Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Looking to the Founders: Congressional Residency

Author: David Yee
Created: 07 November, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
3 min read
"No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen."  -- U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 3

Every once in a while we get to see a politician jump across state lines to take advantage of an open Senate or House seat -- Hillary Clinton's successful senatorial bid in New York has been a high-profile recent occurrence.

In modern politics, this is often seen as an abuse to the system -- yet the Founders had a vested interest in setting the system up this way. The obvious question then becomes, why would the Founders intentionally set up a system with such apparent avenues of abuse?

British Abuses Helped Form Requirements

The summer of 1787 was a busy time for the Founding Fathers -- trying to make compromises and coalitions to get the Constitution approved and sent to the states for ratification.

The delegates didn't spend a whole lot of time on the subject of qualifications for representatives and senators, but the abuses that led to the Revolution definitely played into the crafting of the final product.

"No taxation without representation" was one of the rally cries of the Revolution. But the cries for representation were ones of resentment, not ones that could have actually been fulfilled.

Colonial businessmen, like Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, or Haym Salomon, could not have ever served in the British Parliament, which at that time was limited only to those born in the British Isles.

The Founders were stuck with a dilemma. A total ban on immigrants serving in the new government was against the Spirit of the Revolution, yet as Pierce Butler pointed out, the recent arrivals were still dangerously attached to their motherlands.

James Wilson, one of the first associate justices of the Supreme Court, noted that lengthy citizenship requirements "discouraged and mortified" everyone they excluded.

Wilson's ideas stuck and citizenship requirements of 7 and 9 years were set up as the requirements of the House and Senate, respectively. This put an end to the Virginia Plan's idea that a candidate should have 14 years of citizenship before being eligible for holding office.

Inhabitant versus Resident

Jumping across state lines to fill political offices was not exactly uncommon in the generation of the Founding Fathers. Elbridge Gerry held political offices in at least three different states, as well as federal offices, and he wasn't an exception to the rule.

The use of "inhabitant" as opposed to "resident" was an intentional modification to the requirements for candidacy.

The original draft contained "resident," which according to Roger Sherman was more likely to be subject to "misconstruction" than inhabitant. James Madison agreed, noting that many of the fellow Founders spent lengthy amounts of time away from home on business or political trips. Requiring uninterrupted residency would hinder them from becoming lawmakers.

The convention unanimously passed the measure of being an inhabitant without having a specific time period as a requirement.

Modern Mobility

Today, we have far more mobility than the Founders could have ever envisioned. From the interstate highway system to modern jet travel, we are a mobile society.

We freely move from state-to-state as Americans -- only at certain times does our state citizenship come into play in our modern lives.

Between school and career responsibilities, I'm not sure I could have ever fulfilled the residency requirements set forth in the Virginia Plan to have held an office. I've lived in four different states in my adulthood, with thirteen years residency as the longest uninterrupted stretch.

While we have a system that is open to the occasional abuse, the Founders put into play a system that still works in a society that is constantly on the move.

This is the lasting novelty of the Constitution -- that after 225 years since its ratification, it still is a flexible enough framework for our modern governance.

We need to remember Founders like James Wilson, who had the foresight to realize that Americans would be constantly on the move, then and now.

Image: James Wilson