, who observed in a private letter that “by obliging the whole state to vote in one ticket, it is expected the Federalists will prevail by a majority of two to one in the choice of Representatives. Another Pennsylvania Federalist, Thomas Hartley, also admitted the plan’s partisan motives, noting how the Antifederalists were “taking all the pains in their power to obtain a majority in the federal legislature,” which required, in turn, “equal exertions” on the Federalists’ side to prevent “the government [from becoming] embarrassed, and the wheels prevented from moving.” Beyond these partisan considerations, Hartley also noted some general advantages to the system, arguing that by electing representatives “at large you have a better chance of obtaining good men.” Interestingly, Madison spoke favorably of the Pennsylvania Legislature’s decision, contradicting his position in the Federalist written only nine months earlier. He remarked that the mode of election adopted by Pennsylvania “will confine the choice to characters of general notoriety, and so far favorable to merit.” Nevertheless, he also admitted the system was “liable to some popular objections,” likely resulting in some states, such as Virginia, to opt for the single-member district model. Rather than lament this disparate standard, Madison suggested that perhaps it was to be desired so the best mode of election could be ascertained through experience.
In Massachusetts, leading up to the legislature’s passage of its first election law, several Federalists advocated in print for following Pennsylvania’s lead in electing its representatives at large. One Federalist, writing under the pseudonym Honorius, echoed the arguments of Hartley, stating that the general ticket provided the “fairest chance of selecting the best and most competent characters.” He also proclaimed it was the system most congenial to the spirit of the Constitution since it had a “happy tendency to nationalize the citizens, and to blend the interests of towns, districts, counties, and the whole commonwealth, into one great and general concern.” Nevertheless, when the Massachusetts legislature decided on the issue in November, it adopted the single-member district model without much disagreement within the Federalist caucus. However, the legislature’s decision did not preclude them from ensuring a partisan advantage. The districts were drawn to provide an outsized influence to the Federalist urban strongholds along the eastern seacoast. Accordingly, despite only possessing a mere 35 percent of the state’s population, the eastern counties received four of the state’s eight representatives, compared to one representative for 20 percent of the population in the Maine counties and three representatives for the remaining 45 percent of the state’s population in the Western counties.
In Maryland, a pseudonymous writer echoed the arguments made by Federalists throughout the republic, stating that the general ticket method was more representative of the spirit of the Constitution and best suited to choosing men of great character and independence of principles. Single-member districts, by contrast, would create candidates who “will not be too proud to court what are generally called the poor folks, shake them by the hand, ask them for their vote and interest, and, when an opportunity serves, treat them to a can of grog, and whilst drinking it, join heartily in abusing what are called the great people.” The writer’s jab was almost certainly directed at the Anti-Federalists, who often argued for a form of representation more closely associated with direct democracy and whose constituency consisted of more common folk.
The Federalist sentiments against single-member districts in print carried over to the state’s election laws, where the Federalist-dominated legislature chose to forgo the system. Instead, the legislature opted to adopt a peculiar single-member district-general ticket hybrid. The Maryland law established that the state would still be divided into six districts with residency requirements for candidates. However, it also allowed voters to cast a ballot for a candidate in each of the six districts. By turning the elections into a statewide contest, these laws allowed the Federalists to draft and disseminate a unified party ticket, as was done in Pennsylvania. Combined, the Federalists’ rudimentary party organization and the state’s general ticket election system all but ensured a Federalist sweep by allowing the predominantly pro-Constitution western Maryland counties to neutralize the Antifederalist strongholds of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Hartford counties. The results led one Antifederalist to publicly question whether “any honest, virtuous citizen, not a Slave to Party, maintain, that the Act regulating the late Election, is constitutional, just, or wise?” In support of his conclusion, he argued that “the three counties (of) Frederick, Cecil, and Washington have chosen Representatives for the whole State.” He added that it was impossible without fraud for 1,161 out of 1,200 eligible residents of Washington County to have voted. Regardless of whether the writer’s claim of fraud was substantiated, his article represents a general view that the state’s election laws were motivated by partisan advantage.
