Madison defends the size of the House of Representatives. Critics had alleged that there were too few members of the House to guard against the cabals, i.e. small groups of legislators violating the rights of the people. Madison argues that the House is big enough to guard against such cabals and small enough to avoid the inefficiencies and confusion of a multitude. Madison points to the fact that the size of state legislatures vary greatly to suggest that the exact size of the House need not be restricted to a precise number.
Madison also introduces the notion that republican government ultimately depends on the virtue of the people. Without virtue, “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
This paper is the first of four dealing with the major criticisms leveled against the House of Representatives. He seeks to present his opponent’s arguments as unreasonable and exaggerated. According to Madison, the legislature’s quality does not necessarily increase in direct proportion to its size: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Madison’s discussion of virtue, though relatively brief, is very important. One of the advantages enjoyed by the anti-federalists was their ability to imagine all the varied ways in which corrupt or power-hungry politicians could use their constitutionally granted powers to threaten the rights of the people. While the federalists’ arguments were confined to what was actually contained in the Constitution, the anti-federalists could come up with all sorts of worst case scenarios. Madison seeks to undercut this strategy by pointing out that no republican government can provide 100% security against usurpations. At some point, the people must have a certain degree of virtue to ensure the safety of the republic.