Today, the Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin remembers when President Washington cast his first veto on April 5, 1792.
After the first census under the new government, the men of Congress wanted to change the rules for the number of representatives allotted to the states.
A description of the first legislation to be vetoed from The Republic, A Political Science Monthly Magazine, of July 1876:
We are asked, “Did George Washington ever exercise the veto power during his Presidency; and if so, under what circumstances?”
Washington “exercised the veto power” twice.
His first veto is dated April 5, 1792, and returns to the House of Representatives “an act for an apportionment of representation among the several States according to the first enumeration.”
It was the first act under the Constitution for an apportionment of representation among the several States.
In the House, (which embraced such men as James Madison, Elbridge Gerry, William B. Giles, Fisher Ames, Theodore Sedgwick, Fred. A. Muhlenburg, Nathaniel Macon, Thomas Sumter, and Thomas Tudor Tucker,) a very animated and interesting debate had occurred upon its passage, and the wide difference of opinion expressed witnesses the speculative character of the notions then held upon the subject by leading men.
The Constitution had fixed the minimum ratio at one representative to every 30,000 persons.
According to that ratio under the apportionment of the new census the number of members of the House would be increased to 113, which some feared was dangerously large, and moved to strike out 30,000 and increase the ratio to 35,000, and to 40,000.
A lively debate ensued. Some urged that the existing representation was too small to secure the liberties of the country; that if the number be small a majority may be the more easily corrupted; that the people expected an increase in the representation; that an increased representation would be a security against corruption; and the necessary additional expense in the increased total of the pay of members would be trifling as compared with the benefits; that the expense would be more than compensated by the shortening of the session, as a larger number would have a greater capacity for work and by the greater security to the liberties of the people.
Indeed, the existence of the Union might depend upon the fullness of the representation.
Hence they favored the retention of the Constitutional minimum of 30,000.
Others again contended that an increased representation would positively endanger the liberties of the republic; that the total of pay would not only be increased, but the number of officers would be increased, and every man would wish his friend provided for; that corruption would necessarily be the consequence; that the corruption of the French Assembly was owing to its large numbers; that a very numerous representation would weaken, if not destroy, the State and Federal Governments; that an increase would divide and diminish the responsibility of the House, make it too unwieldy, and retard public business.
Hence, they moved to increase the ratio of representation.
A jealousy or fear of the Executive cropped out strongly with some.
The Federal Government was “already pretty highly seasoned with prerogative” — already overshadowed the popular branch, and with a small representation, and its manifold forces of corruption, would soon destroy its integrity.
Others again saw in an energetic government the only guaranty of the blessings of liberty; but Mr. Giles was the strongest exponent of the Democratic notions of the period.
“An inequality of circumstances produces revolutions in government — from democracy to aristocracy and monarchy. Great wealth produces a desire of distinctions, rank, and titles.
“The revolutions in property in this country have produced great inequality of circumstances. Government has contributed to this inequality.
“The Bank of the United States is a most important machine in promoting the objects of this moneyed interest. This bank will be the most powerful engine to corrupt this House.
“Some of the members are directors of this institution, and it will only be by increasing the representation that an adequate barrier can be opposed to this moneyed interest.
“The strong Executive of this Government ought to be balanced by a full representation in the House.”
The result of the debate was the passage of a bill which Washington was compelled to veto, principally because it violated the Constitution “in allotting in eight of the States more than one in every 30,000.”
In the House, the vote upon the passage of the bill over the President’s veto was: Yeas, 23; nays, 33; Fisher Ames, Elbridge Gerry, Theodore Sedgwick, and Artemas Ward voting for its passage, and Wm B. Giles, Nathaniel Macon, James Madison, Fred. A. Muhlenberg, Thomas Sumter, and Thos. Tudor Tucker voting against its passage.
The second veto is dated February 28, 1798, and returns to the House “an act to ascertain and fix the military establishment of the United States,” partly because it discharged from the military service men without providing means for their payment from the date of the law and that of their muster out, but chiefly because of the inconvenience and injury to the public interest by mustering out men engaged in a necessary and important service.
The Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin shows with an image of the empty room for the House of Representatives in the capitol, circa 1831.