A few states adopted election laws without much evidence of partisan politics having a significant influence. Of these states, South Carolina adopted the single-member district model, though it did not require residency to be nominated within any of the districts. New Hampshire elected its three representatives at large, allotting the nomination to any candidate which received more than one-sixth of the popular vote and providing for a run-off election with the six top-ranked contenders if any candidate failed to cross that threshold, a safeguard which proved necessary. Meanwhile, in Georgia, where the state ratified the Constitution unanimously and Federalists enjoyed a comfortable majority, national politics also had a minimal influence on the state’s election laws. However, these facts did not preclude local prejudices from influencing their electoral system. To this point, Edward Telfair, a representative from the upcountry, included an amendment that would allow voters in each of the state’s three districts to vote for one Representative in each district. The amendment passed on nearly strict regional lines, with thirty-seven up-country and five low-country delegates voting in favor and twenty-seven low-country delegates opposed. In the end, the legislature adopted the same hybrid model used in Maryland.
Connecticut adopted a modified version of the general ticket system that it had used since 1779 to nominate representatives to the Confederation Congress. In perhaps the earliest use of primary elections in America, when the freeman of the state met in early November to elect members of the General Court, they would also nominate no more than twelve individuals for Congress. A representative from each county would then meet and forward a list of the twelve individuals who received the highest number of votes to the legislature, who would then disseminate a printed ballot to every town. The following month, the freeman of each town would then cast their votes for no more than five of the twelve individuals, with the five individuals receiving the greatest number of votes elected to office.
Just as in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Virginia’s election laws were also influenced by the spirit of party. However, unlike the Federalist majorities present in the other states, Virginia’s legislature was predominated by Antifederalists under the leadership of Governor Patrick Henry. Virginia adopted the single-member district model, including a provision that required candidates to be residents of their districts for at least twelve months. In the words of Francis Corbin, a delegate to the Convention, Virginia’s election law was “not so much in Conformity perhaps to the Spirit of the new Constitution as in Conformity to the genius, the habits & the Prejudices of the people of Virginia.” To this end, Federalist commentators conjectured that the legislature’s actions were designed to provide a general advantage to the Anti-federalists and prevent the election of prominent Federalist figures, namely, James Madison.
Supporting this view, George Lee Tuberville wrote in a letter to Madison that “the object of the majority of to day has been to prevent yr. Election in the house of Representatives . . . first by forming a district (as they supposed) of Counties most tainted by antifederalism . . . then by confining the choice of the people to the residents in the particular districts.” Agreeing with Tuberville, Edward Carrington, in another letter to Madison, also speculated that the Antifederalists inserted the residency requirement with the direct purpose of preventing the election of Madison to the House of Representatives. However, the plan failed. Madison comfortably defeated his future Secretary of State and Presidential successor, James Monroe, and Federalists successfully captured seven of Virginia’s ten congressional seats.
New Jersey chose to elect its representatives using the general ticket method and by ballot, creating a system, in which citizens would submit a written ballot with four names, with the four highest-ranked candidates receiving the nomination. Prior to the election, one observer expressed his pessimism regarding the system and, particularly, the process of electing by ballot, arguing that it would result in too many candidates receiving votes. The observer argued that this system would prevent voters from the opportunity to conduct “a proper scrutiny . . . into the conduct and general character of each candidate.” He also lamented that this large pool of candidates combined with the incentive for county residents to vote for their favorite sons would likely result in an outcome in which “a man might happen to be returned who had not perhaps more than a twentieth part of the votes of the whole State.” Helping to prevent this outcome, however, was a concerted effort by several Federalist assemblymen to form a unified ticket between two east and two west Jersey candidates, affectionally referred to by their opponents as the “junto ticket.” The ticket proved successful, and all four members were elected.
