- Historic Sites
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
In order to prevent just that kind of interference in the drafting of the Constitution the delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 did what the Continental Congress had rarely done: they closed their meetings to outsiders and conducted all their sessions in secret. But once the document had been drafted and sent out to the states for ratification, the Founding Fathers took to lobbying for its passage with a zeal seldom equalled in the history of the nation. In pamphlets and broadsides, in private letters and in person, or—as in the case of Alexander Hamilton in New York and others elsewhere—in appearances on the floor of the state conventions, the proponents of the Constitution and the anti-Federalists opposed to it wheedled, cajoled and argued, pushed personal relationships to the limit, and used every tactic short of bribery that lobbyists have customarily employed. Whatever else it may be, The Federalist Papers remains a classic in lobbying literature, remarkably similar in intent to the full-page newspaper ads or four-color brochures that special-interest groups now circulate to enlist the public’s support for their cause.
Given such long involvement with successful lobbying, which had produced a revolution, secured independence, and won a constitution, it is no wonder that the early leaders of the nation fully expected the practice to continue. Nor is it surprising that they did not take steps to minimize its more destructive aspects.
Two things in particular gave them confidence that the lobbies were already adequately controlled. The first was the simple fact that no one expected the national government to play an especially powerful role in the nation’s affairs. The country’s economic interests were predominantly agricultural. Except for the distribution of public lands and the development of a banking-mercantile policy the federal government had few services or perquisites to offer. Whatever special privileges or relief interest groups might want would more likely be sought at the state, rather than the national, level.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the two theories of representative government that prevailed at the time the Constitution took effect seemed to provide built-in checks against the manipulation of the entire legislature by any lobbies that might appear and assurances that the majority interest would nearly always be served.
For the first quarter century of its existence Congress embraced the so-called trustee concept that had dominated English parliamentary thought through the Revolutionary War. As Madison described it in The Federalist (Nos. 56 and 57), the principal function of the national government was to effect a union of interests among otherwise competing states and, as far as possible, to establish a uniformity of law. This could best be accomplished, he argued, by representatives who were experts on “local circumstances” but who nonetheless remained free to balance national goals against local needs. In short, members of Congress, under this concept, were trustees for the nation as a whole, not mere agents for one constituent part.
The concept was put to the test early in the First Congress when the House considered a constitutional amendment that would have permitted constituents to bind their representatives to written instructions from the majority in the home districts. The measure was decisively defeated by a vote of 41 to 10.
By 1820, however, as a result of rising sectionalism precipitated by the emergence of industry in the Northeast and the appearance of Jacksonian democracy everywhere, Congress reverted to the agent concept of representation. As this theory had been understood in eighteenth-century America, all delegates to a legislative assembly were merely agents of the electorate and strictly bound to obey its wishes. Thus in Massachusetts, for example, the town meetings regularly forwarded voluminous and explicit instructions, or memorials, to their delegates in the state’s General Court, spelling out in detail what the majority of the towns expected from any legislative session and in most instances directing the delegates to vote in a particular way. Now the principle was carried over into Congress, and until the Civil War it was not uncommon for the state assemblies to send instructions to their congressional delegations in Washington to see that the states’ interests were protected. This was especially true in the Senate, whose members, after all, were then chosen by the state legislatures and not by popular vote.
But whether the trustee theory or the agent concept dominated mattered little to the lobbyists. Not deterred in the slightest by the federal government’s limited powers, they set out as soon as the Constitution took effect to secure what there was for the taking.
For the first seventy-five years of the Republic the lobbies operated in the familiar low-keyed style of the past. Because of the simplicity of government operations everywhere a kind of “old-boy network” developed whereby patronage and influence depended heavily on family connections and familiarity and less on party affiliations. What characterizes the period is an absence of national lobbies.