Constitution Sunday: Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson

Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson

New York, October 24, 1787

Following are excerpts from James Madison’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated October 24, 1787:

“It remains then to be enquired whether a majority having any common interest, or feeling any common passion, will find sufficient motives 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 biass 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 perhaps still less on a collection of 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 restraint 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 lasts 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 interests 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 of individuals.”

“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 the extended Republic of the United States, The 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 interests.”

James Madison’s reflections on the dynamics of society, and specifically the interaction between the majority and minority, provide insight into the thinking of America’s fourth president and the thoughts underlying the Constitution.

Perhaps most importantly, Madison realized that there were so many diverse interests in society and those interests must be valued but nothing was tantamount to protecting the interests of society as a whole. Government’s role, at least on some level, was to balance those interests and ensure that the best interests of all Americans was protected, even as the passions and predilections of Americans change and conflict with each other.

This governmental control is crucial to the health of American society. Often, governments feed into the latest trend, or the newest way of thinking about an issue, regardless of the merits of the issue. That type of reactionary populism does not always consider the long-term interests of the citizens of the country, and in that way, it is dangerous. Madison’s thinking, in this 1787 letter, captures how American government would not allow that to occur. While there have been instances of it occurring on some level in American history, there has been an awareness that letting those passions control government entirely is undesirable and damaging. For that, thanks is due at least in part to Madison.

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