George Washington had an uncanny knack for getting things right at the last minute. As general of the Continental Army, Washington defused a conspiracy within his officer corps to revolt at the tail end of the Revolutionary War in the spring of 1783. Such a military revolt could have snuffed out American democracy in its infancy. In his old age, Washington, who had owned slaves since he was a young boy, ensured that all of his slaves would be freed upon his wife Martha’s death through his will.
And on September 17, 1787, the final day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington came out in favor of reducing the minimum ratio of representation in the House of Representatives from one representative per 40,000 constituents to one per 30,000 constituents. According to James Madison’s notes, Washington broke the silence he had sustained all summer and remarked that “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.” Washington concurred; he declared that it would give him “much satisfaction” to see the ratio lowered.
We’ve followed in Washington’s footsteps by warding off military despotism and abolishing slavery, but not in ensuring that the House of Representatives remains representative. Today, the average House member represents more than 700,000 people.
It might seem like it’s overstating matters to place concerns about the size of the House of Representatives alongside core tenets of the American creed like the persistence of constitutional democracy itself and the abolition of slavery. But for many members of the revolutionary generation, the legislature’s size implicated the same fundamental question—the question of self-government.