“No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.”
— U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2, clause 2
The constitutional qualifications for office originate in British law. Members of the House of Commons had to live in the shires or boroughs they represented, although that was rarely done in practice. The founders used that example to motivate the requirement that Members of the House live in the state they represent. This would increase the likelihood that they would be familiar with the people’s interests there, but there was no mention during the debates about living in the same district. The district system emerged later as states dealt with how to fairly organize their congressional delegations.
At the time the U.S. Constitution was written, the British prevented anyone born outside England or its Empire from serving in the Commons, even if the individual had subsequently become a citizen. By mandating that an individual be a citizen for at least seven years, the founders attempted to strike a balance between preventing foreign interference in domestic politics and keeping the House of Representatives close to the people. The founders also did not want to discourage immigration to the new country by shutting off the government to new arrivals.
The founders initially set 21, the voting age, as the minimum age to serve in the House. During the Federal Constitutional Convention, though, George Mason of Virginia moved to make the age 25. Mason said that there should be a period between being free to manage one’s own affairs and managing the “affairs of a great nation.” Convention Delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania objected to the suggestion that any further restrictions be placed on House membership, and cited the service of William Pitt as a counterexample. Pitt, who held office at the time of the Convention, was the youngest prime minister in British history at the age of 24. Nevertheless, Mason’s amendment passed seven states to three.
The House and Its Members
Article I, section 5 of the Constitution provides the House with the authority to determine whether Members-elect are qualified to be seated. For instance, William Claiborne of Tennessee became the youngest person to ever serve in the House when he was elected and seated in 1797 at the age of 22. The House also seated Claiborne at the age of 24, when he won re-election. The House, however, has not always been so lenient. Representative John Young Brown of Kentucky was first elected to the House in the 36th Congress (1859–1861) when he was 24, but the House refused to administer the oath of office to him until he was 25—after the first session of the Congress was over.
For Further Reading
Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rev. ed. 4 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1937.
Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay. The Federalist Papers. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.