Refutation of the “Federal Farmer”: Timothy Pickering to Charles Tillinghast

Philadelphia, December 24, 1787

Following are excerpts from Timothy Pickering’s letter to Charles Tillinghast, refuting the “Federal Farmer”:

“In respect to the organization of the general government, the federal farmer, as well as other opposers, object to the smallness of the representation of the people in the House of Representatives; and uniformly reason upon the supposition that it will never consist of more than 65 members; which is the number it is to be composed of only until the actual enumeration of the people shall have been made. As soon as that shall be effected, the House of Representatives, reckoning one member for every 30 thousand of the people, will consist probably of at least one hundred members; and in 25 years more, of 200 members; and in half a century, it would consist of 400 members. It is true the Congress will possess a power of limiting the number of representatives so that they shall never exceed one for every 30 thousand & they may be less; this power of regulating & limiting the number of representatives is properly vested in Congress; otherwise that House would in a century become a most unweildy body, and as very a mob as the British House of Commons. . . . The federal farmer says (page 260) “The general legislature may so regulate elections as to secure the choice of any particular description of capital, or any places in the state, the place or places of election”—& so forth, in the same chimerical strain. But does he,—does any man of common sense, really believe that the Congress will ever be guilty of so wanton an exercise of power? Will the immediate representatives of the people in Congress ever consent to so oppressive a regulation? For whose benefit would they do it? Would not the first attempt certainly exclude themselves?”

“Let me observe generally, that the federal farmer, & other writers of the same stamp, upon reciting the powers of the Congress artfully throw in expressions, unduly to alarm their readers, with ideas that those powers will be arbitrarily exercised.—Such as “Will & pleasure” at Discretion—”Absolute power.” &c. (In page 266.), he says “a power to lay & collect taxes at discretion, is in itself of very great importance.” This is very true; but what then? Does not the legislature of New-York, & of every other state, possess the power of taxing the people at discretion? at will & pleasure? and in this as well as many other things is not their power absolute? But the presumption is, that this discretionwill & pleasure, absolute power, will be under the direction of reason, and this presumption is so well founded, that the people are, in fact, under no apprehensions of oppression from the exercise of such powers.”

“It is also equally necessary that Congress should have power to call forth the militia for the purposes expressed in the constitution. In the late war, pressing as was the common danger, we have been witnesses of the delays of states to furnish their contingents, and of their unequal exertions. If this power is vested in Congress, the calls will ever be proportioned, in time as well as extent, to the exigency of the service. Yet this power, useful & necessary as it is, has been objected to as dangerous, & in its nature oppressive; and therefore, it is concluded that it ought to remain with the state legislatures. . . . Only bear always in your mind, sir, that the inhabitants of the United States are but one peopleone nation, and all fears and jealousies about the annihilation of State governments will vanish.”

Timothy Pickering made a compelling case for why the Constitution should be approved and ratified by the states. One point of reflection is the size of the House of Representatives, which at 435 current members, is perhaps different than Pickering and his contemporaries would have imagined, had they known how large America would become in both geographical size and population. If the number of representatives corresponded with the population such that there was a representative for every 30,000 Americans, the House of Representatives would be quite a large political body indeed at approximately 10,630 members. When Pickering spoke of an unwieldy body, this would certainly typify that.

Besides this issue, Pickering makes a compelling case for the balance of the states and the federal government. Federalism, and the idea that the state governments and the federal government could coexist in a meaningful, productive way, was certainly novel for Americans. Pickering made a compelling case for how that coexistence could work for the benefit of every American, citing taxation and national defense as key advantages.

Pickering’s articulation of the points supporting ratification must have been compelling, as not all Federalists were able to put forth such a powerful argument in support of the Constitution.