If you are reading this, you probably have heard someone say that the Founding Fathers designed the structure of the federal government to protect the interests of rural voters.
This is false.
The Founding Fathers weren’t trying to protect the interests of rural voters. They had other concerns, which are well documented, but there is no provision of the United States Constitution that was intended to help protect the interests of rural voters. The closest that we can come are the clauses intended to protect slavery — and those are obsolete.
The Founding Fathers did not intend to protect the interests of rural voters. They considered the idea of disenfranchising urban voters once during the Constitutional Convention, but dismissed it resoundingly. Rural voters are over-represented in the Senate, but this is accidental.
The entire country was rural — including large states
When the Constitution was written, nearly the entire population of the country was rural. In Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia combined, there were four towns with a population of more than 2500 as of the 1790 census — all in Virginia, adding up to 1.5% of Virginia’s population. Virginia was the most populous state by a large margin.
In the country as a whole, the share of the population living in towns and cities with a population of 2500 or more was 5.1%. South Carolina, the most geographically compact of the Southern states, was slightly above this average, with 6.5% of its total population living in the major port city of Charleston. Rural voters, not urban voters, were the ones with overwhelming numbers.
The most urbanized state was the smallest state by area and second-smallest in terms of population: Rhode Island, where 19% of the population lived in Newport and Providence. No single city in any state exceeded 10% of the population of that state. By contrast, the least urbanized state today (Vermont) is over twice as urban as Rhode Island of 1790, and cities have grown enormously. New York City has grown from 33,000 to 8.5 million — 42% of the entire population of New York State.
There is little reason to believe that the Founding Fathers anticipated the degree to which the United States would urbanize in the future. While they did take action to protect small states’ interests, small states like Rhode Island weren’t any more rural than large states like Virginia — if anything, states with smaller populations tended to be more densely populated back then.
The example of London was important
The Founding Fathers did see problems with how London was not only the political capital of the British Empire, but also a major commercial center in its own right. Mixing commercial and political interests was dangerous — a recipe for corruption and unfair governance of the sort that had led the American colonies into revolt and independence.
This is one of several reasons the Founders decided to construct a separate national capital, rather than making Philadelphia or another existing city the federal capital. The same principle can be used to explain why most American states have capital cities that are not the largest cities of their states.
The issue of the political influence of urban voters was debated at the Constitutional Convention. Gouverneur Morris and James Madison, citing an example of vote-buying in London, suggested restricting the right to vote for members of the House of Representatives to freeholders (landowners).
After two days of heated debate in which Benjamin Franklin spoke out against the motion, it was voted down by a margin of 7 to 1 (with only the Delaware delegation voting in favor). The House of Representatives would be elected as democratically as the state legislatures themselves were. The Founding Fathers, as a group, rejected the idea that they should protect the interests of rural voters at the expense of disenfranchising urban voters.
“Small states” are not the same as “rural voters”
As mentioned, the Founding Fathers were concerned with balancing the interests of small states like Rhode Island against domination by large states like Virginia, but there was little if any relationship between a state’s size and state’s level of urbanization.
Today, with a much more heavily urbanized population, small states tend to be more rural than large states, although the relationship is weaker than it might look at first glance — there are still geographically small states that are small but densely populated, such as Rhode Island and Delaware.
While there is a modern political division between rural and urban voters, the most rural states — Vermont, West Virginia, Maine, and Mississippi — are a politically diverse group.
However, in defending the interests of small urban states like Rhode Island, the Founding Fathers did make one choice which has— accidentally, not intentionally — served to help protect the interests of rural voters.
The Senate was intended to protect small states’ interests, and it has done so. Senators from small states, like Bernie Sanders of Vermont, can and have exerted enormous influence on national politics. This means that through disproportionate representation of small states, rural voters do have more influence on the Senate.
The Founding Fathers did one other thing to try to protect the interests of small states. They decided that after the Electoral College had nominated five acceptable candidates for president, the House would make the final selection using a “one state, one vote” rule. (This was subsequently altered to the top three candidates by the 12th Amendment.) Since the last House contingent election occurred in 1824, it is fairly clear that this had a very limited effect on small states’ power within the federal system.
The Founding Fathers expected the Electoral College itself to favor large states. In practice, the Electoral College favors key “battleground” states, which are disproportionately large states. It does not favor small states, nor was it intended to.
In 2016 and 2004, the key states that decided the election — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 2016, Ohio in 2004 — happened to be a little bit more rural than the national average, but this was by sheer chance. We saw an example of a more urban state being the key battleground as recently as 2000, and over the history of the Electoral College, New York has been the most influential state.
What about slavery and rural voters?
The largest and thorniest problem that the Founding Fathers dealt with in writing the Constitution was slavery, and slavery was a mostly rural institution. The Three-Fifths Compromise can in particular be seen as intended to protect the interests of rural slave-owners.
Therefore, protecting the interests of slave-owners in the antebellum era was protecting the interests of certain rural voters. Some have argued that the Founding Fathers therefore intended to protect rural voters by protecting slave-owners’ interests. I reject this argument for two reasons.
First, slavery was not practiced by the rural voters of the North, and at the time of the writing of the Constitution, the North was still mostly rural. Some states allowing slavery (e.g. South Carolina and Maryland) were more urbanized than some states that did not (e.g., Connecticut, Vermont, or New Hampshire). A majority of rural voters lived in free states.
Second, slavery no longer exists. The Three Fifths Compromise no longer functions to protect the interests of that subset of rural voters. While some have argued that the Founding Fathers only chose to use the Electoral College because of slavery, Southerners were not the only ones opposed to direct election of the president: The delegations from New England states also voted against direct election of the president at the Constitutional Convention. The only state delegation that voted in favor was that of Pennsylvania. The Electoral College may have helped protect slavery in practice, but it was designed to address other concerns.
The Founding Fathers did take steps to preserve the interests of small states and slave states in writing the Constitution. However, when they did so, they did not do so with any intention of protecting rural voters against greater numbers of urban voters. The biggest political divisions of their time were regional in nature, pitting rural Northern farmers against rural Southern farmers.
There was one debate at the Constitutional Convention over whether or not urban voters deserved an equal say, but that debate was resolved in favor of urban voters.
The division between urban and rural voters is modern in nature — as is the fact that smaller states tend to be more rural. The Electoral College, contrary to popular myth, does not generally help small states or rural voters, and was not intended to. The Senate does over-represent rural voters by over-representing small states, but this effect on rural voters is indirect and completely unintended.