Category Archives: Founding Fathers

Founding Fathers and Majority Rule

The Founding Fathers and Lincoln endorsed majority rule. Here are their best quotes.

Thomas Jefferson

  • Notes of the State of Virginia, 1780s: “After the establishment of the new form they adhered to the Lex majoris partis, founded in common law as well as common right. It is the natural law of every assembly of men, whose numbers are not fixed by any other law.”
  • Letter to Madison, 1787: “After all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail. If they approve the proposed [constitution,] I shall concur in it chearfully, in the hopes that they [i.e., a Majority] will amend it whenever they shall find it work wrong.”
  • First Inaugural Address, 1801: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” He further described “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority” as “the vital principle of republics.”

Jefferson said a lot about majority rule. See here and here for more.

Alexander Hamilton

  • Resolutions for a General Convention, 1783: “In requiring the assent of nine States to matters of principal importance, and of seven to all others, except adjournments from day to day; a rule destructive of vigor, consistency, or expedition in the administration of affairs; tending to subject the sense of the majority to that of the minority, by putting it in the power of a small combination to retard, and even to frustrate, the most necessary measures; and to oblige the greater number, in cases which require speedy determinations, as happens in the most interesting concerns of the community, to come into the views of the smaller; the evils of which have been felt in critical conjunctures, and must always make the spirit of government a spirit of compromise and expedient rather than of system and energy.”
  • Federalist 22, 1787: The “fundamental maxim of republican government” is “that the sense of the majority should prevail.”
  • Federalist 22, 1787: “To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser.”

James Madison

  • Federalist 10, 1787: “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.”
  • Federalist 58, 1788: “It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale. In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority.”
  • Letter to Jefferson, 1825: “the will of the nation being in the majority, the minority must submit to that danger of oppression as an evil infinitely less than the danger to the whole nation from a will independent of it.”
  • Letter, 1833: “…the vital principle of republican government is the lex majoris partis, the will of the majority.”
  • Letter, 1834: “…the problem to be solved, is not what form of Government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect: and here the general question must be between a republican government, in which the majority rule the minority, and a government in which a lesser number or the least number rule the majority.”

Thomas Paine

  • Rights of Man, 1792: “…such is the nature of representative government, that it quietly decides all matters by majority.”
  • Pamphlet, 1795: “In all matters of opinion, the social compact, or the principle by which society is held together, requires that the majority of opinions becomes the rule for the whole, and that the minority yields practical obedience thereto. This is perfectly conformable to the principle of equal rights: for, in the first place, every man has a right to give an opinion but no man has a right that his opinion should govern the rest….It will sometimes happen that the minority are right, and the majority are wrong, but as soon as experience proves this to be the case, the minority will increase to a majority, and the error will reform itself by the tranquil operation of freedom of opinion and equality of rights. Nothing, therefore, can justify an insurrection, neither can it ever be necessary where rights are equal and opinions free.”
  • Pamphlet, 1805: “The fundamental principle in representative government is, that the majority governs; and as it will be always happening that a man may be in the minority on one question, and in the majority on another, he obeys by the same principle that he rules.”

James Wilson

  • Constitutional Convention, July 5, 1787: “The majority of people wherever found ought in all questions to govern the minority.”
  • Lectures, 1790: “As to the people, however, in whom sovereign power resides,….[f] rom their authority the constitution originates: for their safety and felicity it is established; in their hands it is clay in the hands of the potter: they have the right to mould, to preserve, to improve, to refine, and to finish as they please. If so; can it be doubted, that they have the right likewise to change it? A majority of the society is sufficient for this purpose.

George Mason

  • George Mason/Virginia Convention of Delegates, Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.”

Benjamin Franklin

  • June 11, 1787: Franklin said decisions of the legislature “should be by the majority of members” and that majority rule was “the common practice of assemblies in all countries and ages.”

Abraham Lincoln

  • First Inaugural, 1861: “Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”

Founding Fathers and Equal State Suffrage: Greatest Hits

Our greatest Founding Fathers opposed equal state suffrage. Here is a short summary of their most definitive and quotable statements. See the original posts for links, discussion, and evidence of the persistence of their views.

  • George Washington: Convention delegates who supported equal state suffrage were “narrow minded politicians.”
  • John Adams: Proportional representation is a “first Principle of Liberty.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “A government is republican in proportion as every member composing it has his equal voice in the direction of its concerns.”
  • James Madison: Proportional representation is the “proper foundation of government.”
  • Alexander Hamilton: “The rights of suffrage in the national legislature ought to be proportioned to the number of free inhabitants.”
  • James Wilson: Proportional representation is an “inherent, indisputable, and unalienable right of men.”
  • Benjamin Franklin/Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: “…representation in proportion to the number of taxable inhabitants is the only principle which can at all times secure liberty, and make the voice of a majority of the people the law of the land…”
  • The Virginia Plan (Madison/Washington/Mason/Randolph/Wythe/Blair/McClurg): “The rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned to the Quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants.”

