This document is a fascinating piece of the history of proportional representation. Written in 1844, Gilpin's essay is the earliest known attempt to formulate and promote a PR system in the United States. Published as a pamphlet, it preceded by thirteen years the earliest writings of Thomas Hare on his PR scheme.
Many of the themes in this essay foreshadow our modern concerns about fair representation. In particular, Gilpin was distressed by Philadelphia's use of an at-large, winner-take-all election system in which minorities were always left out. His plan for minority representation resembles what today would be called a party list system with seats allocated by the largest remainder method.
Thomas Gilpin was born in Philadelphia in 1776 and became a successful paper manufacturer. He was also a Quaker and his concern about fair play for minorities may have arisen out the fact that this group had no political representation and little political power. He was a member of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia and presented this paper to the organization on May 3, 1844. At the time of his speech, Gilpin's words were a lone voice in the wilderness, and it would be many decades before the idea of proportional representation would begin to be discussed seriously in the United States.
(In order to save space, portions of this essay have been edited out. These spaces are indicated by ***.)
Owing to the difficulty of procuring impartial and useful legislation in the present mode of conducting the elections, it becomes worthy of consideration, whether there may not be a plan constituted for choosing representatives for the several legislative bodies differently from the present one, so as to have a more equal and just relation to the condition of society- to preserve more truly the rights of the people; to carry more strength and talent, and a more efficient expression of public opinion into deliberative assemblies.
The present mode of choosing representatives by a majority of the votes of the electors, has been so obviously before the people, and it is so easy for the majority to continue it, that it has been used in popular governments, from their early origin, and has remained without any attempt at improvement, or even consideration. It is true that it is based upon the just principle, of the right of the majority to govern, -- but in practical legislation it is connected with a very erroneous one, that the voice of the majority alone is to be regarded. Thus, in making an election of representatives as it is now done, in a district, by the majority, a large part of the people forming barely the minority, is deprived of any interest or voice in the elected councils, and there is no opportunity to bring into them any considerations, but those respected by the majority.
Let us therefore examine the question, Whether there can be a legislative assembly elected, so as to represent the respective interests of the community in its deliberations, and to allow the control of the majority in its decisions to which it is entitled.
The usual results of the elections in the City of Philadelphia, for its Councils or Corporation, gave for several years, but a bare majority of the electoral votes to elect the whole representation, which was thus continued from year to year by one party, and the operations of the Councils and City interest governed exclusively by it.
By the returns, at the elections for several years previous to the last, a very uniform state of voting at the polls continued- say for the years 1840, 1841, 1842. In 1841, the number of votes polled was 10,304, and the votes were returned but of two parties, who gave respectively 5545 votes, and 4759 votes, -- so that a change of 394 votes in that year, from one party to the other, would have displaced the whole representation of twenty members of the Corporation. And it is also obvious, that as the whole number was put in by the majority, there was no representation for the minority, which gave the votes of nearly one-half the citizens. These have no voice in the councils, be their candidates ever so worthy and efficient, and their interests ever so important. And it would be illiberal to conclude that abstract political sentiment should constitute a disqualification to attend to their own and the public concerns in a legislative assembly. Independently of this, it is very evident, that the influence derived from the possession of power and office tends to preserve it; it is scarcely ever, if ever, voluntarily yielded to a just consideration of the equal rights of the community, in consulting the general good feeling requisite for constituting- a legislative assembly. And it is evidence of an arbitrary, and not of a fair republican principle, for any party to retain the exclusive representation and responsibilities of the public weal; because experience has abundantly shown, that where this has been long continued, either in republics or monarchies, it involves them all in the same character, and is the virtual source of oppression and injury-the cause of great discontent,-and when not subversive of the administration, it is subversive of the harmony and confidence which ought to be afforded to it.
And it is the right of every interest to be represented, as far as possible. There are many advantages to be derived from the introduction of opposing ideas, if it is only to test the strength of correct or prevailing measures: for it is certain that a delegation to represent the most important interests may be taken from all parties, so as to balance the public mind, draw forth its energies, and substitute relative instead of arbitrary action, so much the result of assemblies holding long and exclusive legislation.
It is a matter of general acknowledgment, and even of record, that had the voice of the opposition, so frequently and respectfully offered but disregarded, in the administration of our late financial concerns, received attention from the persons then in power, the catastrophe so universally spread over the country, would have been greatly lessened, and probably averted; and as we should not be confident that other institutions are now free from a similar effect of exclusive action, a cautious oversight should be given to regulate them.
