Federal Farmer: Is There a “Right Person” for Office?

By: TJ Martinell

The Federal Farmer believed it was important to get the right people in office, yet he warned that a lack of more stringent requirements for officeholders would have negative consequences. 

The qualifications for office required by the Constitution are minimal. A person has to be at least 25 years old to serve in the House of Representatives and at least 30 years old to sit in the Senate. The president has to be at least 35 years old and a natural born citizen.

These criteria obviously don’t address the character of persons best-suited to hold office. The Federal Farmer thought there should be higher standards for office holders, and he delved into this issue in his fourteenth letter dated Jan. 17, 1788.

His arguments were well-rooted in a firm understanding of the Roman Republic and the circumstances that eventually led to its downfall.

In the Roman Republic, the Senate consisted of two groups of people; plebians or commoners, and patricians – those who descended from Rome’s founding families. Patricians had numerous privileges and were allowed to hold offices not permitted for others.

Another more important societal distinction in the Roman Republic was that only men who owned property could serve in the military. This wasn’t a problem initially as far as maintaining a sizable force, but as wealth concentrated into fewer and fewer hands and the Republic controlled more territory, Rome suffered from a severe manpower shortage. It eventually eliminated the requirement so that propertyless commoners could serve.

This created a problem, because men with little to no wealth and no prospects in civilian life could potentially enrich themselves through military conquests, while men of property had land to maintain and could not afford to be away in prolonged wars. Additionally, poor soldiers relied on the success of their commanders, and as a result, their loyalty was to whomever led them to victory, rather than to the Republic.

That historical context helps explain why the Federal Farmer felt only wealthy men of property should serve in elected offices (bold emphasis added).

Men of property, and even men who hold powers for themselves and posterity, have too much to lose, wantonly to hazard a shock of the political system; the game must be large, and the chance of winning great, to induce them to risque what they have, for the uncertain prospect of gaining more. Our executive may be altogether elective, and possess no power, but as the substitute of the people, and that well limited, and only for a limited time. The great object is, in a republican government, to guard effectually against perpetuating any portion of power, great or small, in the same man or family; this perpetuation of power is totally uncongenial to the true spirit of republican governments.

Additionally, he felt that the Constitution’s age requirements for elected offices were too broad. He argued that people needed to be older, more experienced, and with more to lose than younger men tempted to use the office to build wealth (bold emphasis added).

The same constitution that makes a man eligible for a given period only, ought to make no man eligible till he arrive to the age of forty or forty-five years: if he be a man of fortune, he will retire with dignity to his estate; if not, he may, like the Roman consuls, and other eminent characters in republics, find an honorable support and employment in some respectable office. A man who must, at all events, thus leave his office, will have but few or no temptations to fill its dependant offices with his tools, or any particular set of men; whereas the man constantly looking forward to his future elections, and, perhaps, to the aggrandizement of his family, will have every inducement before him to fill all places with his own props and dependants. As to public monies, the president need handle none of them, and he may always rigidly be made [to] account for every shilling he shall receive.”

The Federal Farmer perhaps borrowed from the Roman Republic’s concept of patricians in calling for an actual royal family, rather than a president (bold emphasis added).

On the whole, it would be, in my opinion, almost as well to create a limited monarchy at once, and give some family permanent power and interest in the community, and let it have something valuable to itself to lose in convulsions in the state, and in attempts of usurpation, as to make a first magistrate eligible for life, and to create hopes and expectations in him and his family, of obtaining what they have not. In the latter case, we actually tempt them to disturb the state, to foment struggles and contests, by laying before them the flattering prospect of gaining much in them without risking any thing.”

The Federal Farmer’s recommendations may baffle modern readers, particularly the concept of a “limited monarchy.” This seems to contradict his prior letters warning of aristocracy.

As much as he didn’t want people inheriting political offices as aristocrats do, he was concerned with the type of people holding office. Would they think long-term and be interested in preserving what was, or would they be impulsive and eager to upset established order?

It’s worth noting how many of his fears regarding Congress have come to pass. Many people elected with modest wealth leave rich because, for example, their power and insider knowledge allows them to play the stock market.

The takeaway from this letter is that a republic must be governed by people who have a stake in the outcome and skin in the game, i.e. incentives to maintain the status quo, and not be driven by perverse incentives that undermine the government or liberty.

However, the main weakness to his argument is the belief that wealth and property satisfy greedy politicians. This is demonstrably false, as many members of Congress are independently wealthy and were so prior to office, yet that does not prevent them from further enriching themselves at the expense of the people’s liberty.

The focus on electing the right people is on par with “throwing the bums out,” i.e. voting in a new person to replace an incumbent. This strategy has repeatedly failed because it doesn’t address the main problem – too much government power along with a lack of accountability that can only come from the bottom up.

The lesson is that it’s better to focus on how people can resist or restrain elected officials when they misuse or abuse their power than on getting the “right person” into office.

Which is, of course, why Thomas Jefferson later described nullification as the “rightful remedy” to unconstitutional federal actions.