George Washington and Equal State Suffrage

“For some days past, there has been little less, than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been ere this excited by their sufferings, to a general mutiny or dispersion…Our present sufferings are not all. There is no foundation laid for any adequate relief hereafter. All the magazines provided in the States of New Jersey, Pensylvania, Delaware and Maryland, and all the immediate additional supplies they seem capable of affording, will not be sufficient to support the army more than a month longer, if so long.”

So wrote General George Washington in the army’s darkest days, in the winter of 1778 at Valley Forge. Funding and provisioning the army turned out to be a chronic problem that persisted for most of the war. So was the reliance on state militia and the political arm-twisting necessary to get the states to comply with the military quotas set by the Continental Congress. It took Washington a few years to realize what a basket case of a central government he was dealing with.

  • December 18, 1778: Washington at first seemed to think that he was mostly dealing with a personnel problem. The “…States seperately are too much engaged in their local concerns, and have too many of their ablest men withdrawn from the general Council for the good of the common weal; in a word, I think our political system may, be compared to the mechanism of a Clock; and that our conduct should derive a lesson from it for it answers no good purpose to keep the smaller Wheels in order if the greater one which is the support and prime mover of the whole is neglected. How far the latter is the case does not become me to pronounce but as there can be no harm in a pious wish for the good of ones Country I shall offer it as mine that each State wd. not only choose, but absolutely compel their ablest Men to attend Congress; that they would instruct them to go into a thorough investigation of the causes that have produced so many disagreeable effects in the Army and Country; in a word that public abuses should be corrected, and an entire reformation worked…”
  • May 31, 1780: He came to realize that he was dealing with a systemic problem. “Certain I am that unless Congress speaks in a more decisive tone—unless they are vested with powers by the several States competent to the great purposes of War—or assume them as matter of right; and they, and the states respectively, act with more energy than they hitherto have done, than our Cause is lost. We can no longer drudge on in the old way. By ill timing the adoption of measures—by delays in the execution of them—or by unwarrantable jealousies—we incur enormous expences, and derive no benefit from them—One state will comply with a requisition of Congress—another neglects to do it. a third executes it by halves—and all differ in the manner. the matter—or so much in point of time, that we are always working up hill, & ever shall be (while such a system as the present one—or rather want of one—prevails) unable to apply our strength or resources to any advantage.”
  • March 31, 1783: In a letter to another advocate of strong national government, Alexander Hamilton, Washington expressed caution about his advocacy of change. “My wish to see the Union of these States established upon liberal and permanent principles, and inclination to contribute my mite in pointing out the defects of the present Constitution, are equally great. All my private letters have teemed with these Sentiments, and whenever this topic has been the subject of conversation, I have endeavoured to diffuse and enforce them; but how far any further essay by me might be productive of the wished for end, or appear to arrogate more than belongs to me, depends so much upon popular opinions, and the timper and dispositions of People, that it is not easy to decide.” Maybe this means that he does not want to push any harder for stronger powers for a central government, or maybe it means that he does not want to broach the far more explosive issue of equal state suffrage.
  • June 8, 1783: By the conclusion of the war, Washington had developed a sharper critique of the government’s shortcomings. “I could demonstrate to every mind open to conviction, that in less time and with much less expence than has been incurred, the War might have been brought to the same happy conclusion, if the resourses of the Continent could have been properly drawn forth, that the distresses and disappointments which have very often occurred, have in too many instances, resulted more from a want of energy, in the Continental Government, than a deficiency of means in the particular States. That the inefficiency of measures, arising from the want of an adequate authority in the Supreme Power, from a partial compliance with the Requisitions of Congress in some of the States, and from a failure of punctuality in others, while it tended to damp the zeal of those which were more willing to exert themselves; served also to accumulate the expences of the War, and to frustrate the best concerted Plans, and that the discouragement occasioned by the complicated difficulties and embarrassments, in which our affairs were, by this means involved, would have long ago produced the dissolution of any Army, less patient, less virtuous and less persevering, than that which I have had the honor to command.”
  • July 8, 1783: Washington compared the relationship of counties to a state with the relationship of states to a nation. This sounds like someone who believes in proportional representation and simple majority rule, although it is still not explicit. “We are known by no other character among Nations than as the United States; Massachusetts or Virginia is no better defined, nor any more thought of by Foreign Powers than the County of Worcester in Massachusetts is by Virginia, or Glouster County in Virginia is by Massachusetts (respectable as they are); and yet these Counties, with as much propriety might oppose themselves to the Laws of the State in wch. they are, as an Individual State can oppose itself to the Federal Government, by which it is, or ought to be bound. Each of these Counties has, no doubt, its local polity and Interests. these should be attended to, and brought before their respective legislatures with all the force their importance merits; but when they come in contact with the general Interest of the State; when superior considerations preponderate in favor of the whole, their Voices should be heard no more; so should it be with individual States when compared to the Union.”
  • May, 1787: The Virginia Plan stated that “the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned to the Quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants…” This document was written in Washington’s hand.
  • July 10, 1787: In a letter to Hamilton during the Convention, just before the representational design of the Senate was settled, Washington wrote, “The Men who oppose a strong & energetic government are, in my opinion, narrow minded politicians, or are under the influence of local views. The apprehension expressed by them that the people will not accede to the form proposed is the ostensible, not the real cause of the opposition–but admitting that the present sentiment is as they prognosticate, the question ought nevertheless to be, is it or is it not the best form? If the former, recommend it, and it will assuredly obtain mauger opposition.”
  • November 29, 1787: Luther Martin explained how the Great Compromise came about to the Maryland House of Representatives. “Neither General Washington nor Franklin shewed any disposition to relinquish the superiority of influence in the Senate.” And, “…during this struggle to prevent the large States from having all power in their hands, which had nearly terminated in a dissolution of the convention, it did not appear to me, that either of those illustrious characters, the honorable Mr. Washington or the President of the State of Pennsylvania [Franklin], was disposed to favor the claims of the smaller States, against the undue superiority attempted by the large States…”

