The Left and the Right agree on too many things these days, but on nothing so much as the US Constitution.  Both sides treat it as a lifeless document that thwarts progress toward the expansion of human rights and the scope of democracy.   For so-called conservatives like Samuel Alito and the late Antonin Scalia, thwarting progress is a good thing—their reading of the document based on the founders’ “original intent, ”on the plain meaning of the words they used, would forbid gay marriage, women’s ownership of their own bodies, and affirmative action of any kind.  For radicals and liberals like Seth Ackerman and Pete Buttigieg, thwarting progress is a bad thing—their reading of the document tells us that the Constitution is a fetter on democracy, on the expansion of human rights and the scope of equality.   Either way, it’s in the way.

I’m here to say that both sides are wrong.  The Constitution still breathes freedom, even democracy—it’s an impediment to but also a condition of progress toward a more perfect union, a more equitable polity. Like most interesting and formative things, it needs modification rather than the mausoleum or the dustbin.


Seth Ackerman is now the executive editor of Jacobin, the not-so-little magazine created by Bhaskar Sunkara and Remeike Forbes ten years ago.   He has written with grace and style–and real insight–on a broad range of topics, including the thorny one of market socialism (his essay on Thomas Piketty’s Capital[2014] is the best thing I’ve read on that weighty book).   He’s exactly the kind of public intellectual we need just now, someone who knows enough to speak with authority but not enough to sound like a pedant.

The anniversary issue of the magazine leads, however, with a long Ackerman essay that is equal parts leftist boilerplate and liberal-pluralist truisms.  These ingredients don’t often go together in a credible recipe, so we should take note when the smartest guy in the room starts cooking with them.

The essay, called “Failure Is An Option,” is a meditation on what we know as “the founding,” the making of the US Constitution ca. 1787-90, and what it has made of us after all these years.  It reiterates the plaintive tone and content of dozens of similarly learned complaints since the 1970s, from Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom to Robert Reich and Elizabeth Anderson, from Pete Buttigieg to Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, all of which cite the anti-democratic consequences, or connotations, of the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court.   Not to mention the rights of property originally inscribed in the document and its statutory elaborations, which accredited chattel slavery—the right to buy and sell human beings–until overthrown by the 13thand 14thAmendments, ca. 1865-1868.

In view of these convincing complaints, most of us literate Americans know that the Constitution stands in the way of democracy.  That is why we’re so perplexed—why we both revere and revile the Supreme Court, or resent Montana because it gets as many senators as California, or hope that Canada soon annexes the Dakotas.  But we need to know that the Constitution also points the way toward democracy, as Frederick Douglass, Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimke, and Joshua Leavitt, abolitionists all, claimed in the 1840s and 50s—and as I will suggest in what follows.


Your attitude toward both constitutional scruple and democratic practice—your idea of what it means to be an American—is determined by the story you tell or believe about the founding.  Ackerman’s story is an old, even wizened one, based on sectarian/Leninist premises and so-called progressive historiographical postulates. 

To begin with, like Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks then and now, Ackerman assumes that the French Revolution is the paradigm of revolution as such, or, what is the same thing, that the American Revolution was a tranquil, dignified affair carried out by bourgeois white men with no stake in, even a horror of, the radicalism of the people “out of doors,” out of bounds, beyond the reach of the law—the resourceful slaves who went over to the British side, as in New York and Virginia, the brilliant artisans who wrote democratic constitutions for their new states, as in Pennsylvania, the angry debtors who rose up against their venal oppressors, as in North Carolina and Massachusetts.

With the implicit endorsement of Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, James Robinson, Vernon Parrington, Merrill Jensen, James Ferguson, and yes, William Appleman Williams—the crucial constituents of the aforementioned “progressive” historiography—Ackerman assumes, accordingly, that the founders (a.k.a. the “nationalists”) tried desperately to suffocate majority rule, and that the Constitution is a monument to the success of their efforts.   

