Thomas Jefferson introduced the idea of "ward republics" in a letter
to Sam Kercheval in July 16, 1816. He proposed to divide the
counties into "wards of such size as that every citizen can attend,
when called on, and act in person … will relieve the county
administration of nearly all its business, will have it better done,
and by making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in
the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his
strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its
Kercheval, of Winchester, Virginia, had been trying to organize a
convention to write a new state constitution, and sought the support of
Jefferson, who had been trying since 1776 to get Virginia to adopt a
Jefferson proposed that such ward republics, among their other
functions, should select jurors, so that these units of local
government would act as a restraint on the judicial as well as the
legislative and executive branches of government.
One of the functions to be performed by such wards was public
education. Jefferson's 1779 Bill for the More General Diffusion of
Knowledge was never passed in the form he proposed. Virginia did not
set up a system of mandatory common schools until well into the
nineteenth century. However, the concepts it contained persisted and he
continued to campaign for public education as the safeguard of
Jefferson's Bill proposed that each county would be divided into
"hundreds … so as that they may contain a convenient number of children
to make up a school, and be of such convenient size that all the
children within each hundred may daily attend the school to be
established therein." Jefferson's deliberate use of the term "hundreds"
echoes the Anglo-Saxon term for such a political sub-division, a local
group of a few hundred individuals and their families. He and many of
his contemporaries believed that English and American liberties were
rooted in Anglo-Saxon political life. In these "hundreds" we see the
origins of Jefferson's later conception of "ward republics," political
units so small that "every citizen, can attend, when called on, and act
in person." The school system was envisioned as tiered, from primary to
secondary to college, so that the ward republics were to be the
smallest, most intimate parts of political life and the basis for state
republics and the national republic.
The concept of hundreds goes back to a similar practice among the
ancient Hebrews of organizing themselves for military purposes, and
form a militia unit for each such group. Although intended
for feudal administration and defense, hundreds also tended to
cooperate in performing other functions of government.
"The true foundation of republican government," Jefferson wrote, "is
the equal right of every citizen in his person and property, and in
The idea lives on
Although his proposal was not generally adopted, we do see partial
implementations of the idea in small townships, school and utility
districts, voting precincts, and neighborhood associations.
The term "ward" or "precinct" continues to be used for subdivisions of
counties or municipalities, but usually only as voting districts to
send representatives to county government, or for the administration of
county or municipal functions. Most of those subdivisions contain too
many people to fit Jefferson's vision. The closest would be voting
precincts, which in most states average about 3,000 people, and school
districts, which average about 4000. There are also small townships and
neighborhood associations that realize that concept for at least some
The ward republic model has continued to be advocated by reformers,
especially some Libertarians, who argue that the trend toward
government centralization presents a threat to rights and liberty,
discourages civic virtue, and encourages dependency.
Why hasn't it caught on?
There are several reasons why the idea has not been adopted.
Jefferson envisioned a society of small landholders, continuing the
system set up by John Locke for the colonies that became North and
South Carolina. However, one commentator has proposed that
the adoption of the fee simple model of land
titles encouraged large landholdings that would make it more difficult
to establish ward republics everywhere.
A greater factor, however, seems to be the tendency for people to want
to hire public employees to perform governmental functions rather than
do it themselves at no pay, which can give rise to free-riding. But
once paid officials take over from unpaid volunteers, there is a
falling off of voluntary efforts, motivation to reduce costs by
consolidating functions at a higher level, and a desire on the part of
officials to enlarge their powers by exercising them over more people
George E. Connor, Christopher W. Hammons, ed. (Apr 28, 2008). "The
of American States". University of Missouri Press. p.
344. Retrieved 2012-08-27.