The question then offered is, Does the case admit of a practical system for equal representation?
The following one is presented for it:-- It is believed to be efficient, and justly applicable to the present state of society. It is founded upon the principle of Republican Government and equal representation, and capable of bringing forward the latent good sense of the people, now much withdrawn from public service, owing to the overrule of political contention and party management; and that it will cause the elected body to be an exact representation of the public interests.
Let the number of representatives, allotted to each district of a State, be divided into the number of electors, so that a quota may be established, to allow a certain number of votes to choose a representative.
The number of votes thus assigned, taken for all the delegates together, will of course be the number of votes found in the district; for the quota for the election of each delegate may actually be determined upon, when the votes are all handed in, at the close of the election.
As every quota of votes may be united in by any interest, and will entitle it to a representative, so one or more quotas united, according to the number of voters, may choose one or more representatives for an interest, independently of the others.
Should even general politics continue to be a paramount consideration, as it has so long prevailed to be, and the number of voters be so large as to command a sufficient number of quotas, a majority in the elected body may continue to act even for political purposes; but other quotas will be obtained by the minority to have an opportunity to represent their political or other views, and different interests thus represented may advocate independently any important measures which require it.
This plan would be eminently conservative of general representation; it would produce steadiness of legislative action, would prevent the sudden dismission of all the representatives of a party from power at any one time by the contrivance of officious politicians, who are able easily to turn the scale by misrepresentations when the parties are nearly equal; and even when this occurs by a sudden change of the public mind, the change cannot act disadvantageously on legislation, because there will always remain a sufficient number of the electors unchanged to return many of the most suitable delegates of the previous party to be mingled with those newly elected.
This plan will prevent very much those hasty and unjust displacements from office which have taken place, by granting to the successful party "all the benefits of office," so offensive to the sentiments and feelings of a large and independent part of the community desirous only of a steady, just, and impartial administration of government.
Let us now review the course of some of the last elections for the City of Philadelphia, in relation to the adaptation of this system, and it will be found, that had the plan been then carried into effect, it would not have destroyed the majority of the present party, although, it is true, it would not have so far gratified it as to allow it all the delegation; yet the Councils would have been more just, and of course more safe in all their operations, if they had been guided by such a courtesy as to have united other interests with their own in conducting the public business. For thus the Councils represented little more than a divided authority, dependent upon an uncertain majority, chiefly supported, if not contrived, out of previous patronage and incumbency of office.
The votes given at the city election, 1841, were . . . . . 10,304
and 20 representatives were elected.
If, then, 500 votes would be the assigned quota
as the due proportion for a representative, the
aggregate would be, for the 20 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10,000
Dispensing with the residuary fraction of . . . . . . . . . . . . . 304
the majority to elect gave 5545 votes, which,
at 500 votes per delegate, gave . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 rep.
The minority which failed to elect gave 4759 votes,
which would have elected . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . 9 rep.
Making the whole number of . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20 rep.
and this would have left in favor of the ruling party a majority of two representatives, which is as great as the general electoral vote would have given on the former mode, or could be claimed for it on any public appeal.
As an act of justice, such an arrangement is required to satisfy the public mind, and it would amalgamate the better feelings of the community?
Should any excitement be produced by disquietude of the people, by accidental circumstances, or by retaliation, and a consequent change of City Councils ensue, so that the opposite party alone gets into power, the event will not be less to be deprecated than by having the present or any other partial or exclusive administration.
It is always unwise to afford exclusive power to any one party, particularly as it regards its own character and responsibility: the party out of power is accustomed to take advantage of every failure of the measures of those in power, and many operations are often in progress, the propriety of which, at least in public judgment, is decided by success, be their nature and risk what they may; but even this judgment may not be altogether so unreasonable when legislation is one of assumed and exclusive responsibility, because the acts of any public body are much better deliberated upon, and more judiciously determined, when there is not the uniform disposition to urge business forward by the sanguine view often taken by persons accustomed to act together.
The following view may be taken of the result of this plan for presenting the minorities to act with the majority in the public body, by showing its application to the last return of votes for corporators in the City Councils; and the rules are given by which this plan may be adapted to govern similar elections.
After the tickets have been agreed upon on the part of the electors as usual, and include the whole number of representatives to be voted for, they are to be handed in by them at the several wards to the judges and inspectors.
