The First Presidential Veto

The drafters of the U.S. Constitution set the original membership of the House of Representatives at 65 which was an arbitrary number based on the number of members in the Continental Congress. However, one can assume that as the country grew, there should be more than 65 Representatives.

The guidance was in the Constitution which stipulated the number would be adjusted after the first “enumeration,” a fancy word for a census was taken. Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that the actual enumeration shall be made after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years in such manner as they shall by law direct.

It is now 1792, and the Census of 1790 was complete, letting Congress set about laying the ground rules for apportionment, i.e., how many Representatives each state will have. The Constitution makes it clear that each state will have two Senators and at least one Representative.

The next sentence in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 states the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one Representative.

One would think that how the number of representatives would be easy to calculate. It wasn’t.

While the debate on apportionment went on, the United States Congress approved two new states. Vermont entered the union in March 1791 and Kentucky in June 1792.

The first attempt at an apportionment bill was sent to President Washington on March 26th, 1792, for signing into law. He vetoed it on April 5th, 1792, making it the first bill ever vetoed by a president.

Washington’s rationale for sending it back to Congress was that it was not a true representation of each state’s population. The original bill established the number of potential Representatives at 120 which would be divided by the 15 states, i.e. each state would receive up to eight.

After speaking with Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, Henry Knox and Thomas Jefferson, Washington decided the bill was unconstitutional and vetoed it.

The House and Senate sent back a second version in which each state would receive one Representative for every 33,000 persons. In other words, each district in a state must have a minimum number of 33,000 people. Washington signed the on April 14th, 1792, bill because it followed what he believed the drafters of the Constitution intended. Those states with larger populations would have more Representatives than those with fewer citizens.

In the Apportionment Act of 1792, which took effect 11 months later in March 1793, there was no requirement for the geographic size of each district. Its only stipulation was that each district must have 33,000 folks living within its boundaries. The formula led to 106 districts that participated in the 1796 Presidential Election, the first that took place after the Apportionment Bill of 1792 was signed.

The Apportionment Bill of 1792 left the design of the districts up to the individual states because the Tenth Amendment states the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people.

So, with the formula for each district size now established, the state legislators and governors were left to establish the geographic boundaries of each district. Let the gerrymandering begin.

Map shows the Congressional Districts during the 1796 elections. The different colors represent those that support the Federalists (brown) and Democratic-Republicans (green).

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