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.


  • 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.