An Obsolete Congress

"Here, sir, the people govern," said Alexander Hamilton in 1788, as he argued for the direct election of members to the proposed U.S. House of Representatives. "Here they act by their immediate representatives." A working democratic republic was not a new idea, but what was new was putting the idea to the test. The task of the Framers was to build a barrier to tyranny, utilizing the best lessons of history in combination with the still-developing yearnings of diverse peoples whose sense of public spirit was as great as their sense of national direction.

As a result, the new Americans were edgy, determined to maintain their recently won individual independence by controlling their representatives, yet eager to show themselves as loyal citizens of a new nation. "An irritable patriotism" is how Tocqueville phrased the feeling, after his visit in 1831. The young Frenchman observed that the Americans kept themselves informed and involved because of their distrust of government authority.

Three basic assumptions lay at the heart of the Framers' idea of a legislative body elected by the people, all valid at the time but all seriously eroded today. The first assumption was that voters can readily understand major issues and are generally well-informed. The second was that voters can evaluate the performance of their representatives clearly and accurately. The third assumption was that voters will...

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