But the votes are to be assigned differently from the usual mode, and the choice of representatives will be made from them as follows:
First. A number of votes to form a representative quota for the choice of one member will have to be fixed upon: this might be done by referring, for a standard, to the number of the votes given in the district at the last previous election; but it may be better to wait for the close of the pending election, and then procure the number of votes polled at that time.
Second. This number is to be divided by that of the number of representatives allotted for the district, in order to fix upon the proportion of votes, as a representative quota, which each ticket must give to entitle it to choose a delegate.
Third. Each elector's ticket may contain, as candidates, the whole number of representatives to be voted for in the district; and these should be placed in preferences highest on the list, in order that those first set on it may be chosen according as the number of votes given may entitle the ticket to one or more of its candidates.
Fourth. The representatives are to be chosen by any electing interest whose votes amount to one or more representative quota, and it is to have one or more representatives accordingly. Those who are highest in vote, are to be first chosen; and when the votes are equal, then the preference is to be given to those who are highest named on its list of candidates.
Fifth.. When the number of representatives is not made up by the votes in the representative quotas, then the remainder is to be taken from the residuary numbers of the unsatisfied votes, beginning with the highest number unsatisfied on each ticket, and then in succession, from which there is to be taken the candidate highest in vote on its ticket; or if the votes are equal, then the highest on the list.
Sixth. If only one representative is to be chosen from a district, the election is, in this case only, to be made as it is now done, by the majority.
In fixing primarily upon the representative quota, it is not desirable to arrive at any particular exactness in the division of the whole number of votes among the representatives; at least not to descend to the fractional parts of hundreds, because less than these could not be entitled to a representative. And when the multiple or whole number is determined upon, it places all the representative quotas on the equal footing necessary for all useful purposes, and they will have all the same claim upon the residuary votes.
The majority power has for a long time ruled all the interest of the country, and has been exercised with arbitrary inconsiderateness alternately by each party. It can be corrected in no way so effectually as by throwing immediately before the public the objects which should claim its attention, in order to produce an immediate connection between the people and their interests, and this can only be effected by a representation independent of politics.
By this plan, however, the rise of a political party to a certain extent is not altogether impossible, and might be permitted if useful; but it being easy thus to introduce into the legislative bodies other interests by minorities, they will keep it in check by the independence of their election, as they probably will by their intelligence.
Should even the Native American party now coming forward be found worthy of public support, and get favor, so as to be useful for a time, its purity and efficiency will be much preserved by its not attaining to a predominant sway, or, at least, by only arriving at it relatively to other interests.
Reference has been made to the election returns of the City of Philadelphia, merely on account of its easy investigation, as it answers for an example of the deficiencies in representation; these, however, exist in the same manner in all the elected bodies and they will so remain and be unsatisfactory to the constituents until the interests of the minorities become respected, so that they may be represented and act with the majorities; and it is believed the plan now offered, when it becomes understood, may be adopted to remedy the deficiency and it is referred for that purpose to the discretion and intelligence of those who acknowledge the serious evils of party contentions arising out of the right of the elective franchise.
That the alteration, by this plan, in making election returns, would change the representations from various localities may be expected; but it is to be expected that it will be generally to great advantage, because it carries out a principle of exact representation and relief; and as delegates can be sent to represent every important interest, it must give evidence of its own propriety, and must eventually be acceptable.
The practice heretofore pursued, of resting all predilections upon the title of a great political party, has subjected the district divisions, as well as the political parties, to very peculiar, though they may be appropriate epithets, many of them certainly not selected for their elegance, and which clearly indicate considerable restiveness on the part of the people.
The advocates of particular measures, or even of a favorite candidate, will have at all times an opportunity to unite for a quota representative, and by calling upon each elector to discriminate among the candidates, to place at the head of his ticket the best man, and thus bring forward an interest to be respected in the representative body; this will require deliberate reflection on the choice to be made among the various objects of moral or civil benefit, in order to give preference to those of the highest importance.
If this system be sound and practical, as it is believed to be, the further promotion of it is respectfully submitted. At no period of republican history was there required more attention to the renewal of representative principles and the revival of representative purity. In an enlightened age, the extension of a great confederation of popular governments is in irresistible progress over an immense land, now allied in the courtesy of great national feeling: it becomes, therefore, necessary to preserve this; and may it not be accomplished less by extreme authority, than by rendering a just representation to the varied interests of an extended people?
Philadelphia, 1st May, 1844.