Discover more from The Evening Post and Mail
On Thomas Jefferson, the 1790 census, and what you should expect from your modern Congressional district
At the time he wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson represented a state with some pretty extraordinary company. Jefferson's Virginia was also home to the revered first President, George Washington, and to James Madison, the singularly brilliant "Father of the Constitution".
■ Yet by the 1790 census, Virginia only had 747,610 people in total. That meant the state had a ratio of at least one such notable figure for every 250,000 people.
■ Was Virginia exceptional in this regard? Probably not: Pennsylvania (population 434,373 in 1790) offered the services of Benjamin Franklin, while Massachusetts (population 378,787) served up John Adams and New York (population 340,120) gave us Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. These individuals whom history regards as such towering luminaries didn't come from a swollen population.
■ And it would be a grave misjudgment not to note that half of the population was excluded from the revolutionary discussions on account of sex, and nearly 18% of the people were enslaved. There is every reason to believe that those excluded populations were equally full of people with the same kind of native genius as those who participated in the debates.
■ Today's population experiences better nutrition, better health care, better early-childhood development, better education, and significantly, better equality. America benefits from a first-class economic and technological status that would astonish even the most optimistic Founding Father, and we have access to attracting the most exceptional immigrant population of any country in the history of the world. And we have 85 times as many people.
■ All of which is to say that if we think our debates are too lowbrow, our politicians too unwise, our disputes too aimlessly divisive, and our political imagination too limited, then it is our own fault. The Virginia that housed Washington, Jefferson, and Madison was smaller in population than the average Congressional district today (population 761,169).
■ Every voter in modern America should look around their own Congressional district and ask which of their neighbors is the equivalent present-day Washington, Jefferson, and Madison -- and which are their female counterparts. Aiming our expectations too low is a moral crime -- an own-goal -- for which there is no excuse.
■ The Revolutionary War generation wasn't intrinsically better than we are. They entrusted a system to posterity with the faith that we wouldn't treat them as unattainable demigods, but as models to be emulated and improved upon. Madison wrote, "[T]he destined career of my country will exhibit a Government [...which...] encourages in every authorized mode the general diffusion of knowledge which guarantees to public liberty its permanency and to those who possess the blessing the true enjoyment of it". Securing those blessings of liberty was their work; keeping them permanent is ours.