“The Thermidor of 1787,” he calls it, recalling the coup against the Committee of Public Safety in July 1794 which halted The Terror (1792-94)—the spree of murderous violence against the “enemies of the people” supervised by the maximum Jacobin, Robespierre himself—and which, not incidentally, marked the outer limits of the French Revolution.  The American Revolution expired, so the argument goes, in much the same way it expired elsewhere, when the radical will of the people “out of doors” succumbed to bourgeois fear of majority rule.

This enchanting anachronism still resonates even though these were bourgeois, not proletarian, revolutions, and, more to the point, even though the result of the debate over the draft of the Constitution wasn’t a foregone conclusion.  The anti-Federalists who opposed ratification weren’t in fear of death, they were worried about the future of the republic they’d help carve out of war and revolution—but their opposition, their worries and warnings about the powers of a centralized national government, were immediately inscribed in the ten “freedom amendments” that James Madison, the Federalist par excellence, sponsored to satisfy anti-Federalist doubts, and to spur ratification.  The Girondins, the contemporary analogue of the anti-Federalists, never got a comparable hearing or concessions from the Jacobins.  They were guillotined instead.

In short, the French Revolution foundered on The Terror, and ultimately failed—hence the spastic history of French monarchies, republics, and revolutions in the 19thcentury. The American Revolution succeeded by creating, through constitutional means, a new republic, a new nation that could address the central social problem of modernity, class formation and struggle, without sinking, as France did, into the repetition compulsion of rebellion and repression.  The Jacobins themselves, not the forces of reaction, destroyed the promise of the French Revolution by trying to escape, or rather erase, the past, and by ignoring the future.

So perhaps it’s time we gave up on them as the model of radical or revolutionary rigor.  Perhaps it’s time we retired Robespierre and his brand of “revolutionary despot”—how about “idiot authoritarian”?—who thinks he knows better than the people, and is willing to overturn their will by force of arms or executive order.


Any argument to the effect that the Constitution was the Thermidor of the American Revolution is grounded in a bluntly utilitarian scheme of motives—viz., the founders thwarted majority rule because it threatened their natural right of property (thus the existing distribution of wealth) and, in doing so, they thwarted democracy as such, then as now.  To see how unsustainable the argument is, we need only notice what James Madison—by all accounts (Ackerman’s included) the principal author of the Constitutional settlement and the party system that erupted in the 1790s—actually wrote, said, and did, from1786, when he completed his study of ancient and modern republics, to 1821, when he offered his last remarks on suffrage, representation, and consent. 

The relevant documents are (1) “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” April 1787, a memorandum which was the product of (a) his studies in the history of republics, begun in 1785, (b) his concerns about Daniel Shays’s agrarian rebellion in Massachusetts, which erupted in August 1786, and (c) his despair about the multiplicity, mutability, and injustice of the laws passed by state legislatures under the Articles of Confederation, which was, as he put it, “nothing more than a treaty of amity of commerce and alliance, between so many independent and sovereign states.”  (2) His speeches in the constitutional convention, June-August 1787.  (3) His “Remarks on Jefferson’s Draught of a Constitution for Virginia,” October 1788.  (4) His reflections on the suffrage from 1821, when he could witness the empirical truth of what he predicted in 1787-88, that proletarian majorities would inevitably change the relation between the rights of persons and the rights of property.

For economy’s sake, yours and mine, let me state my conclusions first, before demonstrating them by textual reference,   

Madison’s studies of previous republics taught him that all of them had failed because they could not accommodate the inevitable effects of historical time—namely, the division of labor and the class conflict that followed from the development of a dynamic, imperial, commercial society.   He devised a political system that could make that accommodation by breaking completely with inherited wisdom, “republican theory” as he called it.  Because he comprehended the past, he could ignore it in designing the future.   He didn’t follow Montesquieu, as Ackerman asserts, or Hume, or anybody else, for that matter.  He consulted them, he used them, and, finally, he departed from them.

