Writings of James Madison, Volume 4

Author: James Madison

Notes on Suffrage.*

Written at Different Periods After
His Retirement from Public Life.


As appointments for the General Government here contemplated* will in part be made by the State governments, all the citizens, in States where the right of suffrage is not limited to the holders of property, will have an indirect share of representation in the General Government. But this does not satisfy the fundamental principle that men cannot be justly bound by laws in making which they have no part. Persons and property being both essential objects of government, the most that either can claim is such a structure of it as will leave a reasonable security for the other. And the most obvious provision of this double character seems to be that of confining to the holders of property the object deemed least secure in popular governments, the right of suffrage for one of the two legislative branches. This is not without example among us, as well as other constitutional modifications, favouring the influence of property in the Government. But the United States have not reached the stage of society in which conflicting feelings of the class with, and the class without property, have the operation natural to them in countries fully peopled. The most difficult of all political arrangements is that of so adjusting the claims of the two classes as to give security to each and to promote the welfare of all. The Federal principle, which enlarges the sphere of power without departing from the elective basis of it, and controls in various ways the propensity in small Republics to rash measures, and the facility of forming and executing them, will be found the best expedient yet tried for solving the problem.


These observations (in the speech of James Madison, see Debates in the Convention of 1787, August 7) do not convey the speaker’s more full and matured view of the subject, which is subjoined. He felt too much at the time the example of Virginia.

The right of suffrage is a fundamental article in republican constitutions. The regulation of it is, at the same time, a task of peculiar delicacy. Allow the right exclusively to property, and the rights of persons may be oppressed. The feudal polity alone sufficiently proves it. Extend it equally to all, and the rights of property or the claims of justice may be overruled by a majority without property or interested in measures of injustice. Of this abundant proof is afforded by other popular governments, and is not without examples in our own, particularly in the laws impairing the obligation of contracts.

In civilized communities, property as well as personal rights is an essential object of the laws, which encourage industry by securing the enjoyment of its fruits; that industry from which property results, and that enjoyment which consists not merely in its immediate use, but in its posthumous destination to objects of choice, and of kindred or affection.

In a just and a free Government, therefore, the rights both of property and of persons ought to be effectually guarded. Will the former be so in ease of a universal and equal suffrage? Will the latter be so in case of a suffrage confined to the holders of property?

As the holders of property have at stake all the other rights common to those without property, they may be the more restrained from infringing, as well as the less tempted to infringe, the rights of the latter. It is nevertheless certain, that there are various ways in which the rich may oppress the poor; in which property may oppress liberty; and that the world is filled with examples. It is necessary that the poor should have a defence against the danger.

On the other band, the danger to the holders of property cannot be disguised, if they be undefended against a majority without property. Bodies of men are not less swayed by interest than individuals, and are less controlled by the dread of reproach and the other motives felt by individuals. Hence the liability of the rights of property, and of the impartiality of laws affecting it, to be violated by legislative majorities having an interest, real or supposed, in the injustice. Hence agrarian laws and other levelling schemes. Hence the cancelling or evading of debts, and other violations of contracts. We must not shut our eyes to the nature of man, nor to the light of experience. Who would rely on a fair decision from three individuals if two had an interest in the case opposed to the rights of the third? Make the number as great as you please, the impartiality will not be increased, nor any farther security against injustice be obtained, than what may result from the greater difficulty of uniting the wills of a greater number. In all Governments there is a power which is capable of oppressive exercise. In monarchies and aristocracies, oppression proceeds from a want of sympathy and responsibility in the Government towards the people. In popular Governments the danger lies in an undue sympathy among individuals composing a majority, and a want of responsibility in the majority to the minority. The characteristic excellence of the political system of the United States arises from a distribution and organization of its powers, which, at the same time that they secure the dependence of the Government on the will of the nation, provide better guards than are found in any other popular Government against interested combinations of a majority against the rights of a minority.

The United States have a precious advantage also in the actual distribution of property, particularly the landed property, and in the universal hope of acquiring property. This latter peculiarity is among the happiest contrasts in their situation to that of the Old World, where no anticipated change in this respect can generally inspire a like sympathy with the rights of property. There may be at present a majority of the nation who are even freeholders, or the heirs and aspirants to freeholds; and the day may not be very near when such will cease to make up a majority of the community. But they cannot always so continue. With every admissible subdivision of the arable [land,] a populousness not greater than that of England or France will reduce the holders to a minority. And whenever the majority shall be without landed or other equivalent property, and without the means or hope of acquiring it, what is to secure the rights of property against the danger of an equality and universality of suffrage, vesting complete power over property in hands without a share in it; not to speak of danger in the mean time from a dependence of an increasing number on the wealth of a few? In other countries, this dependence results in some from the relations between landlords and tenants; in others, both from that source and from the relations between wealthy capitalists and indigent labourers. In the United States the occurrence must happen from the last source; from the connexion between the great capitalists in manufactures and commerce, and the numbers employed by them. Nor will accumulations of capital for a certain time be precluded by our laws of descent and distribution; such being the enterprise inspired by free institutions, that great wealth in the hands of individuals and associations may not be unfrequent. But it may be observed, that the opportunities may be diminished and the permanency defeated by the equalizing tendency of the laws.

