Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes for Revising the Virginia Constitution, [1794 or later]

Notes for Revising the Virginia Constitution

[1794 or later]

Notes for a Constitution
  The legislature to provide for having periodical returns to them of the qualified electors of every county, to wit, every man of full age, who pays taxes to government, or is of militia.   Every male citizen of the commonwealth liable to taxes or to militia duty in any county1 shall have a right to vote for representatives for that county2 to the legislature. The legislature shall provide that returns be made to themselves periodically of the qualified voters in every county, by their name and qualification3 and from the whole number of qualified voters in the commonwealth such an Unit of representation shall from time to time be taken as will keep the number of representatives within the limits of 150. and 300. allowing to every county a representative for every Unit and fraction of more than half an Unit it contains.
  Every elector may vote for as many representatives as were apportioned5 by the legislature to his county at the last establishment of the Unit.7 But so many only shall be deemed elected as there are Units actually voting on that particular election, adding one for any fraction of votes8 exceeding the half Unit. Nor shall more be deemed elected than the number last apportioned.9 If a county has not a half Unit of votes, the legislature shall incorporate it’s votes with those of some adjoining county.
  The whole number of qualified electors
in the state, an Unit of representation to be obtained,
and every county to send a representative for
every Unit or fraction exceeding an half Unit
which actually votes at the election. If a county
has not an half Unit, add it’s votes to another.  
  The Unit to be so taken from time to time4 that the legislature may consist of not less than 150, nor more than 300.
  The legislature to be divided weekly by lot into 2. chambers, so that the representatives of every county may be as equally divided between the 2. chambers as integral6 numbers will admit.
  The two chambers to proceed as distinct branches of the legislature.
  Older electors presenting themselves shall be recieved
to vote before younger ones, and the legislature
shall provide for the secure and convenient claim
and exercise of this privilege of age.
  The legislature shall consist of the representatives to be chosen as before provided. Their acts shall not be affected by any excess or defect of numbers taking place between two periodical settlements of the Unit.
  The legislature shall form one house only for the verification of their credentials, or for what relates to their privileges. For all other business they shall be separated by lot into two chambers, which shall be called [a and w] on the first day of their session in every week; which separation shall be effected by presenting to the representatives from each county separately a number of lots equal to their own number if it be an even one, or to the next even number above, if their number be odd, one half of which lots shall be distinctively marked for the one chamber and the other half for the other: and each member shall be, for that week, of the chamber whose lot he draws. Members not present at the first drawing for the week, shall draw on their first attendance after.10
  Each chamber shall appoint a speaker for the session, and it shall be weekly decided11 by lot between the two speakers, of which chamber each shall be for the ensuing week; and the chamber to which he is allotted shall have one the less in the lots presented to his colleagues for that week.

[on separate sheet:]

Printing presses shall be free except as to false facts published maliciously either to injure the reputation of another, whether followed by pecuniary damage or not, or to expose him to the punishment of the law.

The legislature shall have power to establish by law the disqualifications of representatives or other officers

Dft (DLC: TJ Papers, 234: 41935–6); undated, consists of two sheets entirely in TJ’s hand: the first bearing a 1794 watermark, with the right column being in the customary form for TJ’s drafts and bearing extensive revisions recorded below, and the left being added in his smaller hand; the second (fol. 41936) containing two undated paragraphs in pencil in the form for drafts; brackets in original. MS (same, 41934); undated; consists of rough draft of one paragraph in TJ’s hand (see note 10 below); endorsed: “plan of two houses.”

The present undated notes stand in archival isolation, but in view of the watermark on the paper used for the main group, TJ very likely prepared them at various times in 1794 or after. While TJ had contributed significantly to the drafting of the Virginia constitution of 1776, he had long been critical of various features that found their way into the final version and was desirous of revising it, a task he had last attempted in 1783 before his mission to France. A convention to amend the Virginia constitution was not held until 1829–30 (Editorial Note on the Virginia Constitution, Vol. 1: 330; Editorial Note and documents on Jefferson’s proposed revision of the Virginia Constitution, Vol. 6: 278–317; Sutton, Revolution to Secession description begins Robert P. Sutton, Revolution to Secession: Constitution Making in the Old Dominion, Charlottesville, 1989 description ends , 60–1).

Two of TJ’s suggestions made in the notes above reflected his long-standing concern that the Virginia constitution unduly restricted the size of the electorate and gave a disproportionate share of power in the legislature to the Tidewater. According to his own estimate, the extension of the franchise to every male citizen who was liable to taxes or to militia duty would have doubled the size of the Virginia electorate, and the establishment of a linkage between population and representation would have enhanced the legislative power of the Piedmont and the backcountry (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , 118–19). On the other hand, his proposal to discontinue separate elections for senators and delegates and to have representatives rotate by lot … every week between the upper and lower houses of the legislature represented the abandonment of the efforts he had made in his draft state constitutions of 1776 and 1783 to find a mechanism for the indirect election of senators so as to ensure that men of wisdom served in the upper house (same, 119–20; Vol. 1: 341, 348, 358, 6: 296). As he later explained to a Greek patriot, the periodic rotation of members between each house would serve the public because it “would equally give the benefit of time and separate deliberation, guard against an absolute passage by acclamation, derange Cabals, intrigues, and the count of noses, disarm the ascendancy which a popular demagogue might at any time obtain over either house, and render impossible all disputes between the two houses, which often form such obstacles to business” (TJ to Adamantios Coray, 31 Oct. 1823; see also Frances Harrold, “The Upper House in Jeffersonian Political Theory,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893- description ends , lxxviii [1970], 281–94).

1Preceding three words interlined.

2Preceding three words interlined.

3TJ first ended the sentence here and drafted the remainder of the text as two separate paragraphs:

“The legislature shall consist of not less than 150. nor more than 300. representatives, and from the whole number of qualified voters in the commonwealth such an Unit of representation shall be taken as will keep the number of representatives within those limits.

“Every county <may> shall send a representative for every Unit and fraction exceeding half an Unit as actually votes at the election, so as not to exceed the number of representatives last allowed to it by the legislature.”

4Preceding four words interlined.

5Word interlined in place of “allowed.”

6Above this word TJ interlined “odd.”

7TJ here canceled “but <so many representa> no person actually recieving fewer votes than the Unit shall be deemed elected, except that where more than half and less than the whole Unit vote.”

8Preceding two words interlined.

9Preceding sentence interlined.

10MS: this rough version of the preceding paragraph reads:

“The legislature to consist of two houses, in each of which all laws shall pass <through> 3. several readings, <by a> on <separate> several days by the vote of a majority of <those> the members present <on separate days).>

“The<se> two houses shall be formed by a division of the representatives into two equal parts, or equal within an unit; which division shall be made by lot once in every week in manner following. <Ballots marked with the name of each> There shall be a ballot box <prepared> provided for each county, into which shall be put ballots equal in number to the representatives of the county and marked with the name of the one or the other house, as many of the one <house> as of the other or within unit<s> as many <an equal number of each or equal within a unit>, and every member when he shall first present himself in every week shall draw from the ballot-box of his county a ballot which shall decide <in> of which house he shall <sit> be for that week.” The next to last cancellation is also an interlineation.

11TJ first wrote “and the two speakers shall weekly decide” and then altered it to read as above.

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