On this day in 1792, President George Washington issued the first veto in the history of the United States. And it’s a curious law. It had to do with how many voters were represented by each member in the House of Representatives. Congress was trying to figure out how to give out representatives, given that, you couldn’t just take the Constitution’s number of 30,000 (or more) per Representative given that none of the states had populations that were equally divisible by that number.
What they ended up with was a system that ended up giving northern states more seats in the House. And this was already a touchy issue because the south didn’t have many citizens in it because it remained agrarian with a large percentage of its population labeled as property rather than human. This brings to mind the 3/5ths compromise. If slaves really were property, there was absolutely no justification for giving the southern states any representation based on their slaves. But then, isn’t that just like conservatives: whatever is convenient to get their way.
Congress did finally work out a deal that the president signed, Apportionment Act of 1792. In fact, it was just 5 days after the veto. It’s interesting that the rest of life has gotten astonishingly faster, but Congress has gotten astonishingly slower over the last two centuries.
What I find interesting about it all is how now this problem of apportionment works to help the
slave red states. For example, Wyoming gets one Representative. In 2014, it had a population of 584,000 people. The same year, my home state of California had a population of 38.8 million. We have 53 Representatives. So: we have one Representative for every 732,000 people. That means that each person in Wyoming gets 25% more representation in the House than each person in California. And don’t even get me started on the Senate. (Fun fact: it’s a 65-to-1 ratio.)
Now one could say that Washington made his historic veto because he was trying to protect his fellow vile slaveholders. But I suspect that it was actually the same issue that would be dealt with by every president through Lincoln: dancing around the south’s peculiar institution and not wanting to set them off. Have you noticed that most conservatives try to claim that the Union started the Civil War? The truth is that from the ratification of the Constitution, the south was itching for a way out. They knew their days were numbered. But oh, all the suffering that went on in the mean time.
But hey: first veto.