More specifically, when combined with his observations of contemporary events in the US, these studies taught him that previous republics had failed because they forgot how to balance the “two Cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons and the rights of property”—by giving precedence to the rights of property, they had “sacrificed the poor to the rich.”   That was the crucial lesson to be learned from the history of republics.  The past was a “beacon,” he insisted, not a blueprint.  Like a lighthouse, it was a warning rather than a template or a destination. 

In this sense, Madison acted, avant la lettre, on the dictum that G. W. F, Hegel, the last great philosopher of history, would  enunciate thirty years later, in The Philosophy of Historyno less, and that Friedrich Nietzsche would try even later to render as historical method in The Use and Abuse of History: “But what experience and history teach is this—that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.  . . . Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help.  It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past.  The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present.” ** 

Madison knew, and said repeatedly, that a majority of American citizens would someday be proletarians with no interest in the rights of property, but he also knew that the “fundamental principle of republican Government [is] that the majority who rule in such Governments, are the safest Guardians both of public Good and of private rights.”  He therefore designed a polity that postponedbut would not prevent the formation of majorities—a constitutional system that preserved the rights of persons by giving them structural leverage against the rights of property.

Throughout, Madison assumed that what we call democracy is not reducible to majority rule, because justice—the derivative of consent—can’t be the product of superior power, whether of force (weapons), intellect (expertise), or numbers (majorities), and that consent can only be solicited, never compelled.  He knew, accordingly, that majority rule could be just as oppressive as monarchical prerogative.   He kept asking, as we should, is majority rule always or inevitably consistent with justice, with the inalienable “rights of Man”?  (For example, did white majorities in the Jim Crow South constitute democratic states?)  Could majorities themselves decide that question?  Or would the new republic require a third branch of government that could answer it?

Madison assumed, at another level of political science, that the principle of political obligation specific to modernity was consent. I would paraphrase that principle as follows: I obey the laws because I know that my duly elected representatives have made them.  I have engaged in their making by participating or by abstaining—I have validated their legitimacy, because, either way, I have implicitly granted elected officials the right and the duty to make laws that govern all citizens, all persons, regardless of their political persuasions. 

Put it another way: I will not kill my neighbor, but not because God forbade murder through Moses and his other proxies.  No, I obey the law because it‘s better than recourse to revenge, because it protects me as well as my enemies—family, friends, and strangers alike.  My strength as an individual who must avenge a wrong done to me or my family now matters far less than my poweras a citizen who can call upon the law, as it applies to and orders private behaviors and political actions.***

Note: this principle of political obligation does not and cannot hold absent a state that is constituted by citizens who know they are equals at the law, and who know, consequently, that their political participation or abstention matters.


OK, let’ s go to the videotape.  Or, as the talking heads now say, “give a listen.”    

(1)  “Vices of the Political System.”   Here Madison worried about the multiplicity, mutability, and injustice of the laws made by the not-so-united states.  More laws were passed in the decade of independence than in the previous century.   No less worrisome was the fact that “We daily see laws repealed or superseded, before any trial can have been made of their merits; and even before a knowledge of them can have reached the remoter districts within which they were to operate.”

But the real crisis permitted by the Articles of Confederation was injustice, for this vice of the political system threatened the sine qua nonof popular, republican government, viz., the legitimacy of majority rule: “If the multiplicity and mutability of laws prove a want of wisdom, their injustice betrays a defect still more alarming: more alarming not merely because it is a greater evil in itself, but because it brings more into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such Governments, are the safest Guardians both of public Good and of private rights.”

Nowhere, not ever, does Madison suggest that this problem of injustice can or should be solved by abolishing or limiting the formation of majorities; for doing so would sentence popular, republican government as such to death.  Instead, he departs from all previous theorists, Montesquieu and Machiavelli included, by treating what they had identified as the solvent of popular government—the centrifugal social forces residing in the division of labor and class formation—as the crucial means to the end of republican stability.   Previous theorists had insisted that republics could not survive these recognizable elements of modernity; they claimed, accordingly, that small, homogenous societies were the only viable setting for popular government.   So they also feared economic growth and development.

