Ward Republics

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 republican constitution."

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 new constitution.

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 republican citizenship.[]

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 their management."

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 people.

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 and territory.


  1. George E. Connor, Christopher W. Hammons, ed. (Apr 28, 2008). "The Constitutionalism of American States". University of Missouri Press. p. 344. Retrieved 2012-08-27.
  2. Will Hoyt. "The Flaw in Jefferson’s Idea of Ward Republics". Retrieved 2012-08-27.

See also

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Original URL: http://www.constitution.org/reform/us/ward_republic.htm 
Maintained: Jon Roland of the Constitution Society
Original date: 2012/8/27 —