The Revolution: Thomas Jefferson on the Draft Articles of Confederation (Part II)

The Autobiography. By: Thomas Jefferson

July 30, 1776 – August 1, 1776

How the colonies would get along with each other was always going to be a monumental challenge. And, when the nation was born, there was tension between delegates and their states in setting up the framework for how the colonies would vote. With states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania being much larger in size and population, smaller states such as Rhode Island could justifiably fear that confederating with the colonies would bring more harms than benefits. However, to the chagrin of larger states, in the draft Articles of Confederation, at Article XVII, it stated: “In determining questions each colony shall have one vote.”

Samuel Chase opined that this article would be the most contentious for the larger states had indicated they would not confederate with the smaller states unless the weight of votes was based on the number of people “added to the confederacy.” But, Chase saw a compromise possible: he “proposed that in votes relating to money, the voice of each colony should be proportioned to the number of its inhabitants.” This would allow for smaller states to to protect their rights and secure themselves “in all questions concerning life or liberty & the greater ones in all respecting property.” Dr. Benjamin Franklin agreed and took it one step further: he believed that all votes should be apportioned based on the number of inhabitants. When England and Scotland unified, Franklin argued, it was not a matter of the whale swallowing Jonah but Jonah swallowing the whale. the Scottish “had in fact got possession of the government and gave laws to the English.”

Dr. John Witherspoon argued to keep the article written as it was. One of the greatest dangers was that a foreign power may cleave the country by appealing to some states and causing those states to turn against others. And it was not limited to foreign menaces. History had shown that without an equal vote, the small states “will become vassals to the larger; & all experience has shown that the vassals & subjects of free states are the most enslaved.” John Adams was on the side of “voting in proportion to numbers,” however; it was necessary for the future of the country that interests be represented so as to “govern the councils of men.” No amount of “[r]eason, justice & equity” could replace the value of those interests. He analogized it to a partnership: when three individuals come together, one with 50 pounds, one with 500 pounds, and one with 1,000 pounds, surely they each may reasonably expect to have shares and voting power matching the percentage of the partnership they own. More than that, the larger states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts “can never have an interest or inclination to combine for the oppression of the smaller.”

For Dr. Benjamin Rush, he looked to the Dutch republic and saw three causes for the decay of liberties there: 1. a requirement of absolute unanimity at all times; 2. the obligation to consult constituents; and 3. “[t]heir voting by provinces.” Allowing voting by provinces destroyed equality of representation, and once that equality of representation was destroyed, the country would turn into Great Britain—where liberties were being eroded at that time. The larger states, according to Rush, would actually divide on issues since their interests are different, and it would fall to the smaller states to “give preponderance to any scale they please.” He saw that allowing “voting by the number of free inhabitants will have one excellent effect, that of inducing the colonies to discourage slavery & to encourage the increase of their free inhabitants.”

James Wilson hybridized. He found it most prudent to make taxation proportionate to wealth but representation in accordance with the number of freemen. The Congress had a responsibility to the people, not to the states. But Wilson saw the same as Adams: the “interests of Virginia, Pennsylvania & Massachusetts” would also be the same as those “of the other states.” And ultimately, if the system were set up in Wilson’s image, “our proceedings will then be consentaneous with the interests of the majority, and so they ought to be.”

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