Madison begged to differ. Here is how he explained his new departure in historical terms:

“A still more fatal if not more frequent cause [of injustice, apart from the venality of elected officials] lies among the people themselves.  All civilized societies are divided into different interests and factions, as they happen to be creditors or debtors—Rich or poor—husbandmen, merchants or manufacturers—members of different religious sects—followers of different political leaders—inhabitants of different districts—owners of different kinds of property & co.   In republican Government the majority however composed, ultimately give the law. 

“Whenever therefore an apparent interest or common passion unites a majority what is to restrain them from unjust violations of the rights and interest of the minority, or of individuals?”

What, indeed?  A “prudent regard “ for how the protection of your individual interests depends on others, on the “permanent good of the community”?  Not going to happen.  Respect for character?  Oh please. Religion?  God forbid.

So what is to done? Try a “modification of the sovereignty,” Madison suggested, whereby “an enlargement of the sphere” makes majority formation neither impossible nor unlikely, but more difficult (this is the groundwork of Federalist # 10).  The sphere of what?  William Appleman Williams rendered Madison’s idiom as a kind of frontier thesis, a geographical eschatology that locked the new republic into imperial idiocy. 

But Madison himself was more complicated than that.  The “enlargement of the sphere” meant this: “The Society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions, which check each other “—in other words, “a common interest or passion is less apt to be felt and the requisite combinations less easy to be formed by a great than by a small number.”

So the republic thrives on social inclusion and division and their consequence, the political articulation of a “greater variety” of interests, etc.   What could be more promising as a formula for popular government under the condition of modernity?


(2) Those speeches in the constitutional convention.  Here Madison pondered what he would later call the “two Cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons and the rights of property,” and suggested how they could be balanced in a Constitution that refused legal or political precedence for the latter—that’s right,, knowing that previous republics had foundered precisely because they “sacrificed the poor to the rich,” Madison tried to build protections of the rights of persons into a new political system.

June 26, 1787, in convention, fretting about an impending proletarian majority and wondering how to address it “on republican principles,” that is, without repudiating majority rule:

“In framing a system we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.  An increase of population [the enlargement of the social sphere] will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.  These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence.  According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. . . . How is this danger to be guarded against on republican principles?”

August 7, 1787, still in convention, considering the danger to republican government from the other side of class formation and division:

“The right of suffrage is certainly one of the fundamental articles of republican Government, and ought not 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. . . . Viewing the subject in its merits alone, the freeholders of the Country would be the safest repositories of Republican liberty.” 

And yet, and yet.  What happens when those freeholders constitute the minority of citizens—when propertyless proletarians are the majority?   

“In future times the 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 & the public liberty [will not be secure] or which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence & ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side.”

Madison added an explanatory note to the record of this last speech which demolishes any claim to the effect that he wanted to thwart majority rule, or that the founders were conducting a counter-revolution, or that they couldn’t think in terms of class formation and conflict.

“All the citizens in States where the right of suffrage is not limited to the holder of property, will have an indirect share of representation in the General [the federal] Government.  But this does not satisfy the fundamental principle that men cannot be justly bound by laws in [the] making of which they have no part.  Persons and property being both essential objects of Government, the most that either can claim, is such a structure of it as will leave a reasonable security for the other.  . . .

“But the United States have not reached the stage of Society in which conflicting feelings of the Class with, and the Class without property, have the operation natural to them in Countries fully peopled.  The most difficult of all political arrangements is that of adjusting the claims of the two Classes as to give security to each, and to promote the welfare of all.”


(3)  Madison changed his mind within a year of these remarks in convention, with his “Observations on Mr. Jefferson’s Draught of a Constitution for Virginia.”  Even in Kentucky, almost the Garden of Eden, he found that the “smaller part only” of the population could be interested in preserving the right of property.   Class formation was underway even on the frontier, he realized, and so the debate over the rights of persons and the rights of property was, too.  How notto decide it, so that the “two cardinal objects” of government would remain as equally compelling imperatives? 

Again, Madison proposed to divide the legislative branch against itself, so that each would become the effective sponsor of one or the other category of rights, always assuming that an either/or choice between them would be modulated or prohibited by the third branch of government, where simple justice would be the standard of judgment.  I italicize and interpolate where needed.

