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 The “…States seperately are too much engaged in their local concerns, and have too many of their ablest men withdrawn from the general Council for the good of the common weal; in a word, I think our political system may, be compared to the mechanism of a Clock; and that our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.


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.