Why would James Madison say protecting the legal right to acquire and hold private property is so important to our democracy? Is he still correct in his assessment?

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Founding father and writer James Madison argued that the legal right to obtain and protect property is essential to democracy because freedom, prosperity, and property are inseparable. In order for one to prosper in life and be free, one must be guaranteed protection for that which one owns, whether that is land, business, a home, and so on.

For centuries (before America was established) in nations across Europe, landowners were the elite who dictated law and determined the economic tide. Those who did not own land became dependent or servile to those who did. Therefore, class systems arose in which landowners had the power, position, and voice in government. Without land, laborers of the land did not have a voice in matters of their communities, and democracy did not exist. Early Americans wanted their nation to be different.

As the Constitution was drafted by statesmen who argued over the type of government America should have, Madison emphasized that protection for one's property was almost as basic as protection for one's life. Many founding fathers joined Madison in arguing the philosophy of John Locke that each person on earth is entitled to "life, liberty, and property." When Madison addressed the Virginia Convention, he argued this point:

It is sufficiently obvious, that persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated. The personal right to acquire property, which is a natural right, gives to property, when acquired, a right to protection, as a social right.

Just as someone cannot take the life of another without legal authorization (i.e., capital punishment), one cannot take the property of another without legal recourse. Madison argued that at the heart of a democracy lies basic human rights which must always be protected for a democracy to endure; the right to property was considered a basic right. Citizens who have representation in a government must also have the freedom to prosper. (Unfortunately, the founding fathers did not include all men and women in this description of citizens at the time the Constitution was written. Property rights were granted to minority Americans and women later in history.)

In order for citizens of a nation to not be dependent upon others for their livelihood, people must be able to make money, keep their money, and buy property without fear that their property will be taken away. When these conditions exist, citizens have liberty to prosper and participate in a democratic system of equal opportunity. This is as relevant and salient today as it was in 1787.

For, if and when citizens become completely dependent upon rulers or a government for their existence, they will quickly lose their personal freedoms. All too quickly, economic dependency can transform into complete dependency. Self-reliance is intertwined with self-governance. Human nature is prone to selfishness and greed, and in order for power (or rule) to be shared through fair and just means (law), citizens' rights must be protected. There must be boundaries, laws, and order for all people to have a chance to prosper. This is why Madison argued that there must always exist protection for the right to property in America, as he stated in Federalist 10, “the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate . . . is the first object of government.”

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