In April 1842, the United States House of Representatives began what could arguably be called the first reorganization process—the first spring cleaning, as it were—in Congress’ history. The size of the House had increased steadily since 1789, and as required by the Constitution it had adjusted its Membership every 10 years following the Census in a process called reapportionment. As the country’s population grew, so too had the number of seats in the House.
The House had tried to keep something of a proportional pace with the nation’s population: in 1790, when America’s population stood at a mere 3,929,214, the House had a membership of 65, or one Member for every 60,449 people; by 1830, when 12,860,702 people lived in America, the House had grown to 213 seats, or one Member for every 60,379 people. But, a decade later, in a decision that shaped the makeup of the House for decades, Congress broke with 50 years of precedent to make two dramatic and substantial changes: it shrunk the size of the House for the first time in U.S. history, and standardized what we would recognize as the modern congressional district.
The effort to overhaul the makeup of the House was not the smoothest process, nor did it generate much public interest as many people were still digging out from under the economic collapse sparked by the Panic of 1837. The Jeffersonian Republican, a Whig paper in eastern Pennsylvania, reported in early May 1842, for instance, that the debate over the House’s size and shape “proceeded where it closed last evening, and in the same rambling irrevalent [sic] manner.” But when the dust finally settled and the Apportionment Act of 1842 finally passed, the House had shrunk from 242 seats to 223 seats even as the U.S. population had grown to more than 17 million. It would be 20 years, during which another 14 million people were added to the Census count, until the House grew again to more than 240 seats.
If the immediate effect of the act was a smaller House size, the long-term effect of the law helped lay the foundation for America’s modern electoral system.
In the early Congresses, the method of electing Representatives varied from state to state and changed frequently. The first clause of Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution delegated the “Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives” to state legislatures and gave the federal government little power. By the 1830s, states had settled on two competing electoral systems: single-Member districts and general tickets. In many cases, states adopted the now-familiar single-Member district in which one person, the candidate with the most votes, was elected to represent a geographically distinct district in the House.
The other predominant system was referred to as a “general ticket.” Under this system, voters could cast as many votes as there were seats to be filled in each state, while voting for each candidate only once. In practice, this typically led to voters selecting each candidate on a slate provided by a political party. Proponents argued this method led to more cohesive party delegations, and states that used general tickets almost uniformly sent single-party delegations to Congress. By this logic, such partisan unanimity amplified the voices of smaller states in the House by allowing delegations to present a united front.
Although general ticket voting did not by its nature favor one party over another, the reality played out much differently. The Whig Party—which had formed largely in opposition to President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party in the 1830s—descended from the Federalist Party and favored strong tariffs, industrial growth, and a significant but not universal opposition to slavery, issues that resonated in the northern states. The problem for Whigs was that general-ticket voting found the most use in border and southern states, where people tended to favor positions that aligned with Democratic priorities: lower tariffs, agricultural economies, and the expansion of slavery. This meant that even if a substantial number of Whigs lived in western and southern states, general-ticket voting tended to send large numbers of Democrats to Congress.
Prior to 1842, the general ticket had proved especially damaging to Whigs. The opening of the 26th Congress (1839–1841), for instance, had descended into chaos after New Jersey, which at the time used general-ticket voting, sent rival delegations of Democrats and Whigs to the House, each claiming to have been duly elected. The confusion ended in March of 1840 when a ruling from the Committee on Elections put to rest the months-long controversy and gave control of the chamber to Democrats. After Democrats in Alabama’s state legislature implemented a general-ticket system for the 1842 elections, Whigs feared being locked out of even more seats in the House. But a crippling economic recession combined with the fact that 1842 also featured a presidential election meant that Whigs were able to ride the coattails of President William Henry Harrison to majorities in both the House and Senate at the opening of the 27th Congress (1841–1843).
The 27th Congress was the first session following the completion of the decennial Census, and Members anticipated passing a new apportionment bill which would set the number of Representatives for the next 10 years. But for many Whigs in the 27th Congress, the bill also provided an opportunity to nullify the use of general-ticket voting which had long plagued the party.
