Author: James Madison

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James Madison Journal

Democracy in the Balance at Philadelphia


[The Convention was considering Art. iv, sect. i, which provides that the members of the House of Representatives shall be elected every second year by "the people of the several States." The qualifications of the voters shall be the same "as those of the electors in the several States, of the most numerous branch of their own legislatures."]

MR. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to strike out the last member of the section beginning with the words "qualifications of electors," in order that some other provision might be substituted which would restrain the right of suffrage to freeholders.

MR. FITZSIMMONS (Penn.) seconded the motion.

MR. WILLIAMSON was opposed to it.

MR. WILSON: This part of the report was well considered by the Committee, and he did not think it could be changed for the better. It was difficult to form any uniform rule of qualifications for all the States. Unnecessary innovations he thought too should be avoided. It would be very hard and disagreeable for the same persons at the same time to vote for Representatives in the State Legislature and to be excluded from a vote for those in the National Legislature.

MR. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS: Such a hardship would be neither great nor novel. The people are accustomed to it and not dissatisfied with it in several of the States. In some the qualifications are different for the choice of the Governor and of the Representatives; in others for different houses of the Legislature. Another objection against the clause as it stands is that it makes the qualifications of the National Legislature depend on the will of the States, which he thought not proper.

MR. ELLSWORTH (Conn.) thought the qualifications of the electors stood on the most proper footing. The right of suffrage was a tender point, and strongly guarded by most of the State Constitutions. The people will not readily subscribe to the National Constitution if it should subject them to be disfranchised. The States are the best judges of the circumstances and temper of their own people.

COL. MASON: The force of habit is certainly not attended to by those gentlemen who wish for innovations on this point. Eight or nine States have extended the right of suffrage beyond the freeholders; what will the people there say if they should be disfranchised? A power to alter the qualifications would be a dangerous power in the hands of the Legislature.

MR. BUTLER: There is no right of which the people are more jealous than that of suffrage. Abridgments of it tend to the same revolution as in Holland where they have at length thrown all power in the hands of the Senates, who fill up vacancies themselves, and form a rank aristocracy.

MR. DICKINSON had a very different idea of the tendency of vesting the right of suffrage in the freeholders of that country. He considered them as the best guardians of liberty; and the restriction of the right to them as a necessary defence against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle with which our country like all others, will in time abound. As to the unpopularity of the innovation, it was in his opinion chimerical The great mass of our citizens is composed at this time of freeholders, and will be pleased with it.

MR. ELLSWORTH: How shall the freehold be defined? Ought not every man who pays a tax, to vote for the representative who is to levy and dispose of his money? Shall the wealthy merchants and manufacturers, who will bear a full share of the public burdens, be not allowed a voice in the imposition of them? Taxation and representation ought to go together.

MR. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS: He had long learned not to be the dupe of words. The sound of aristocracy, therefore, had no effect on him. It was the thing, not the name, to which he was opposed, and one of his principal, objections to the Constitution as it is now before us, is that it threatens this country with an aristocracy. The aristocracy will grow out of the House of Representatives. Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them. We should not confine our attention to the present moment. The time is not distant when this country will abound with mechanics and manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be the secure and faithful guardians of liberty? Will they be the impregnable barrier against aristocracy? He was as little duped by the association of the words "taxation and representation." The man who does not give his vote freely is not represented. It is the man who dictates the vote. Children do not vote. Why? because they want prudence, because they have no will of their own. The ignorant and the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest. He did not conceive the difficulty of defining "freeholders" to be insuperable. Still less, that the restriction could be unpopular. Nine-tenths of the people are at present freeholders, and these will certainly be pleased with it. As to merchants, etc., if they have wealth and value the right, they can acquire it. If not, they don’t deserve it.

COL. MASON: We all feel too strongly the remains of ancient prejudices, and view things too much through a British medium. A freehold is the qualification in England, and hence it is imagined to be the only proper one. The true idea in his opinion was that every man having evidence of attachment to and permanent common interest with the society ought to share in all its rights and privileges. Was this qualification restrained to freeholders? Does no other kind of property but land evidence a common interest in the proprietor? Does nothing besides property mark a permanent attachment? Ought the merchant, the monied man, the parent of a number of children whose fortunes are to be pursued in his own country, to be viewed as suspicious characters, and unworthy to be trusted with the common rights of their fellow citizens?

MR. MADISON: The right of suffrage is certainly one of the fundamental articles of republican government, and ought not to be left to be regulated by the Legislature. A gradual abridgment of this right has been the mode in which aristocracies have been built on the ruins of popular forms. Whether the Constitutional qualifications ought to be freehold, would with him depend much on the probable reception such a change would meet with in States where the right was now exercised by every description of people. In several of the States a freehold was now the qualification. Viewing the subject in its merits alone, the freeholders of the country would be the safest depositories of Republican liberty. In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of, property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case, the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands: or what is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side. The example of England has been misconceived [by Col. Mason]. A very small proportion of the Representatives are there chosen by freeholders. The greatest part are chosen by the cities and boroughs, in many of which the qualification of suffrage is as low as it is in any one of the United States, and it was in the boroughs and cities rather than the counties, that bribery most prevailed, and the influence of the Crown on elections was most dangerously exerted.

DR. FRANKLIN: It is of great consequence that we should not depress the virtue and public spirit of our common people; of which they displayed a great deal during the war, and which contributed principa1ly to the favorable issue of it. He related the honorable refusal of the American seamen who were carried in great numbers into the British prisons during the war, to redeem themselves from misery or to seek their fortunes, by entering on board the ships of the enemies to their country; contrasting their patriotism with a contemporary instance in which the British seaman made prisoners by the Americans, readily entered on the ships of the latter on being promised a share of the prizes that might be made out of their own country. This proceeded he said from the different manner in which the common people were treated in America and Great Britain. He did not think that the elected had any right in any case to narrow the privileges of the electors. He quoted as arbitrary the British statute setting forth the danger of tumultuous meetings, and under that pretext narrowing the right of suffrage to persons having freeholds of a certain value; observing that this statute was soon followed by another under the succeeding Parliament subjecting the people who had no votes to peculiar labors and hardships. He was persuaded also that such a restriction as was proposed would give great uneasiness in the populous States. The sons of a substantial farmer, not being themselves freeholders, would not be pleased at being disfranchised, and them are a great many persons of that description.

MR. MERCER [Md.] The Constitution is objectionable in many points, but in none more than the present. He objected to the footing on which the qualification was put, but particularly to the mode of election by the people. The people can not know and judge of the characters of candidates. The worse possible choice will be made. He quoted the case of the Senate in Virginia as an example in point. The people in towns can unite their votes in favor of one favorite; and by that means always prevail over the people of the country, who being dispersed will scatter their votes among a variety of candidates.

MR. RUTLEDGE thought the idea of restraining the right of suffrage to the freeholders a very unadvised one. It would create division among the people and make enemies of all those who should be excluded.

On the question for striking out as moved by Mr. Gouverneur Morris, from the word "qualifications" to the end of the article.

N.H. no. Mass. no. Conn. no. Pa. no. Del. ay. Md. divided. Va. no., N.C. no. S.C. no. Geo. not present.


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Chicago: James Madison Jr., "Democracy in the Balance at Philadelphia," Works, ed. James Madison in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Madison, James, Jr. "Democracy in the Balance at Philadelphia." Works, edited by James Madison, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Madison, J, 'Democracy in the Balance at Philadelphia' in Works, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from