Perhaps Washington’s letter to Hamilton in 1787 requires more discussion. It may sound like he is still talking about the powers of Congress and not the representational design of the Senate, but this can’t be right. The representational design of the Senate was the raging debate at the time; it was only settled six days after his letter. And the small states did oppose “strong and energetic government.” They wanted to be able to veto the will of a majority of the people with the will of a majority of states. The second sentence in that quote is even more definitive. Prior to this letter, this was the only issue in which any faction of delegates claimed that they must prevail because their constituents would otherwise not ratify the Constitution. See:

  • June 11, 1787, Roger Sherman of Connecticut: “The smaller States would never agree to the plan on any other principle than an equality of suffrage in this branch.”
  • June 28, 1787, Luther Martin of Maryland: “…the inequality of suffrage wd. be dangerous to the smaller States: that it will be in vain to propose any plan offensive to the rulers of the States, whose influence over the people will certainly prevent their adopting it.”
  • June 29, 1787, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut: “To the Eastward he was sure Massts. was the only State that would listen to a proposition for excluding the States as equal political Societies, from an equal voice in both branches. The others would risk every consequence rather than part with so dear a right.”
  • June 30, 1787, Gunning Bedford of Delaware: “We must like Solon make such a Governt. as the people will approve. Will the smaller States ever agree to the proposed degradation of them(?)….The little States are willing to observe their engagements, but will meet the large ones on no ground but that of the Confederation.”

These are Washington’s “narrow minded politicians.”

As for slavery, Washington had mostly turned against it by 1786. “I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptable degrees.” He was almost entirely silent on all slavery-related provisions at the Convention, surely for reasons of political realism, with one exception. Washington, alone with Madison among all southern delegates, supported a proposal to allow Congress to tax exports. (This proposed power threatened slavery by subjecting the export of crops produced by slaves to taxation.)

Washington thus seemed to have little patience for any doctrine of state sovereignty, whether the purpose of such a doctrine was to defend slavery, to allow a state to not contribute its fair share to a national war effort, or to give a majority of the states a veto over the will of a majority of the American people.

This is George Washington: for strong central government, majority rule, and proportional representation.

Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_Washington4

This concludes a short series of blog posts on our greatest Founding Fathers and the representational design of the U.S. Senate. To recap, the following were opposed to equal state suffrage in the U.S. Senate.

  • George Washington, first U.S. President, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, “Father of our Country”
  • John Adams, second U.S. President
  • Thomas Jefferson, third U.S. President, lead author of Declaration of Independence
  • James Madison, fourth U.S. President, lead drafter of the Bill of Rights, “Father of the Constitution”
  • Alexander Hamilton, chief of staff to General Washington, first Secretary of the Treasury, lead author of the Federalist Papers
  • Benjamin Franklin, inventor, scientist, politician, diplomat, author, etc.
  • James Wilson, popular sovereignty theorist, Supreme Court Justice.

Thomas Jefferson and Equal State Suffrage

Thomas Jefferson was the ambassador to France in 1787, so he missed the debates over representation in the Constitutional Convention. During his political career, he clearly preferred proportional representation in the abstract, in both houses of the Virginia state legislature, and in at least one house of Congress. His unequivocal rejection of equal state suffrage in the Senate came after his presidency.

