Constitution Sunday: Fisher Ames on Biennial Elections and on the Volcano of Democracy

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention.

January 15, 1788

The duration of a term for a member of the House of Representatives was a contentious issue: while some favored one-year terms, others—such as Fisher Ames—advocated for two-year terms. To Ames, a member of the House would be unlikely to learn enough about the country in a year to cast informed votes and to represent the interests of the people. Adding to that was the fact that the country was set to grow: Ames expressed his hope that the country would be home to “fifty millions of happy people” and that a member of the House would require at “least two years in office” to enable that member “to judge of the trade and interests of states which he never saw.” But, also at issue was the expression and suppression of the will of the people through their representatives.

To Ames, “[f]action and enthusiasm are the instruments by which popular governments are destroyed.” And a “democracy is a volcano, which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption, and carry desolation in their way. The people always mean right, and if time is allowed for reflection and information, they will do right.” However, law should not be made based on the “momentary impulse” of the public mind: on the “great questions, we first hear the loud clamours of passion, artifice and faction,” and after those come wiser, more deliberate decisions. Having biennial elections helps to secure those “sober, second” thoughts of the people and to capture those thoughts in the country’s laws. In Ames’ view, the “factions of the day will expire before the end” of a two-year term. If the country had been smaller and not comparable to Germany or to “the Roman empire in the zenith of its power,” perhaps a one-year term would be sufficient—even state legislatures would be more ideal for annual terms—but the United States was already too large for such a system to prevail. And perhaps, according to Ames, having biennial terms would serve to mitigate those passions that could spill out of the volcano and erode the nation’s democracy.

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