“The first question arising here is how far property ought to be made a qualification [of the franchise].  There is a middle way to be taken which corresponds at once with the Theory of free Government and the lessons of experience.  A freehold or equivalent of a certain value may be annexed to the right of voting for Senators, and the right left more at large in the other House.  Examples of this distinction may be found in the Constitutions of several States, particularly if I mistake not, of North Carolina and N. York.

“This middle mode reconciles and secures the two cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons, and the rights of property.  The former will be sufficiently guarded by one branch, the latter more particularly by the other.

“Give all power to property, and the indigent will be oppressed.  Give it to the latter [the propertyless] and the effect may be transposed.  Give a defensive share to each and each will be secure.

“The necessity of thus guarding the rights of property was for obvious reasons unattended to in the commencement of the Revolution “

Why? Because small holders were the avant garde of rebellion in New England and the middle states; in the Chesapeake, the planters were always out front. 

“In all the Governments which were considered as beacons to republican patriots and lawgivers, the rights of persons were subjected to those of property.  The poor were sacrificed to the rich.

The republican past is a beacon, not a guide: we make it new or we walk away from the prospect of popular government.  

“In the existing state of American population and American property, the two classes of rights were so little discriminated that a provision for the rights of persons was supposed to include of itself those of property, and it was natural to infer that from the tendency of republican laws that these different interests would be more and more identified.

Experience and investigation have however produced more correct ideas on this subject.

History has countermanded the claims of republican theory, and forced us to see that the division of labor and class formation are not deviations from the norm, but are rather themselves the norm of the modern time, and must be acknowledged as the stretched social canvas on which political innovation will be painted.

“It is now observed that in all populous countries, the smaller part only can be interested in preserving the rights of property.  It must be foreseen that America and Kentucky itself will by degrees arrive at this State of Society; that in some parts of the Union a very great advance is already made towards it.”

Madison was writing to an interlocutor from Kentucky, a place that seemed to many of the founders a blank slate, a “virgin land,” that would escape historical time because its Edenic spatial endowment permitted regression to a “golden age,” before private property accumulation interfered with the natural equality of men.  What he says here is startling because, unlike most of his comrades, he’s insisting that there’s no way back to the garden—we have to live in the fallen world as we’ve inherited it, not as we would like to imagine it.

Again, what is to be done?  Sacrifice the poor to the rich, according to the historical precedent of ancient and modern republics—those “beacons to patriots and lawgivers”—by subjecting the rights of persons to the rights of property in the name of liberty?  Or sacrifice the rich to the poor by relinquishing the rights of property, liberty itself, in the name of equality?

Madison chose the middle way, the middle mode.  The point was to keep “the two cardinal objects of Government” in tension, in dialogue, letting each limit, inform, and modulate the other, thus promoting the general welfare.  Dividing the legislative branch against itself was his institutional means of sustaining the tension and the dialogue—the separation of powers, as he conceived it, was not just a matter of designating different functions for the three branches of government.

Original intent, by this accounting, meant refusing the either/or choice between the rights of persons and the rights of property—it meant acknowledging, maintaining, and enforcing the distinction between these “two cardinal objects of Government.”  Madison assumed that liberty (property) and equality (persons) were indissoluble moments on the continuum of revolution; neither could thrive in the absence of the other.  He was right.


(4)  But look where he ended up.  Finally, that poignant, unpublished memo of 1821.  New York State was already abolishing any property qualifications for the suffrage, and other states would soon follow.  Madison pondered the implications of this momentous reform, still assuming that freeholders, propertied individuals rather than proletarians, were the “safest guardians” of popular, republican government because they could still assert their economic independence as against the “great Capitalists in Manufacture & Commerce and the members employed by them.”  Imagine thinking that far ahead in 1821.