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  • June, 1776: Jefferson drafted a constitution for Virginia which provided for proportional representation in the lower chamber, and election of the upper chamber by the lower chamber (indirect proportional representation). It was not used as the basis of Virginia’s 1776 constitution.
  • August 1, 1776: Jefferson took notes in the debates over how the states should be represented under the Articles but did not comment.
  • August 10, 1776: Edmund Pendleton wrote to Jefferson and advocated proportional representation for a national government. “As to the equality of Representation, it is an important point and it can’t be right for small Counties to have equal weight with large, or 100 to be represented equally with 1000, no more than it is so, that the lower Counties on Delaware, Rhode Island &c. should be on a footing with Virginia in this respect in Congress; but this is a point which admits of alteration, without violating our plan of Government.”
  • August 26, 1776: Jefferson responded to Pendleton. “The other point of equal representation I think capital & fundamental. I am glad you think an alteration may be attempted in that matter.”
  • May 16, 1777: In a letter to Adams concerning the debate over how the states should be represented under the Articles, Jefferson made a suggestion structurally identical to the solution worked out in 1787: half proportional representation and half equal state suffrage. “I learn from our delegates that the Confederation is again on the carpet. A great and a necessary work, but I fear almost desperate. The point of representation is what most alarms me, as I fear the great and small colonies are bitterly determined not to cede. Will you be so good as to recollect the proposition I formerly made you in private and try if you can work it into some good to save our union? It was that any proposition might be negatived by the representatives of a majority of the people of America, or of a majority of the colonies of America. The former secures the larger the latter the smaller colonies. I have mentioned it to many here.” This amounts to a preference over disunion, not a full endorsement.
  • 1784: In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson criticized the unequal representation in both houses of the Virginia legislature. “This constitution was formed when we were new and unexperienced in the science of government. It was the first too which was formed in the whole United States. No wonder then that time and trial have discovered very capital defects in it….Among those who share the representation, the shares are very unequal. Thus the county of Warwick, with only one hundred fighting men, has an equal representation with the county of Loudon, which has 1746. So that every man in Warwick has as much influence in the government as 17 men in Loudon….”
  • December 20, 1787: In a letter to Madison after reviewing the proposed constitution, Jefferson wrote, “I am captivated by the compromise of the opposite claims of the great & little states, of the latter to equal, and the former to proportional influence. I am much pleased too with the substitution of the method of voting by persons, instead of that of voting by states…After all, it is my principle that the will of the majority should always prevail.” Again, he expressed a preference for proportional representation and a bedrock value of majority rule, but did not explicitly endorse or reject equal state suffrage, and did not try to reconcile it with majority rule. Perhaps he was “captivated” by the political machinations and “pleased” with the fact that a proposed constitution emerged at all. He seems to have forgotten his similar proposal from 1777.
  • May 28, 1816: Long after his presidency, Jefferson wrote, “In the General Government, the House of Representatives is mainly republican; the Senate scarcely so at all, as not elected by the people directly, and so long secured even against those who do elect them…” It is curious that he did not add equal state suffrage to the list.
  • July 12, 1816: In a later letter, Jefferson finally put it all together. “At the birth of our republic, I committed that opinion to the world, in the draught of a constitution annexed to the ‘Notes on Virginia,’ in which a provision was inserted for a representation permanently equal. The infancy of the subject at that moment, and our inexperience of self-government, occasioned gross departures in that draught from genuine republican canons. In truth, the abuses of monarchy had so much filled all the space of political contemplation, that we imagined everything republican which was not monarchy. We had not yet penetrated to the mother principle, that ‘governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it.’ Hence, our first constitutions had really no leading principles in them. But experience and reflection have but more and more confirmed me in the particular importance of the equal representation then proposed….a government is republican in proportion as every member composing it has his equal voice in the direction of its concerns (not indeed in person, which would be impracticable beyond the limits of a city, or small township, but) by representatives chosen by himself, and responsible to him at short periods, and let us bring to the test of this canon every branch of our constitution. In the legislature, the House of Representatives is chosen by less than half the people, and not at all in proportion to those who do choose. The Senate are still more disproportionate, and for long terms of irresponsibility.”

Better late than never.

James Wilson and Equal State Suffrage

Pennsylvania’s James Wilson was one of the most important of the framers of the Constitution and one of the most articulate advocates for proportional representation.