No free country has ever been without parties, which are a natural offspring of freedom. An obvious and permanent division of every people is into the owners of the soil and the other inhabitants. In a certain sense the country may be said to belong to the former. If each landholder has an exclusive property in his share, the body of landholders have an exclusive property in the whole. As the soil becomes subdivided, and actually cultivated by the owners, this view of the subject derives force from the principle of natural law, which vests in individuals an exclusive right to the portions of ground with which they have incorporated their labour and improvements. Whatever may be the rights of others, derived from their birth in the country; from their interest in the highways and other parcels left open for common use, as well as in the national edifices and monuments; from their share in the public defence, and from their concurrent support of the Government, it would seem unreasonable to extend the right so far as to give them, when become the majority, a power of legislation over the landed property without the consent of the proprietors. Some shield against the invasion of their rights would not be out of place in a just and provident system of Government. The principle of such an arrangement has prevailed in all Governments where peculiar privileges or interests held by a part were to be secured against violation, and in the various associations where pecuniary or other property forms the stake. In the former case a defensive right has been allowed; and, if the arrangement be wrong, it is not in the defence, but in the kind of privilege to be defended. In the latter case, the shares of suffrage allotted to individuals have been with acknowledged justice apportioned more or less to their respective interests in the common stock.

These reflections suggest the expediency of such a modification of Government as would give security to the part of the society having most at stake and being most exposed to danger. Three modifications present themselves.

1. Confining the right of suffrage to freeholders and to such as hold an equivalent property, convertible, of course, into freeholds. The objection to this regulation is obvious. It violates the vital principle of free Government, that those who are to be bound by laws ought to have a voice in making them. And the violation would be strikingly more unjust as the lawmakers became the minority. The regulation would be as unpropitious also as it would be unjust. It would engage the numerical and physical force in a constant struggle against the public authority, unless kept down by a standing army, fatal to all parties.

2. Confining the right of suffrage for one branch to the holder of property, and for the other branch to those without property. This arrangement, which would give a mutual defence where there might be mutual danger of encroachment, has an aspect of equality and fairness. But it would not be, in fact, either equal or fair, because the rights to be defended would be unequal, being on one side those of property as well as of persons, and on the other those of persons only. The temptation also to encroach, though in a certain degree mutual, would be felt more strongly on one side than on the other. It would be more likely to beget an abuse of the legislative negative in extorting concessions at the expense of propriety [property?] than the reverse. The division of the State into two classes, with distinct and independent organs of power, and without any intermingled agency whatever, might lead to contests and antipathies not dissimilar to those between the patricians and plebeians at Rome.

3. Confining the right of electing one branch of the Legislature to freeholders, and admitting all others to a common right with holders of property in electing the other branch. This would give a defensive power to holders of property, and to the class also without property, when becoming a majority of electors, without depriving them, in the meantime, of a participation in the public councils. If the holders of property would thus have a twofold share of representation, they would have at the same time a twofold stake in it, the rights of property as well as of persons, the twofold object of political institutions. And if no exact and safe equilibrium can be introduced, it is more reasonable that a preponderating weight should be allowed to the greater interest than to the lesser. Experience alone can decide how far the practice in this case would accord with the theory. Such a distribution of the right of suffrage was tried in New York, and has been abandoned, whether from experienced evils or party calculations may possibly be a question. It is still on trial in North Carolina, with what practical indications is not known. It is certain that the trial, to be satisfactory, ought to be continued for no inconsiderable period, until, in fact, the non-freeholders should be the majority.

4. Should experience or public opinion require an equal and universal suffrage for each branch of the Government, such as prevails generally in the United States, a resource favourable to the rights of landed and other property, when its possessors become the minority, may be found in an enlargement of the election districts for one branch of the Legislature, and a prolongation of its period of service. Large districts are manifestly favourable to the election of persons of general respectability and of probable attachment to the rights of property, over competitors depending on the personal solicitations practicable on a contracted theatre. And although an ambitious candidate of personal distinction might occasionally recommend himself to popular choice by espousing a popular though unjust object, it might rarely happen to many districts at the same time. The tendency of a longer period of service would be to render the body more stable in its policy, and more capable of stemming popular currents taking a wrong direction, till reason and justice could regain their ascendancy.

5. Should even such a modification as the last be deemed inadmissible, and universal suffrage and very short periods of election within contracted spheres be required for each branch of the Government, the security for the holders of property, when the minority, can only be derived from the ordinary influence possessed by property, and the superior information incident to its holders, from the popular sense of justice, enlightened and enlarged by a diffusive education, and from the difficulty of combining and effectuating unjust purposes throughout an extensive country; a difticulty essentially distinguishing the United States, and even most of the individual States, from the small communities where a mistaken interest or contagious passion could readily unite a majority of the whole under a factious leader, in trampling on the rights of the minor party.