In New York, the debate over the state’s election law reflected the state’s status as the center of the Federalist-Antifederalist debates during ratification. In both instances, the debate began in print. One such argument, published in the Daily Advertiser, provided a novel argument that directly contradicted Madison’s reasoning in theFederalist. Accordingly, responding to the contention that representatives should be intimately acquainted with the interests and feelings of their constituents, the anonymous writer rejected that this led to the necessary endorsement of single-member districts. One reason, argued the writer, is that everyone cannot personally be acquainted with their delegates. Rather, people can reasonably only know their reputation and public character, which is sufficient for the purpose of representation. The writer’s interpretation of the Constitution was that representatives were meant to act for the good of their state and not their district. Hence, elections were ultimately subject to control by the state legislature, “where all the interests, feelings, partialities and errors of all corners of the state are collected into a point.” The writer concluded by noting how the general ticket method had been in use in Connecticut for years. To this end, he praised Connecticut’s innovative use of primaries, which he believed best insulated representatives from “the violence of party.” In response, a writer under the pseudonym Publius Secundus Americanus provided a point-by-point refutation of the anonymous Federalist. Among his rebuttals, Publius argued that it was the general ticket method that would more likely result in the “forming [of] state parties.” Moreover, he believed that the general ticket method would only advantage those already elected while concealing the “men of real merit,” who would likely “live and die in oblivion.”
The dispute over which method New York should adopt carried over into the state legislature, where control was split evenly between Federalists and Antifederalists. As was generally seen throughout the other states, the Federalist assemblymen supported the general ticket method, while the Antifederalists supported single-member districts. Federalist Henry Brockholst Livingston attempted to introduce an amendment that provided for the hybrid system adopted by other states. In support of his motion, he argued, “the constitution gave every man a right to vote for six men, and that it would be an arbitrary stride of power to restrain him to vote only for one.” Opposing Livingston, Antifederalist John Lansing responded that if the Constitution had intended to not provide for single-member districts, it would not have given the state legislatures the unqualified authority to do so. “As to the propriety of electing by districts,” Lansing argued, single-member districts were the “most likely way to obtain a representation of the people” since voters are more likely to be acquainted with a single candidate from his locality than six men from throughout the state.
In the end, the New York legislature decided to adopt the single-member district model. On its face, it seems New York’s election law was among the least influenced by partisan politics since it did not blatantly favor one political party. However, this was not the case. On the contrary, New York’s adoption of the single-member district demonstrates just how great of an influence party politics had in shaping the congressional election regulations of the early republic. Among the states whose election laws were blatantly tilted to favor a single party—such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland—the smoking gun was either adopting the general ticket/hybrid method or drawing districts that heavily favored urban centers. The reason for these laws was that they were adopted by legislatures with clear partisan majorities, representing both the opportunity and the prospect of present loss or advantage articulated by Madison and John Jay in the Federalist. New York’s legislature, by contrast, was split between a Federalist Senate and an Antifederalist Assembly. In turn, this power-sharing arrangement had a formative impact on the state’s decision to adopt the single-member district since any attempt by either party to pass a bill favoring only one sides interests would undoubtedly fail. As a result, the legislature adopted the only model which allotted both parties a moderate chance of success.
The First Election Laws in Retrospect
In all, of the thirteen states which participated in the first congressional elections, two states only had one representative, making the method of choice moot; four states adopted the general ticket method, five states adopted the single-member district model, and two states adopted a hybrid model, which split the state into districts but allowed voters to cast votes for a representative in each district. Meanwhile, the election laws and party tactics adopted in response to the laws marked several significant milestones in American democracy and party development. For example, Connecticut’s election law utilized the first instance of a primary system for congressional office. In Massachusetts and Virginia, legislatures engaged in the first instance of drawing districts with the explicit purpose of providing a lopsided partisan advantage, a practice that would become known as gerrymandering. Meanwhile, Federalists in Maryland and New Jersey promulgated the nation’s first party tickets.
