The Representative Conundrum

Christopher Gadsden. By: Charles Fraser.

Throughout American history, there has always been a question about the nature of representation: do representatives represent only their constituents in their district or do they represent the entire people, as their actions impact the entire people? This debate played out in the years surrounding the American Revolution and continues today.

As explained in Sparking the Revolution, virtual representation was a concept that early Americans disagreed with as it applied to them with Britain but approved of in setting up their own system. Virtual representation assumed that representatives in fact represented the entire people, not just their constituents. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 188.

In conflict with virtual representation, however, was the giving of instructions from constituents to representatives. Giving instructions was widely integrated into Americans’ participation in politics, long before the Revolution. See id. at 189. For example, in Massachusetts, individuals in towns would give instructions to their deputies to ensure their interests were represented in the General Court. Id.

As Gordon Wood explained in The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, however, where instructions “were confined largely to parochial and local concerns, they were not really incompatible with the conception of virtual representation.” Id. at 190. The difficulty emerged where even private problems of constituents became public problems, which seemed to imply that perhaps their experiences were part of a larger pattern throughout the state or country that needed to be addressed. See id.

While the northern states, like Massachusetts, had grown with these principles permeated into government, southern states like South Carolina were beginning to see the tension between virtual representation and actual representation by the 1780s. Id. at 193. Christopher Gadsden wrote that the integrity of the legislature was at risk in these situations. Id. If legislatures were to give in to their constituents’ private concerns, it may “serve to put the legislature into leading strings, and make them as a body contemptible, and their members as individuals obsequious to the great men of the club.” Gazette of the State of South Carolina, Aug. 19, July 17, 1784; Rudiments of Law and Government Deduced from the Law of Nature . . . (Charleston, 1783), 33-34; see also Richard Walsh, ed., The Writings of Christopher Gadsden, 1746-1805 (Columbia, S.C., 1966), 200-38.

After the Revolutionary War and as the years of the Early Republic progressed, Americans became increasingly aware of “what excessive localism, binding instructions, and acutely actual representation signified for their assumptions about the nature of republican politics.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 195-96. Ultimately, Americans decided to “[s]ubmerge all particular and partial interests into the general good” as a government should not disregard local interests, as “[n]o man when he enters into society does it from a view to promote the good of others, but he does it for his own good.” Id. at 196 quoting James Winthrop, “Agrippa Letters” (1787-88), in Paul L. Ford, ed., Essays on the Constitution of the United States (Brooklyn, 1892), 73.

Striking that balance between actual representation and virtual representation continues to today. Representatives are forced to follow the instructions of their constituents occasionally, as they must do so to an extent if they have any hope of being re-elected. On the other hand, many bills that a representative votes on may have no impact on their constituents.

It is crucial that the balance continues to be struck in such a way that all interests are considered in light of “the general good.” Where decisions are made on a state or federal level that only consider local interests, those decisions are without basis or justification, barring the most extraordinary of circumstances.

As the 2016 election nears, Americans would do well to remember these principles when evaluating the record of their incumbents.

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