Probably no man in America in 1800 knew more about, or cared more passionately for, republicanism than Thomas Jefferson. It was the common belief that a true republic had to be of a fairly limited size, on the model of the Greek republics, in which Athens, at perhaps 200,000 was the largest, or the Italian republics of the middle ages, which generally numbered no more than 70,000 or 80,000 people. The point was that since these operated not by face-to-face democracy but by representation, the deliberative body to which citizens sent their delegates had to be limited—in the hundreds, but certainly no bigger than the Athenian assembly that was 500 at its largest. But Jefferson, then President of a nominal republic of 5 million people, still believed that the American system was a republic: first, because each state was sovereign and could nullify Federal laws that it thought unconstitutional, second because the popular legislative body (the House) was limited to one representative for every 30,000 people, so that even the redistricting after the 1800 census would limit the number to about 178 representatives, a workable body.
At the same time, probably no man in America knew more about, or cared more ardently to acquire for the country, the lands to the west of the original colonies all the way to the Mississippi. But he realized that this could create a problem. Already two new states had been added there—Kentucky had seceded from Virginia, Tennessee from North Carolina—and territories had been formed for the Northwest, Indiana, and Mississippi that would likely become states in the near future. If all of that area became heavily populated—already Kentucky had almost 221,000 people, more than New Jersey or Georgia—and if additional states were created that joined the existing union, then at some point republicanism would be severely threatened. Large states themselves would cease to be representative republics except in name, and if they all were apportioned with seats in the House at some point it would become a body of unworkable size–or if the size was limited the delegates’ district would hold far too many people for them ever to know the people’s will.
This was an inevitable problem that Jefferson wrestled with in office and out: how many people would finally make the system unworkable and no semblance of a republic, and what would the nation do to keep from losing its republican form? At what size must the nation limit itself if were to have anything like a workable democracy? “The mother principle is that ‘governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it,” Jefferson said in 1816. At what point would that principle be violated?
Early on, Jefferson seemed to feel that one could maintain republicanism over large areas. “I suspect that the doctrine, that small States alone are fitted to be republics, will be exploded by experience,” he wrote in 1795. “Perhaps it will be found that to obtain a just republic…it must be so extensive as that local egoisms may never reach its greater part…. The smaller the societies, the more violent and more convulsive their schisms.” Even earlier he had written that “our present federal limits [i.e., thirteen colonies] are not too large for good government, nor will an increase of votes in Congress produce any ill effect. On the contrary it will drown the little divisions at present existing there.”
That was also the theme of his Second Inaugural in 1804, after he had pushed through the Louisiana Purchase the year before. “I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some,” he said, “from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union. But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family?”
Yet even then he knew that great size can create great problems: “How may territories of the Union be disposed of, so as to produce the greatest degree of happiness to their inhabitants,” he wrote in 1786. “The ultramontane States [beyond the Appalachians] will not only be happier in States of moderate size, but it is the only way in which they can exist as a regular society….A state of such extent as one hundred and sixty thousand square miles, would soon crumble into little ones.” At the time, Virginia was the largest state in the Union, at more than 64,000 square miles, and to increase that by more than 100,000 seemed impossible—indeed, three years earlier Virginia had agreed to give up some 265,000 square miles of its territory in the northwest because it was ungovernable.
In the year of his election to the Presidency, Jefferson again reflected on a country grown too big: “Our country is too large [at 14 states, reaching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi] to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, & from under the eye of their constituents, will invited the public agents to corruption, plunder & waste. And I do verily believe, that if the principle were to prevail, of a common law being in force in the U.S. (which… reduces us to a single consolidated government), it would become the most corrupt government on earth.”
And much later, in 1816, reflecting on the problem of size after his presidency had doubled the country, he wrote in a letter to John Taylor of Virginia, a man much troubled by the vastness the nation had acquired, “If, then, control of the people over the organs of the government be the measure of its republicanism, and I confess I know no other measure, it must be agreed that our governments have much less of republicanism than ought to have been expected; in other words, that the people have less regular control over their agents than their rights and their interest require.” By then two new states had been added to the Union (four more would join in the next four years) and the population was more than 7 million, 1 million of them beyond the Appalachians. “Much I apprehend,” Jefferson added, “that the golden moment is past for reforming these heresies. The functionaries of public power rarely strengthen in their dispositions to abridge it, and an unorganized call for timely amendment is not likely to prevail against an organized opposition to it.”
In other words, the Louisiana Purchase had made the country so large, and large states were increasingly being added to it, that Jefferson realized his beloved republicanism was waning as governments, state and federal, became more like European states and were less and less able to express the will of the people.