A key trend that defined the election was the disparity between the states and within the Federalist coalition regarding the modes of congressional selection. As mentioned above, the pure theory of the Constitution articulated by Madison in the Federalist and echoed by other framers like Rufus King seems to presuppose the adoption of single-member districts as the most appropriate method for congressional selection. However, a consistent theme of Federalists throughout the debates over the first election laws was that the general ticket method was most consistent with the spirit of the Constitution. Further evidence of this supposed dissonance within the Federalist coalition was the opposing methods adopted by states predominated by Federalists. For example, both Georgia and New Jersey unanimously ratified the Constitution, yet the former adopted the single-member district method, and the latter adopted the general ticket method. Moreover, in Virginia, Edward Carrington observed that the state’s election laws were adopted by a “union of Feds. & Antifeds, so that no proposition could be offered agt,” suggesting that the Virginia Federalists accepted the single-member district without any qualms.
In making sense of these contradictions among the Federalists, James Madison’s aforementioned observations during the Convention and within the Federalist that party spirit would likely influence the operations of government provided the most cogent explanation. Indeed, this view was corroborated by Francis Corbin’s opinion that Virginia’s election laws were primarily influenced by the “habits & prejudices of the people of Virginia.” Accordingly, the decisive influence on the first state election laws seemed not to be the pure theory of the Constitution, but party politics. In Pennsylvania, the adoption of the general ticket method was widely regarded at the time as adopted to ensure the election of Federalist representatives. In Virginia and Massachusetts, the single-member districts allowed both sides to draw districts that favored their party and disenfranchise the opposition. Georgia and Maryland adopted the hybrid system on strictly regional lines, with the Maryland legislature’s motives also aligning with their Federalist sympathies. Three different electoral systems, five instances of partisan advantage playing a decisive role in the formation of election law. Meanwhile, in New York, where the parties were forced to compromise due to a split legislature, the election law created a system that provided both sides with a fair opportunity for electoral gain. Of course, as shown above, partisans on both sides supported their actions on Constitutional grounds, but the electoral advantage of many of the laws was a blatant and recurrent feature.
This trend was consistent with the development of congressional selection throughout the early republic. For example, New Jersey adopted the general ticket method under the stewardship of a Federalist majority in 1788. In the three subsequent legislative sessions, Republicans attempted to pass an election bill for district elections. In 1798, Republicans finally succeeded in adopting the single-member district method, transforming a 0-5 representation disadvantage to a 3-2 majority. Two years later, a newly minted Federalist majority reversed Republicans’ gains and reverted the state back to the general ticket method. This time, however, the Federalist’s gambit failed, and the surging Republican party won every seat. As noted by historian Richard P. McCormick, “once in control, the new party abandoned its earlier advocacy of district elections and capitalized to the fullest extent on its power.”
In all, as expressed by the authors of the Federalist, any time partisans are given the impulse and the opportunity to affect institutional change to gain an advantage, they are likely to do so. During the first federal election, partisans were awarded such an opportunity through the Constitution’s failure to stipulate a particular method of congressional selection and an impulse from the posturing between Federalists and Antifederalists following the Constitution’s ratification and the unfolding debate over amendments. As a result, the partisan influences on the first state election laws set a significant precedent for structuring subsequent election laws throughout the first party era, providing an important starting point for understanding both the evolution and development of the single-member district model and the development of America’s two-party system.
“Rufus King in the Massachusetts, January 21, 1788,” in Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 3:267, oll.libertyfund.org/title/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-3#Farrand_0544-03_1267.
“James Madison to George Washington, June 27, 1788,” in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6, 1 January 1788 – 23 September 1788, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 356–357, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0319.
“Proceedings of a Philadelphia Meeting, October 1,” in The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788-1790, ed. Merrill Jensen, Robert A. Becker (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 1976), 1:297.
“A.B., Maryland Journal, Baltimore, February 3,” ibid., 1:211-212. This opinion led to a lively print debate by Federalist sympathizers who took issue with the article’s observations and calculations. For the debate, see “Publius, February 6,” ibid., 1:214-215; “A.B., February 13,” ibid., 1:216-218; “A Friend to Truth, February 20,” ibid., 1:221-223; “An Inhabitant of Washington County, February 24,” ibid., 1:223-225; “A.B., March 3,” ibid., 1:225-227.”