One week after convening the second session, the House approved the creation of the Committee on Apportionment of Representatives, chaired by veteran Whig Horace Everett of Vermont, to consider H.R. 73, the reapportionment bill. Everett’s committee moved swiftly, presenting a startling report on January 22, 1842: “A majority of the committee were of the opinion that the despatch [sic] of business and economy required that the number of the House should be diminished.” Everett’s report used the apportionment method from the previous Census and set the ratio of constituents to Congressman at 68,000; it was amended in March to an even greater average of 70,680 constituents per district.
Debate began in the House on H.R. 73 a month later in late April. Typically, Representatives argued bitterly in favor of increased representation for their own state, often at the expense of other states. But in 1842, many, but not all, Whigs argued against increasing representation from all states. Armed with the recent publication of James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Whigs and Democrats employed opinions that harkened back to the founding era.
Influential Whigs like Everett largely echoed the arguments of Federalists; most valued a more deliberative House, preferring to limit representation to an elite few over an “excess of democracy.” They stressed the benefits of a smaller House, including more orderly debate and the ability to be heard by fellow Members and gallery onlookers alike. This belief wasn’t a universal among House Whigs, but the Whigs who made up party leadership wanted to see the House shrink and wielded the necessary influence to shape the debate. Kentucky Whig Joseph Underwood drew unsavory comparisons to the English House of Commons (which then had 658 members) and warned of “a mob government, by confusion.” John Burton Thompson, also a Kentucky Whig, warned later in debate that a “House of hundreds” would not be run by “reason and deliberation” but rather so governed by “passion” as to make it “inert.”
In contrast, Democrats invoked Anti-Federalist rhetoric that championed the political power of average citizens. Democrats argued in favor of smaller congressional districts and more Members as a way to make the House responsive to the concerns of constituents and as a way to guard against concentrated power. New York Democratic Representative Richard Davis underscored this argument when he called for electing “more of the people into the House, and fewer gentlemen.” And yet, for all the Democratic talk of glorifying the American yeoman farmer, only 12 percent of antebellum Democrats claimed agriculture as their primary pursuit. Other Democrats admitted a smaller House might be more efficient but that wasn’t the point. “It was not that they should pass a certain number of laws in a certain time,” Charles Brown of Pennsylvania concluded, “but that they should pass good laws.”
Other Whigs sided with Democrats on the subject of a larger House of Representatives. Joseph White, a Whig from Indiana, contended that “a small House would destroy its representative character entirely. The character of the House should be assimilated as nearly as possible to the character of people whom it represented.” Several other Whigs, like James Sprigg of Kentucky, admonished their colleagues for insinuations that a larger House might fall prey to corruption or lose relevance to the smaller Senate.
As debate dragged on, high-minded rhetoric gave way to more typical partisan bickering. Democrats charged Whigs with attempting to cement their newfound majorities, even as more conservative Whigs bickered with members of their own party about the appropriate size of the House.
On April 26, 1842, nearly a week into the debate, Chairman William Halstead of the Committee of Elections (who had been on the New Jersey Whig ticket excluded from the 26th Congress) submitted a bombshell amendment limiting states to the use of single-Member districts and forbidding the use of general-ticket voting. The amendment crystallized Whig support for the bill, but only intensified debate.
Opponents of Halstead’s amendment, like Democrat Walter Colquitt of Georgia argued passionately for a restrictive interpretation of Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution, which delegated control of elections to state legislatures. He questioned just how far Congress had the right to regulate elections, and even asked that his state of Georgia, which used a general ticket, be exempted from the bill. “Does Congress assume the power to curtail this right of the voter,” he asked. Every voter in Georgia, he said, “has a direct interest in the character of each Representative elected from his State, and is entitled to cast his vote for each.” Later on, Democrat Sampson Hale Butler of South Carolina voiced his exasperation at what he felt was a litany of high-minded constitutional arguments that barely concealed partisan concerns. “I have no doubt,” he groaned, “some of our constitutional expounders would argue very learnedly to convince us that four and four did not make eight.”
