Symptoms of a Leveling Spirit

The Framers of the Constitution feared the people’s power because they were, many of them, members of what in America constituted an aristocracy, an aristocracy of the educated, the well-born, and the well-to-do, and they mistrusted those who were not educated or well-born or well-to-do. More specifically, they feared the people’s power because, possessing, and esteeming, property, they wanted the rights of property protected against those who did not possess it. In the notes he made for a speech in the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote of the “real or supposed difference of interests” between “the rich and poor”—“ those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings”— and of the fact that over the ages to come the latter would come to outnumber the former. “According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the latter,” he noted. “Symptoms, of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in certain quarters to give notice of the future danger.”

Madison foresaw that the threat of democracy was likely to become more severe over time because of the increase in “the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” They might gain influence, Madison feared. He was concerned by the “symptoms of a leveling spirit” that had already appeared, and warned “of the future danger” if the right to vote would place “power over property in hands without a share in it.” Those “without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights,” Madison explained. His solution was to keep political power in the hands of those who “come from and represent the wealth of the nation,” the “more capable set of men,” with the general public fragmented and disorganized…

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