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  • August 1, 1776: In debates over the design of the Articles of Confederation, Wilson “thought that taxation should be in proportion to wealth, but that representation should accord with the number of freemen. that government is a collection or result of the wills of all. that if any government could speak the will of all it would be perfect; and that so far as it departs from this it becomes imperfect. it has been said that Congress is a representation of states, not of individuals. I say that the objects of it’s care are all the individuals of the states. it is strange that annexing the name of ‘State’ to ten thousand men, should give them an equal right with forty thousand. this must be the effect of magic, not of reason. as to those matters which are referred to Congress, we are not so many states; we are one large state. we lay aside our individuality whenever we come here.”
  • June 7, 1787: At the Constitutional Convention, Wilson said, “If we are to establish a national Government, that Government ought to flow from the people at large….He wished the Senate to be elected by the people as well as the other branch, and the people might be divided into proper districts for the purpose…”
  • June 9, 1787: Wilson “entered elaborately into the defence of a proportional representation, stating for his first position that as all authority was derived from the people, equal numbers of people ought to have an equal no. of representatives, and different numbers of people different numbers of representatives. This principle had been improperly violated in the Confederation, owing to the urgent circumstances of the time.”
  • June 28, 1787: “The leading argument of those who contend for equality of votes among the States is that the States as such being equal, and being represented not as districts of individuals, but in their political & corporate capacities, are entitled to an equality of suffrage. According to this mode of reasoning the representation of the boroughs in Engld which has been allowed on all hands to be the rotten part of the Constitution, is perfectly right & proper.”
  • June 30, 1787: Wilson declared proportional representation an inalienable right and contemplated disunion. “If the minority of the people of America refuse to coalesce with the majority on just and proper principles, if a separation must take place, it could never happen on better grounds. The votes of yesterday agst. the just principle of representation, were as 22 to 90 of the people of America. Taking the opinions to be the same on this point, and he was sure if there was any room for change it could not be on the side of the majority, the question will be shall less than ¼ of the U. States withdraw themselves from the Union, or shall more than ¾ renounce the inherent, indisputable, and unalienable rights of men, in favor of the artificial systems of States.”
  • June 30, 1787: Wilson “admitted the question concerning the number of Senators, to be embarrassing. If the smallest States be allowed one, and the others in proportion, the Senate will certainly be too numerous. He looked forward to the time when the smallest States will contain 100,000 souls at least. Let there be then one Senator in each for every 100,000 souls and let the States not having that no. of inhabitants be allowed one. He was willing himself to submit to this temporary concession to the small States; and threw out the idea as a ground of compromise.”
  • July 14, 1787: Like Madison, Wilson rejected the origination clause. “What hopes will our Constituents entertain when they find that the essential principles of justice have been violated in the outset of the Governmt. As to the privilege of originating money bills, it was not considered by any as of much moment, and by many as improper in itself. He hoped both clauses wd. be reconsidered.”
  • July 14, 1787: “If equality in the 2d. branch was an error that time would correct, he should be less anxious to exclude it being sensible that perfection was unattainable in any plan; but being a fundamental and a perpetual error, it ought by all means to be avoided. A vice in the Representation, like an error in the first concoction, must be followed by disease, convulsions, and finally death itself. The justice of the general principle of proportional representation has not in argument at least been yet contradicted. But it is said that a departure from it so far as to give the States an equal vote in one branch of the Legislature is essential to their preservation. He had considered this position maturely, but could not see its application. That the States ought to be preserved he admitted. But does it follow that an equality of votes is necessary for the purpose? Is there any reason to suppose that if their preservation should depend more on the large than on the small States the security of the States agst. the Genl. Government would be diminished? Are the large States less attached to their existence, more likely to commit suicide, than the small?”
  • December 7, 1787: At the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, Wilson declared, “That ‘the representation in the Senate is unequal,’ I regret, because I am of opinion that the states ought to be represented according to their importance; but in this system there is a considerable improvement; for the true principle of representation is carried into the House of Representatives…”
  • 1791: In a lecture dedicated to listing the ways that the U.S. form of government is superior to that of Great Britain, Wilson criticized the rotten boroughs of the House of Commons, calling representation there “very unequal and inadequate.” He went on to find the Senate superior to the House of Lords, but declined to defend equal state suffrage in the Senate.
  • 1791: In another lecture, Wilson advocated proportional representation and made no attempt to defend equal state suffrage in the Senate. “To the legitimate energy and weight of true representation, two things are essentially necessary. 1. That the representatives should express the same sentiments, which the represented, if possessed of equal information, would express. 2. That the sentiments of the representatives, thus expressed, should have the same weight and influence, as the sentiments of the constituents would have, if expressed personally….To accomplish the second object, all elections ought to be equal. Elections are equal, when a given number of citizens, in one part of the state, choose as many representatives, as are chosen by the same number of citizens, in any other part of the state. In this manner, the proportion of the representatives and of the constituents will remain invariably the same.”

Like Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and others, Wilson supported the Constitution because he determined that it was the best constitution that they could get. He muted his criticism of the design of the Senate after the Convention.

James Madison and Equal State Suffrage

The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, consistently supported some form of proportional representation and opposed equal state suffrage.

At the Convention, he repeatedly argued against equal state suffrage in the Senate, to the point of exasperation. He won the argument on the merits, but could not retain the votes he needed. He never fully endorsed it.