Whigs, however, reminded Democrats of the second clause of Article 1, Section 4: “Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations” regarding elections to the House of Representatives. They argued the House was always intended to be representative of the people rather than the states.
For Whigs, limiting the notion that states had power over federal elections was key to overturning claims by southern Democrats, many of whom used similar states’ rights arguments to justify their support for the preservation and expansion of slavery. To that end, Whigs recalled James Madison’s words from the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788 that the principle of equality required that elections “should be uniform throughout the continent.”
Ultimately, the Whig majority carried the argument. No Democrat, Chairman Everett noted the day before the vote in the House, “had denied that the district system was a proper mode of electing Representatives; not a single man had pretended that the general ticket system ought to be established as a general rule.”
Despite earlier arguments by conservative Whigs that a big House would be too unwieldy, on the day of the vote a number of Whigs sided with Democrats to expand the size of the House to 305 seats. The provision establishing the single-Member district passed along more partisan lines, 113 to 87, and traveled to the Senate for a month of debate.
Senators, mainly old-school Whigs, were most concerned about the proposed size of the House. They discarded the ratio of one House seat per 50,179 people that would have enlarged the House out of fear that “an apparently overwhelming majority” in a much bigger House might render the Senate useless in the decision-making process. The Senate left the single-Member district provision alone, but returned the bill to the House with a higher ratio of 70,680 people per House seat, which set the number of Representatives at 223—a total loss of 19 seats from the existing number (which included seats from Arkansas and Michigan, both of which had been granted statehood during the 1830s).
The House did not linger long in debate this time. John Quincy Adams, who supported a larger House and had remained uncharacteristically quiet during the earlier protracted debate, rose to condemn the Senate’s bill as being handed down from an “aristocratic body” determined to work its will upon the House. He demanded that a conference committee resolve the dispute, but the proposal gained little traction as one Whig after another criticized Adams’ language.
Although Whigs remained split on the size of the House, party consensus consolidated around the elimination of general-ticket voting, which the Senate had left alone. Southern Whigs also courted northern Democrats, a portion of whom offered support in final passage where they had not during debate. In his journal, Adams bitterly surmised that his political opponents were going to shrink the size of the House just to spite him; that “an out-of-door negotiation with Southern slave-holders and Northern Five-Points Democrats [from Manhattan] has accomplished this revolution in the voting of the House, all linked together by a common hatred, envy, jealousy, and fear of one man. It is an exact counterpart of the restoration of the gag-rule, effected in the same manner and by the same tactics.” After two days of delay, the House approved the Senate’s amendments and sent the bill to the President’s desk on June 17.
As approved by the House and Senate, the bill effectively eliminated the general-ticket system in favor of the congressional district. And for the first time in the young nation’s history, the House of Representatives would welcome fewer Members in the next session of Congress. But the Apportionment Act of 1842 still needed the President’s signature to take effect. And all the while, the specter of state nullification lingered menacingly in the background.
Sources: Congressional Globe, House, 27th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 December 1841; 22 January, 21 April, 26 April, 27 April, 2 May, 3 May, 17 June 1842); Congressional Globe, Appendix, 27th Cong., 2nd sess. (3 May, 25 May, 21 June 1842); House Committee on Apportionment of Representatives, Apportionment of Representatives Under the Sixth Census, 27th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 43 (1842); Jeffersonian Republican, 4 May 1842; Martin H. Quitt, “Congressional (Partisan) Constitutionalism: The Apportionment Act Debates of 1842 and 1844,” Journal of the Early Republic 28 (Winter, 2008); Jay K. Dow, Electing the House: The Adoption and Performance of the US Single-Member District Electoral System (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2017); John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, vol. 11 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1876).Follow @USHouseHistory