Jonathan Salem Baskin

Say What?

Today, an interpretation didn’t become law.

It didn’t take long. The Constitution had been adopted only five years earlier. The first Congress had finished its business a year prior, its 93 members sitting in New York and then Philadelphia (they wouldn’t meet in a newly-created Washington, D.C. for another decade). The accomplishments of that first Congress included establishing the departments of the federal government (like Treasury and State), creating the First Bank of the United States, passing the Patent and Copyright Acts, and sending to the states the Bill of Rights for ratification.

It was just a year into the second U.S. Congress when it sent its Apportionment Bill to President Washington for his signature. Article I, Section II of the Constitution said that each Representative would represent 30,000 voters, and that their total would be decided by the total number of voters in the country. How these slots would be apportioned was a matter of interpretation, however. The Bill proposed that a total number of Representatives be calculated based on the 1790 census; then, while each state would get one for every 30,000 of its voters, the remaining eight or so would be allocated to the largest states (even if they didn’t meet the 30,000 threshold for another body). Washington thought that doing so would be unconstitutional as well as favor the larger states of the North (the North-South divisions in American society already obvious), so on this day in 1792 he issued the first Presidential veto. Congress tried to overturn it the next day, but couldn’t muster the two-thirds majority to do so. Interestingly, more than half of the guys who’d ratified the Constitution in the first place were in the second Congress arguing over what they’d meant when they’d passed the Apportionment Bill.

So if the people who actually wrote the thing debated their original intentions, how is it possible that we can claim to know them?