Under every view of the subject, it seems indispensable that the mass of citizens should not be without a voice in making the laws which they are to obey, and in choosing the magistrates who are to administer them. And if the only alternative be between an equal and universal right of suffrage for each branch of the Government, and a confinement of the entire right to a part of the citizens, it is better that those having the greater interest at stake, namely, that of property and persons both, should be deprived of half their share in the Government, than that those having the lesser interest, that of personal rights only, should be deprived of the whole.


The right of suffrage being of vital importance, and approving an extension of it to housekeepers and heads of families, I will suggest a few considerations which govern my judgment on the subject.

Were the Constitution on hand to be adapted to the present circumstances of our country, without taking into view the changes which time is rapidly producing, an unlimited extension of the right would probably vary little the character of our public councils or measures. But as we are to prepare a system of government for a period which it is hoped will be a long one, we must look to the prospective changes in the condition and composition of the society on which it is to act.

It is a law of nature, now well understood, that the earth under a civilized cultivation is capable of yielding subsistence for a large surplus of consumers beyond those having an immediate interest in the soil; a surplus which must increase with the increasing improvements in agriculture, and the labour-saving arts applied to it. And it is a lot of humanity, that of this surplus a large proportion is necessarily reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessaries of life. The proportion being without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights to be safe depositories of power over them.

What is to be done with this unfavoured class of the community? If it be, on one hand, unsafe to admit them to a full share of political power, it must be recollected, on the other, that it cannot be expedient to rest a republican government on a portion of the society having a numerical and physical force excluded from, and liable to be turned against it, and which would lead to a standing military force, dangerous to all parties and to liberty itself. This view of the subject makes it proper to embrace in the partnership of power every description of citizens having a sufficient stake in the public order and the stable administration of the laws, and particularly the housekeepers and heads of families, most of whom, "having given hostages to fortune," will have given them to their country also.

This portion of the community, added to those who, although not possessed of a share of the soil, are deeply interested in other species of property, and both of them added to the territorial proprietors, who in a certain sense may be regarded as the owners of the country itself, form the safest basis of free government. To the security for such a government, afforded by these combined members, may be farther added the political and moral influence emanating from the actual possession of authority, and a just and beneficial exercise of it.

It would be happy if a state of society could be found or framed in which an equal voice in making the laws might be allowed to every individual bound to obey them. But this is a theory which, like most theories, confessedly requires limitations and modifications. And the only question to be decided in this, as in other cases, turns on the particular degree of departure in practice required by the essence and object of the theory itself.

It must not be supposed that a crowded state of population, of which we have no example here, and which we know only by the image reflected from examples elsewhere, is too remote to claim attention.

The ratio of increase in the United States [makes it probable] that the present

12 millions will in 25 years be 24 millions.
24 " 50 " 48 "
48 " 75 " 96 "
96 " 100 " 192 "

There may be a gradual decrease of the ratio of increase, but it will be small as long as the agriculture shall yield its abundance. Great Britain has doubled her population in the last fifty years, notwithstanding its amount in proportion to its territory at the commencement of that period; and Ireland is a much stronger proof of the effect of an increasing product of food in multiplying the consumers.

How far this view of the subject will be affected by the republican laws of descent and distribution, in equalizing the property of the citizens and in reducing to the minimum mutual surpluses for mutual supplies, cannot be inferred from any direct and adequate experiment. One result would seem to be a deficiency of the capital for the expensive establishments which facilitate labour and cheapen its products on one hand; and on the other, of the capacity to purchase the costly and ornamental articles consumed by the wealthy alone, who must cease to be idlers and become labourers. Another, the increased mass of labourers added to the production of necessaries by the withdrawal for this object, of a part of those now employed in producing luxuries, and the addition to the labourers from the class of present consumers of luxuries. To the effect of these changes, intellectual, moral, and social, the institutions and laws of the country must be adapted; and it will require for the task all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.

Supposing the estimate of the growing population of the United States to be nearly correct, and the extent of their territory to be eight or nine hundred millions of acres, and one-fourth of it to consist of arable surface, there will, in a century or a little more, be nearly as crowded a population in the United States as in Great Britain or France; and if the present Constitution, (of Virginia,) with all its flaws, has lasted more than half a century, it is not an unreasonable hope that an amended one will last more than a century.

If these observations be just, every mind will be able to develop and apply them.

* See Debates of the Federal Convention, vol. III, p. 1253, where Mr. M. indicated a preference for freehold suffrage.

* Referring to his speech in the Convention of 1787.—Ed.

* Written during the session of the Virginia Convention of 1829-’30.—Ed.


Related Resources

James Madison

Download Options

Title: Writings of James Madison, Volume 4

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Writings of James Madison, Volume 4

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: James Madison Jr., "Notes on Suffrage.," Writings of James Madison, Volume 4 in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.21-30 Original Sources, accessed August 10, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4AKGYE2UIMLRZVA.

MLA: Madison, James, Jr. "Notes on Suffrage." Writings of James Madison, Volume 4, in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.21-30, Original Sources. 10 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4AKGYE2UIMLRZVA.

Harvard: Madison, J, 'Notes on Suffrage.' in Writings of James Madison, Volume 4. cited in , James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.21-30. Original Sources, retrieved 10 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4AKGYE2UIMLRZVA.