Less than five years after James Madison’s Virginia Plan was transformed by the Philadelphia Convention into a totally new frame of government, Madison saw fit to warn the nation of a dangerous trend he feared would derail the new Constitution before it had an opportunity to work.
The issue was government’s responsibility to protect man’s property. Madison made clear that the word property had two definitions, one being man’s ownership of the material things of this world (land, money, investments), the other a “larger and juster” concept that included these same material possessions, but also “everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right.”
That meant, Madison explained, that man has a property “in his opinions and the free communication of them ... in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them ... in the safety and liberty of his person ... [and] in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.” In other words, he wrote, “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
This difference between property in rights and in material things lies more in the who than the what. Man’s natural desire to accumulate more property (things of material value) than he needs, in combination with the social contract assumption that government’s power is limited to protecting man’s natural rights, which increasingly fall under the heading of property, creates social and political problems more explosive even than the obvious economic ones.
When government’s responsibility to protect property is considered in its narrower view, it leads those with the most to some dangerous, self-serving conclusions. That government’s principal responsibility is to serve their interests, not those of the society at large; that their self-interest is greater than the national interest; that their rights, linked directly to the property they own, must always take precedence; that since ownership of property drives rights, those without property, beyond the freedom to acquire it, have no rights; and, as people without property, these are second-class citizens, if indeed they are to be considered citizens at all.
What we see here is a pattern of self-serving thinking that has brought us to our current state of affairs, where those with wield the influence and power. Those without continue to struggle. Once again, we see history written by the winners.
There’s a political context to James Madison’s property analysis that is especially important: the beginnings of the partisanship in American politics that would metastasize into an institutionalized, two-party political tradition in America. More specifically, Madison’s essay must be read as a warning of the impending flow of events described above. The dangerous concentration of influence and political power in the hands of the rich and powerful, as exemplified fully in the economic agenda Alexander Hamilton outlined in his 1790-91 reports to Congress. Though Madison’s mention of this political context was oblique, it was nonetheless real.
More than half of Madison’s essay was devoted to specific dangers to respect for man’s “property in rights,” which he considered more important. Madison’s end game? To demonstrate that the Constitution’s system of counterpoise, separation of powers rendered operable by the systemic checks and balances built into it, can best thwart the challenges described.
Most dangerous of all, Madison warned, was accumulation of power in the same hands, in Hamilton’s case the urban manufacturing, banking and financial interests concentrated in the northeastern sector, destined to benefit most from the largesse Hamilton’s program promised. “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected,” Madison wrote. When that situation exists, “No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions ... Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”
Government is just, Madison warned, only when committed to securing man’s property in its broadest sense, not its narrowest. Only this, he cautioned, is certain to establish this nation as the model other nations will emulate, the real world “City on a Hill” John Winthrop envisioned as early as 1630.
It’s hard to ignore the political message Madison, Jefferson and the rest seem to be sending us in this age of Donald Trump. The current standoff between Congress and the Executive, rendered more contemptable and dangerous by its descent to personal barbs between the president and the speaker, threatens the political balance Madison seemed to view as essential to the property-in-rights of all Americans.