Did Jefferson or Madison understand Condorcet's theory of social choice?

Iain McLean, Arnold B. Urken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


We therefore conclude that, despite their contacts with Condorcet, neither Jefferson nor Madison understood his exposition of social choice. We have examined all the known primary documents which appear to bear on the question, none of which shows any hint that either Jefferson or Madison understood the social choice components of Condorcet's work. This is so even though Jefferson was a close friend, intellectual soulmate, and collaborator with Condorcet. Madison, though less close to Condorcet's, also knew him and his work. He was less warm than Jefferson to Condorcet's political ideas. In particular, the unicameralism which Condorcet derived from his political theory and advocated in his New Haven Letters was anathema to Madison who at the time was writing the Federalist Papers and was using the unicameral Pennsylvania legislature as a dreadful example of the evils of populist democracy. Black's (1958) conclusion that Nanson in 1882 was the first English speaker to understand Condorcet on social choice therefore remains intact, despite hints to the contrary in current literature. This paper was designed to test the hypothesis that, through a knowledge of social choice, Jefferson and/or Madison was in a position to induce equilibria in the institutions they designed (the parliamentary rules of Congress, and the structure of checks and balances respectively). We find that neither Jefferson nor Madison understood social choice, and thus the hypothesis fails. This is not to belittle their achievement. The Constitution, the Federalist Papers and Jefferson's Manual are all masterpieces. But they are not masterpieces of heresthetics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)445-457
Number of pages13
JournalPublic Choice
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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