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  • August 23, 1785: In a letter regarding a possible form of government for Kentucky, Madison discussed the difficulty which “arises from the disproportionate increase of electors in different Counties.” He recommended changing “the number of representatives allotted to them respectively,”
  • April 16, 1787: In a letter to George Washington before the Convention, Madison wrote, “I would propose as the ground-work that a change be made in the principle of representation….The lesser States must in every event yield to the predominant will.” He made similar comments in letters to Jefferson and Randolph.
  • May 29, 1787: The Virginia Plan, largely drafted by Madison, stated that “the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned to the Quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants…”
  • May 30, 1787: Madison “observed that whatever reason might have existed for the equality of suffrage when the Union was a federal one among sovereign States, it must cease when a national Governt. should be put into the place…and there was the same reason for <different numbers> of representatives from different States, as from Counties of different extents within particular States.”
  • June 7, 1787: To a proposal that Senators should be chosen by state legislatures, Madison responded that “if the motion (of Mr. Dickenson) should be agreed to, we must either depart from the doctrine of proportional representation; or admit into the Senate a very large number of members. The first is inadmissable, being evidently unjust. The second is inexpedient.”
  • June 28, 1787: Madison “could neither be convinced that the rule contended for was just, nor necessary for the safety of the small States agst. the large States…”
  • June 29, 1787: Madison “entreated the gentlemen representing the small States to renounce a principle wch. was confessedly unjust, which cd. never be admitted, & if admitted must infuse mortality into a Constitution which we wished to last forever.”
  • June 30, 1787: Madison explained how the equal state suffrage in the Senate could warp the will of the people. The “majority of States might still injure the majority of people. 1. they could obstruct the wishes and interests of the majority. 2. they could extort measures repugnant to the wishes & interest of the Majority. 3. they could impose measures adverse thereto; as the 2d. branch will probably exercise some great powers, in which the 1st. will not participate.”
  • July 5, 1787: Madison rejected the ultimately accepted deal that money bills must originate in the House in exchange for equal state suffrage in the Senate. He “could not regard the exclusive privilege of originating money bills as any concession on the side of the small States. Experience proved that it had no effect.” He also disagreed with small-state delegates who claimed that their constituents would not accept proportional representation. “The merits of the System alone can finally & effectually obtain the public suffrage. He was not apprehensive that the people of the small States would obstinately refuse to accede to a Govt. founded on just principles, and promising them substantial protection. He could not suspect that Delaware would brave the consequences of seeking her fortunes apart from the other States, rather than submit to such a Govt. much less could he suspect that she would pursue the rash policy of courting foreign support…”
  • July 7, 1787: “Equality in the Senate will enable a minority to hold a majority, and to oblige them to submit to their interests, or they will withdraw their assent to measures essential and necessary to the general Good.”
  • July 9, 1787: Madison suggested that “in the first branch the States should be represented according to their number of free inhabitants; And in the 2d. which had for one of its primary objects the guardianship of property, according to the whole number, including slaves.”*
  • July 14, 1787: Madison “expressed his apprehensions that if the proper foundation of Governmt was destroyed, by substituting an equality in place of a proportional Representation, no <proper> superstructure would be raised.”
  • February 27, 1788: In Federalist No. 62, Madison explained that his choice was between accepting equal state suffrage in the Senate and reverting to the Articles of Confederation. “A common government, with powers equal to its objects, is called for by the voice, and still more loudly by the political situation, of America. A government founded on principles more consonant to the wishes of the larger States, is not likely to be obtained from the smaller States. The only option, then, for the former, lies between the proposed government and a government still more objectionable. Under this alternative, the advice of prudence must be to embrace the lesser evil…”

Like Jefferson, Madison owned slaves and took little or no personal or political action against slavery.

*Evidence suggests that Madison made this proposal because he truly thought it was best, not because he thought it was better than equal state suffrage and the only way to avoid equal state suffrage. See also here and here and here.

Alexander Hamilton and Equal State Suffrage

Prior to the Convention, Hamilton’s writings about government focused on the need for the central government to have greater powers, to the exclusion of any concerns about representational design. At the Convention and during the ratification process, Hamilton was a strong and consistent advocate for proportional representation.

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  • May 30, 1787: Immediately after the introduction of the Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton moved that “the rights of suffrage in the national legislature ought to be proportioned to the number of free inhabitants.”
  • June 18, 1787: Hamilton attacked equal state suffrage in the New Jersey Plan and proposed proportional representation. “Another destructive ingredient in the plan, is that equality of suffrage which is so much desired by the small States. It is not in human nature that Va. & the large States should consent to it, or if they did that they shd. long abide by it. It shocks too much the ideas of Justice, and every human feeling. Bad principles in a Govt. tho slow are sure in their operation and will gradually destroy it….The Senate to consist of persons elected to serve during good behaviour; their election to be made by electors chosen for that purpose by the people: in order to this the States to be divided into election districts.”
  • June 29, 1787: “The question, after all is, is it our interest in modifying this general government to sacrifice individual rights to the preservation of the rights of an artificial being, called States? There can be no truer principle than this-that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government.”
  • November 21, 1787: In the Federalist No. 9, Hamilton wrote, “A distinction, more subtle than accurate, has been raised between a CONFEDERACY and a CONSOLIDATION of the States. The essential characteristic of the first is said to be, the restriction of its authority to the members in their collective capacities, without reaching to the individuals of whom they are composed. It is contended that the national council ought to have no concern with any object of internal administration. An exact equality of suffrage between the members has also been insisted upon as a leading feature of a confederate government. These positions are, in the main, arbitrary; they are supported neither by principle nor precedent…..”
  • December 14, 1787: Hamilton continued in the Federalist No. 22, “The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Deleware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense.” Hamilton made no attempt to reconcile his views with the representational design of the Senate. Criticism of the Articles is the text; criticism of the proposed Senate is the subtext.
  • June 20, 1788: At the New York Convention, Hamilton explained why the compromise was necessary, but does not defend it as just. The “…small states, seeing themselves embraced by the Confederation upon equal terms, wished to retain the advantages which they already possessed. The large states, on the contrary, thought it improper that Rhode Island and Delaware should enjoy an equal suffrage with themselves. From these sources a delicate and difficult contest arose. It became necessary, therefore to compromise, or the Convention must have dissolved without effecting any thing. Would it have been wise and prudent in that body, in this critical situation, to have deserted their country? No. Every man who hears me, every wise man in the United States, would have condemned them.”

