Madison, too, emphasized how the Constitution was structured to prevent abuses of authority. But in several essays, especially Federalist nos. 10 and 51, he moved beyond such assurances to develop a strikingly new vision of the relationship between government and society in the United States. Madison identified the essential dilemma, as he saw it, of the new republic—government must be based on the will of the people, yet the people had shown themselves susceptible to dangerous enthusiasms. Most worrisome, they had threatened property rights, whose protection was the “first object of government.” The problem of balancing democracy and respect for property would only grow in the years ahead because, he warned, economic development would inevitably increase the numbers of poor. What was to prevent them from using their political power to secure “a more equal distribution” of wealth?

The answer, Madison explained, lay not simply in the way power balanced power in the structure of government, but in the nation’s size and diversity. Previous republics had existed only in small territories—the Dutch republic, or Italian city-states of the Renaissance. But, argued Madison, the very size of the United States was a source of stability, not, as many feared, weakness. “Extend the sphere,” he wrote. The multiplicity of religious denominations, he argued, offered the best security for religious liberty. Likewise, in a nation as large as the United States, so many distinct interests—economic, regional, and political—would arise, that no single one would ever be able to take over the government and oppress the rest. Every majority would be a coalition of minorities, and thus “the rights of individuals” would be secure.

Madison’s writings did much to shape the early nation’s understanding of its new political institutions. In arguing that the size of the republic helped to secure Americans’ rights, they reinforced the tradition that saw continuous westward expansion as essential to freedom. And in basing the preservation of freedom on the structure of government and size of the republic, not the character of the people, his essays represented a major shift away from the “republican” emphasis on a virtuous citizenry devoted to the common good as the foundation of proper government. Madison helped to popularize the “liberal” idea that men are generally motivated by self-interest, and that the good of society arises from the clash of these private interests.

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