But that was, after all, Jefferson’s fault. It was he who added the territory, he knew that states would proliferate (indeed, on a 1784 map, twenty years before the Purchase, he had proposed 10 new states for the area between the mountains and the Mississippi), and he knew that republicanism would be threatened—but he did nothing to stop or regulate it. With greater forethought he might have decreed that the new territory’s states would not be part of the original union but had to form federations of their own—and indeed he had once envisioned that there next to an Atlantic republic there would be a Mississippi republic, “free and independent Americans, unconnected with us but by the ties of blood and interest”—but he did nothing to assure that, though he alone was in a position to have done so.
It is said, in Jefferson’s defense, that when it became known that Napoleon had forced Spain to sign over its Louisiana territory, something had to be done to prevent a French government in control of the Mississippi and its principal port, New Orleans. By then, in 1801, the United States was already dependent on the river for a great deal of traffic and could not tolerate a foreign government with control over the port—for although Spain nominally owned the port, in 1795 it had made an agreement whereby the Americans could use its facilities, and it never had an armed force there large enough to enforce an embargo if it chose to impose one.
But that did not mean that the U.S. had to bargain with Napoleon to buy the port, as Jefferson began to do shortly after taking office in 1801. He might easily have simply taken it with a small armed force. France was then bogged down in a war for the preservation of Haiti, with 20,000 troops heavily engaged in fighting Toussaint L’ouverture and yellow fever, a battle they would eventually lose in 1803 with great loss of life; and Napoleon was more interested in preparing for another war with Britain than trying to bring civilization to the heathen Indians or, for that matter, the heathen American frontiersmen. The U.S. had an army of 3,000 men at the time—not large, but sufficient to take over New Orleans from the Spanish and keep France from trying to enter the continent.
Of course the Francophile Jefferson at the time regarded France as an ally, in spite of the quasi-war between the two countries in the last two years before the turn of the century, in which French privateers interrupted more than 300 American ships trading with Britain and the fledgling American navy responded by going after the privateers in a series of bloody battles that ended only when Bonaparte came to power in 1800 and called the privateers home. So he had no stomach for a military intervention. But as he went on with negotiations for the lower Louisiana he began to realize that there was no constitutional provision for a President to buy land for the nation and that what he was doing would be regarded as unconstitutional. Had he thought of the military alternative, to get Congress to authorize sending an army to New Orleans would have been not only constitutional but probably quite popular.
The consequences to the nation of its uncharted growth began to be noticed as early as 1822, the year that John Taylor, Jefferson’s Virginia friend, wrote a scathing attack on centralized government called Tyrannny Unmasked. In it he wrote, early on, this extensive critique:
Most political writers have concluded, that a republican government over a very large territory, cannot exist; and as this opinion is sustained by alarming proofs, and weighty authorities, it is entitled to much respect, and serious consideration. All extensive territories in past time, and all in the present age, except those of the United States, have been, or are, subject to monarchies. As the Roman territory increased, republican principles were corrupted…the failure of consolidated republican government in France may probably have been accelerated or caused by the extent of her territory. Shall we profit by so many examples and authorities, or rashly reject them. If they only furnish us with the probability, that a consolidated republic cannot long exist over a great territory, they forcibly admonish us to be very careful of our confederation of republics.
But the way the country was headed, he felt, was disregarding this lesson, and he feared that soon the sovereign states would be overwhelmed by the central state. “I believe that a loss of independent internal power by our confederated States, and an acquisition of supreme power by the Federal department…will substantially establish a consolidated republic over all the territories of the United States;…that this consolidation would introduce a monarchy, and that the monarchy, however limited, checked, or balanced, would finally become a complete tyranny.”
And this trend was ascertained only 20 years after the Purchase but in a nation grown to 9.6 million people (1.5 slaves) in 21 states (more than 2 million west of the mountains), with 187 people in the House. If Taylor could see it, why couldn’t the entire body politic—and begin to do something about it? Clearly the House would reach its theoretically maximum size of 200 with the next election, so shouldn’t that something be started on immediately. Shouldn’t Jefferson in retirement, and much revered now that the partisan battles were long forgotten, have rallied the nation to this cause? He might revive his old idea about separate federations and suggest the formation of at least one new federation—the original thirteen colonies, plus a Mississippi union (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri). That would still make the United States a large country, at 7 million, but with a House of 130 representatives it could look forward to a tolerably sized body for many decades.
Needless to say, no such epiphany came to Jefferson or anyone else that we know of. As a result, the nation grew into a “monarchy,” the White House at its center, the House became ungovernable at 435 in 1911 when the membership was capped, and increasingly Congressional districts have grown so populous that today each member represents an average of 712,644 individuals, which of course is impossible.
Size matters, and the current oversize of the United States is the principle reason for its inability to function. Not just as a republic, for we gave that up a long time ago, but to function simply as a nation. Secession, anyone?