The other two New York delegates to the Convention, Yates and Lansing, left the Convention early on. According to the rules at the Convention, each state delegation had to have two members, so Hamilton became a delegate without a vote. Yates and Lansing left because they felt they did not have the authority to participate in drafting a new Constitution and because they opposed greater powers for a central government. They opposed proportional representation as well. They are not on the $10.

Like Franklin, Hamilton also opposed slavery through much of his political career.

John Adams and Equal State Suffrage

John Adams was also a strong advocate for proportional representation.

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  • January, 1766: Long before the Declaration of Independence, Adams wrote, “All men are born equal.”
  • April, 1776: In his Thoughts on Government, Adams wrote, “The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed in constituting this Representative Assembly. It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this Assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should have equal interest in it.”
  • August 1, 1776: Along with Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson, Adams opposed equal state suffrage in the design of the Articles of Confederation. According to the minutes, “John Adams advocated the voting in proportion to numbers. he said that we stand here as the representatives of the people. that in some states the people are many, in others they are few; that therefore their vote here should be proportioned to the numbers from whom it comes…therefore the interests within doors should be the mathematical representatives of the interests without doors. that the individuality of the colonies is a mere sound. does the individuality of a colony increase it’s wealth or numbers? if it does, pay equally.”
  • August 25, 1776: Adams elaborated on his opposition to equal state suffrage in a letter. “Equality of Representation in the Legislature, is a first Principle of Liberty, and the Moment, the least departure from such Equality takes Place, that Moment an Inroad is made upon Liberty. Yet this essential Principle is disregarded, in many Places, in several of these Republicks. Every County is to have an equal Voice altho some Counties are six times more numerous, and twelve times more wealthy. The Same Iniquity will be established in Congress. R.I. will have an equal Weight with the Mass. The Delaware Government with Pensil­vania and Georgia with Virginia. Thus We are sowing the Seeds of Ignorance Corruption, and Injustice, in the fairest Field of Liberty, that ever appeared upon Earth, even in the first Attempts to cultivate it.”
  • February 12, 1777: In another letter, Adams expressed his frustration at failing to pass a motion in the Continental Congress: “…after two days debate, the Question was lost by an equal Division of the States present, five against five. New Hampshire Massachusetts Bay, New Jersey, Pensilvania and Virginia on one side, and Rhode Island Connecticutt, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, on the other. Here was an Example of the Inconvenience and Injustice of voting by States. Nine Gentlemen, representing about Eight hundred thousand People, against Eighteen Gentlemen representing, a Million and an Half nearly, determined this Point.”
  • 1780: Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution, which provided for a Senate with representation proportional to taxes paid by district and a House with representation proportional to number of taxpaying citizens.
  • 1787: Adams was the ambassador to Great Britain during the Constitutional Convention. He wrote Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States that year. “The end to be aimed at, in the formation of a representative assembly, seems to be the sense of the people, the public voice. The perfection of the portrait consists in its likeness. Numbers, or property, or both, should be the rule; and the proportions of electors and members an affair of calculation.”
  • December 6, 1787: Adams and Jefferson (then ambassador to France) corresponded on the proposed, not yet ratified constitution in late 1787. Adams wrote, “We agree perfectly that the many should have a full, fair, and perfect representation. You are apprehensive of monarchy, I, of aristocracy. I would, therefore, have given more power to the president, and less to the senate.”

The final vote on the Great Compromise took place on July 16, 1787. By a vote of five to four, the state delegations voted for equal state suffrage in the Senate. The Massachusetts delegation was divided 2-2 and thus unable to vote. Massachusetts was a large state, and their vote against equal state suffrage should have been easy, but that is another story, probably related to Shays’ Rebellion. Perhaps, if John Adams had been able to attend the Convention, the representational design of the Senate would be different.

Benjamin Franklin and Equal State Suffrage

As to whether we should simply “trust the Founding Fathers,” it must be noted that they were not all of the same mind on the subject of representation. They argued about it more than any other subject at the convention.

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Benjamin Franklin advocated representation in proportion to quotas of contribution or population with remarkable consistency over several decades.

