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James Madison Considers the Problems of a New Democracy

The United States Constitution, though ultimately ratified unanimously by all thirteen states, was the subject of intense discussion, debate, and dissent during the period 1787-1789. James Madison, a Virginia patriot and later the fourth president of the United States, was known as the principal author of the Federalist Papers, a collection of articles advocating ratification of the new Constitution. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson written on October 24, 1787, Madison discusses the political and philosophical ramifications of the document, touching on such topics as the inherent inequalities stemming from differences that arise in a society and the difficulty of safeguarding the rights of the minority in a majority-ruled system of government.

. . . In all civilized Societies, distinctions are various and unavoidable.  A distinction of property results from that very protection which a free Government gives to unequal faculties of acquiring it.  There will be rich and poor; creditors and debtors; a landed interest, a monied interest, a mercantile interest, a manufacturing interest.  These classes may again be subdivided according to the different situations & soils according to different branches of commerce, and of manufactures.  In addition to these natural distinctions, artificial ones will be founded, on accidental differences in political, religious or other opinions, or an attachment to the persons of leading individuals.  However erroneous or ridiculous these grounds of dissention and faction, may appear to the enlightened Statesman, or the benevolent philosopher, the bulk of mankind who are neither Statesmen nor Philosophers, will continue to view them in a different light.  It remains then to be enquired whether a majority having any common interest, or feeling any common passion, will find sufficient movies to restrain them from oppressing the minority.  An individual is never allowed to be a judge or even a witness in his own cause.  If two individuals are under the bias of interest or enmity agst. a third, the rights of the latter could never be safely referred to the majority of the three.  Will two thousand individuals be less apt to oppress one thousand, or two hundred thousand, one hundred thousand?  Three motives only can restrain in such cases. 1. a prudent regard to private or partial good, as essentially involved in the general and permanent good of the whole.  This ought no doubt to be sufficient of itself.  Experience however shews that it has little effect on individuals, and least of all on a majority with the public authority in their hands.  If the former are ready to forget that honesty is the best policy; the last do more.  They often proceed on the converse of the maxim: that whatever is politic is honest. 2. respect for character.  This motive is not found sufficient to restrain individuals from injustice, and loses its efficacy in proportion to the number which is to divide the praise or the blame.  Besides as it has reference to public opinion, which is that of the majority, the Standard is fixed by those whose conduct is to be measured by it. 3. Religion.  The inefficacy of this restrain on individuals is well known.  The conduct of every popular Assembly, acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, shews that individuals join without remorse in acts agst. which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets.  When Indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude.  But enthusiasm is only a temporary state of Religion, and whilst it last will hardly be seen with pleasure at the helm.  Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.  If then there must be different interests and parties in Society; and a majority when united by a common interest or passion can not be restrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found in a republican Government, where the majority must ultimately decide but that of giving such an extent to its sphere, that no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit.  In a large Society, the people are broken into so many interest and parties, that a common sentiment is less likely to be felt, and the requisite concert less likely to be formed, by a majority of the whole.  The same security seems requisite for the civil as for the religious rights on individuals.  If the same sect form a majority and have the power, other sects will be sure to be depressed.  Divide et impera [divide and rule], the reprobated axiom of tyranny is under certain qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles.  It must be observed however that this doctrine can only hold within a sphere of a mean extent.  As in too small a sphere oppressive combinations may be too easily formed agst. the weaker party; so in too extensive a one, a defensive concert may be rendered too difficult against the oppression of those entrusted with the administration.  The great desideratum in Government is, so to modify the sovereignty as that it may be sufficiently neutral between different parts of the Society to controul one part from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the entire Society.  In absolute monarchies, the Prince may be tolerably neutral towards different classes of his subjects, but may sacrifice the happiness of all to his personal ambition or avarice.  In small republics, the sovereign will is controuled from such a sacrifice of the entire Society, but is not sufficiently neutral towards the parts composing it.  In the extended Republic of the United States, General Government would hold a pretty even balance between the parties of particular States, and be at the same time sufficiently restrained by its dependence on the community, from betraying its general interest.

Source | James Madison, "James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 24, 1787," James Madison Papers, Library of Congress,; from Michael Kammen, ed., The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History (Penguin Books, 1986), 71-73.
Creator | James Madison
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | James Madison, “James Madison Considers the Problems of a New Democracy,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2023,

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