Events

Constituent Instructions and the Evolution of Representation in America, 1778-1900

Spring 2018 Colloquium Series

As University of Missouri Professor of Political Science Peverill Squire noted in introducing the subject of his February 9 Colloquium Series talk at the Kinder Institute, he didn’t necessarily mean to start researching and writing about “Constituent Instructions and the Evolution of Representation in America, 1778-1900.” As part of his work on his most recent book, The Rise of the Representative, he had examined constituent instructions in colonial America, tracing them back to a Tudor notion of representatives as attorneys acting on behalf of constituents and charting the continuation of the right to instruction in the not yet-United States even after its fade in Great Britain. But the question of what happened after the Revolution remained.

Compounding his interest in this question was the fact that conventional wisdom—derived mainly from the work of political scientist William Riker and historian Clement Eaton—curiously dismisses this post-Revolution history, narrowly limiting the significance of constituent instructions to a primarily Southern phenomenon that more or less became obsolete after 1860. After compiling two unique data sets on actionable communications—instructions or requests for state or congressional lawmakers to take specific policy actions—Prof. Squire realized that this conventional wisdom was flawed on four counts:

Who issued instructions and requests: In a sample set of ~5,000 examples culled from newspapers, town histories, county records, and other somewhat off the beaten path archival sources, it became clear that instructions and requests were not largely issued by state legislators to U.S. Senators, as Riker and Eaton would have it, but also with considerable frequency by constituent groups to state legislators. On this topic, Prof. Squire added that, during the period in question, we also see a shift from issuing instructions to issuing requests, as well as a change in the origin of actionable communications from town meetings, to mass meetings, to local representative bodies.

When they were issued: Prof. Squire found in his research that more instructions and requests were issued over a longer period of time than conventional wisdom dictates and that, in fact, we see a spike in issuance, rather than a descent into obsolescence, after the Civil War.

Where they originated: In short, not only in the South. While Riker focused in his research on high profile instances in Virginia and North Carolina, the fact is that Indiana, Iowa, and California register the highest 19th-century frequency of issuance.

What the nature of these instructions and requests was: Whereas Riker and Eaton map instructions onto issues of national scope—the Articles of Confederation in 1778, for example, and secession in 1861—this was hardly true at other junctures in history, when the majority of communications from constituents to state legislators focused on local issues, and the majority of communications from legislators to members of Congress focused on issues of infrastructural and economic development: navigable rivers, safe harbors, bridges, ferries, mail routes, post offices, and military pensions.

And in examining the nature of instructions, Prof. Squire discovered that the narrative of responsiveness advanced by Riker—that, because of a lack of recall protocol, legislators could (and did) ignore instructions and requests with impunity—likewise didn’t match the data, which showed a surprising number of occasions in which Senators disagreed with the nature of an instruction, yet still obeyed it.

What does reconsidering (and debunking) conventional wisdom tell us? For one, it speaks to the 19th-century rise to prominence of political parties and especially organized interest groups as intermediaries in the relationship between represented and representative. In addition, Prof. Squire concluded, studying the true story behind constituent instructions enriches the picture of how federalism worked during the period in question, with younger states logically appealing more frequently to legislators because of different economic conditions and expectations.

 

Peverill Squire is Professor of Political Science and holds the Hicks and Martha Griffiths Chair in American Political Institutions. He received his A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California-Berkeley. In recent years he has authored The Rise of the Representative: Lawmakers and Constituents in Colonial America (2017); The Evolution of American Legislatures: Colonies, Territories and States, 1619-2009 (2012); co-authored State Legislatures Today: Politics under the Domes (second edition, 2015); Why States Matter (2013); 101 Chambers: Congress, State Legislatures, and the Future of Legislative Studies (2005); and Who Runs for the Legislature? (2001); and co-edited Legislatures: Comparative Perspectives on Representative Assemblies (2002). Professor Squire’s research centers on American politics with an emphasis on legislatures, and for many years, he served as the senior editor of Legislative Studies Quarterly. He regularly teaches undergraduate courses on American state government and American legislatures and graduate courses on legislative institutions, the evolution of American legislatures, and American state politics.