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Dissecting Important Documents - James Madison On Property

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These lines were immortalized by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. While the implementation of these ideas was something new, they were not unique to the Founding Fathers. In 1690, John Locke wrote in the Second Treatise of Government that the fundamental natural rights include “life, liberty, and property”. The Founders first expressed these ideas when George Mason highlighted them in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in June, 1776.


There may be some discrepancies between the final aspect in Locke and Jefferson, however, James Madison attempted to reconcile this with his essay, “Property” which was published in the National Gazette in 1792: https://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/CPP/FP_PS02w.pdf


Locke defines property accordingly: “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (Second Treatise of Government, Ch. V).


While Madison agrees with this definition, he expands upon it, saying, “In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.” Included in this list are religious opinions, the free use of his faculties, and the safety and liberty of one's person. Madison continues, warning, “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions. Where there is an excess of liberty, the effect is the same, tho’ from an opposite cause.” If government fails to protect even one aspect of property, it cannot be considered just.


With this in mind, how does this idea apply to today? Do Americans still have property in their conscience, religion, or opinions? Is the ever growing “cancel culture” a legitimate threat? Has “fact checking” and the rise of social media monopolies hindered the multitude of opinions? Can we reclaim this property or have we ratcheted so far that we have reached a point of no return? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credit: history.com

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