  • June 8, 1754: In preparation for the meetings that would produce the Albany Plan, Franklin proposed: “One member to be chosen by the Assembly of each of the smaller Colonies and two or more by each of the larger, in proportion to the Sums they pay Yearly into the General Treasury.” The Albany Plan ultimately proposed from 2 to 7 representatives per colony, while retaining proportionality with quotas of contribution. It was not ratified.
  • July 21, 1775: Franklin drafted an “Articles of Confederation” for a “United Colonies of North America.” It included the following: “The Number of Delegates to be elected and sent to the Congress by each Colony, shall be regulated from time to time by the Number of such Polls return’d; so as that one Delegate be allowed for every [5000] Polls. And the Delegates are to bring with them to every Congress, an authenticated Return of the number of Polls in the respective Provinces which is to be annually triennially taken for the Purposes above mentioned.”
  • July 30, 1776: In the post-Declaration debates over the Articles of Confederation, Franklin was prescient. “Let the smaller Colonies give equal money and men, and then have an equal vote. But if they have an equal vote without bearing equal burthens, a confederation upon such iniquitous principles will never last long.”
  • August 1, 1776: He continued in fine rhetorical form a few days later. He “thought it a very extraordinary language to be held by any state, that they would not confederate with us unless we would let them dispose of our money. Certainly if we vote equally we ought to pay equally: but the smaller states will hardly purchase the privilege at this price.” Despite the power of these arguments, the Articles of Confederation provided for equal state representation without also providing for equal state contributions.
  • August 20, 1776: As the president of the convention to draft Pennsylvania’s constitution, Franklin authored (but did not submit) a document to protest the draft of the Articles of Confederation. “And therefore the XVIIth Article, which gives one Vote to the smallest State, and no more to the largest when the Difference between them may be as 10 to 1, or greater, is unjust, and injurious to the larger States, since all of them are by other Articles obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective Abilities.”
  • September 28, 1776: The new constitution of the state of Pennsylvania established proportional representation while rebuking the existing draft on the Articles. “But as representation in proportion to the number of taxable inhabitants is the only principle which can at all times secure liberty, and make the voice of a majority of the people the law of the land…”
  • June 11, 1787: At the Constitutional Convention, Franklin clearly stated his preference. “I now think the number of representatives should bear some proportion to the number of the represented, and that the decisions should be by the majority of members, not by the majority of the states”
  • June 11, 1787: Franklin proceeded to make the first of several proposals to reconcile his principles with the demands of small-state delegates. “Let the weakest State say what proportion of money or force it is able and willing to furnish for the general purposes of the Union. Let all the others oblige themselves to furnish each an equal proportion…The Congress in this case to be composed of an equal number of Delegates from each State…If these joint and equal supplies should on particular occasions not be sufficient, Let Congress make requisitions on the richer and more powerful States for farther aids, to be voluntarily afforded, leaving to each State the right of considering the necessity and utility of the aid desired, and of giving more or less as it should be found proper.”
  • June 30, 1787: “Let the senate be elected by the states equally–in all acts of sovereignty and authority, let the votes be equally taken — the same in the appointment of all officers, and salaries; but in passing of laws, each state shall have a right of suffrage in proportion to the sums they respectively contribute.”
  • July 3, 1787: With the small states refusing to back down, Franklin made the proposal that was the basis for the resolution of the conflict. “That all bills for raising or apportioning money, and for fixing salaries of the officers of government of the United States, shall originate in the first branch of the legislature, and shall not be altered or amended by the second branch; and that no money shall be drawn from the public treasury, but in pursuance of appropriations to be originated in the first branch. That in the second branch of the legislature, each state shall have an equal vote.”
  • July 6, 1787: Franklin half-disavowed his proposal and suggested getting rid of the Senate. He “…did not mean to go into a justification of the Report; but as it had been asked what would be the use of restraining the 2d. branch from medling with money bills, he could not but remark that it was always of importance that the people should know who had disposed of their money, & how it had been disposed of. It was a maxim that those who feel, can best judge. This end would, he thought, be best attained, if money affairs were to be confined to the immediate representatives of the people. This was his inducement to concur in the report. As to the danger or difficulty that might arise from a negative in the 2d. where the people wd. not be proportionally represented, it might easily be got over by declaring that there should be no such Negative: or if that will not do, by declaring that there shall be no such branch at all.” Franklin was a funny guy. His July 3 proposal passed anyway on July 16.
  • September 17, 1787: Franklin declared his intent to sign the proposed constitution and to not criticize it, and asked the same from the other delegates. “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good — I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad — Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die — If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends. on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.”

To my knowledge, he kept his word about not criticizing the representational design of the Senate after the Convention, as did, mostly, the other Founding Fathers who opposed it. But he knew the representational design of the Senate was wrong. He went along with it after sustained intransigence from the small-state delegates led him to believe that the alternative was no constitution at all.

I welcome other relevant primary sources on Franklin and representation. I haven’t read them all.

Franklin deserves special esteem for his struggle against slavery. It is fair to say that he believed in the proposition that all men are created equal more than any other delegate at the Convention.

For less serious Franklin wit and wisdom, see here and here.