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.


  • 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.