The old man saw four possibilities, (a) confining the suffrage to freeholders, (b) splitting the difference between the two legislative branches—freehold qualification for the upper house, nothing but tax payments for the lower—(c) giving a “defensive power to holders of property,” or (d) extending the terms of representative service to guard against frivolous political purposes.  He didn’t like any of them.  Here’s why.

“Under every view of the subject, it seems indispensable that the Mass of Citizens should not be without a voice, in making the laws which they are to obey, & in choosing the Magistrates.. . . It is better that those having the greater interest at stake namely that of property and persons both, should be deprived of half their share in the Government, than, that those having the lesser interest, that of personal rights only, should be deprived of the whole.”

When it came down to it, James Madison believed that people cannot justly be bound by laws in the making of which they have no part.  Consent was the key to everything that would make the law and the nation-state legitimate. So this 18th-century man, a revolutionary who knew the rights of property were the key to liberty, sided with an impending proletarian majority that threatened these very rights—knowing that republics die when they sacrifice the poor to the rich.  


In view of these remarks, I don’t see how the Constitution Madison framed can be construed as any kind of Thermidor, or a lifeless constraint on the development of democracy. It’s amenable to amendment, for God’s sake, which is how it got ratified in the first place, and revolutionized in 1868. But look, we don’t need an amendment to make the Electoral College moot—the states are already moving to make the popular vote the binding mandate in presidential elections.  Nor do we need an amendment to dispose of the filibuster. 

The Senate, OK, but the easy way to loosen its stranglehold on progress is not reapportionment or amendment but the new states we call Puerto Rico and Washington. D.C.   

As for the Supreme Court. In Citizens United(2010), it chose the rights of property over the rights of persons by defining corporations as the equivalent of “natural persons,” thus violating “original intent” as Madison had articulated it.  And in Shelby v, Holder(2013), the court chose states’ rights over federalism, thus regressing to the attitude of the Articles of Confederation, or the belligerence of the other Confederacy, the one that fought a civil war in defense of slavery.    

But now as in the 1930s, when FDR was threatening to pack the court, the lasting way to quell the noise that comes from those sorry chambers is legislation that forces the court’s hand.  Let its members make plain and public their disdain for majority rule and justice alike. At that point, we can explain why they stand in contempt of the document they’re sworn to protect.  But we can’t do that if we’ve already given up on it. 


*I’m grateful to my fellow editors at POLITICS/LETTERS for their comments on and criticisms of an earlier draft: Laura Kipnis, Bruce Robbins, John McClure, and Mike Fennell.  With all due respect to Charles A. Beard and his intellectual descendants among so-called progressive historians, I’m also grateful to post-progressive scholars of the American Revolution, particularly Louis Hartz, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, John Pocock, Alfred Young, Mary Beth Norton, and, above all, Hannah Arendt, whose On Revolution(1962) changed my mind and my life.

**Hegel helps to clarify not only the practical limits of historical consciousness, but the meanings of property in the “modern time,” which begins, according to his periodization, when “the repudiation of work no longer earned the reputation of sanctity,” that is, when the allocation of the property in one’s labor power, the ability to produce value through work, became evidence of freedom in necessity rather than slavish abjection to one’s social betters.  The assertion of the right to the property in oneself was, accordingly, the “first embodiment of freedom.”   (Philosophy of History, Dover ed, p. 423; Philosophy of Right, Oxford UP ed., pars. 44-45) 

Marx followed Hegel’s lead in this (as in most other things).  For example, in Capital, volume 1 (Kerr ed.), he declared: “The capitalist epoch is therefore characterized by this, that labour-power takes in the eyes of the labourer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently become wage labour.  On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity.”  (189n.1, my italics) 

Compare this passage to his remarks on Aristotle and the possibility of a labor theory of value: “There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and their labour powers.  The secret of the interpretation of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice.  This, however, is possible in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities.” (p. 69)  

Translation: the commodification of labor power was the material condition that underwrote the popular prejudice inscribed in the Declaration of Independence.  And vice versa: the notion that “all men are created equal” underwrote the development of a market for “abstract social labor” rather than artisanal specialities and guild requirements.  

In the 18thcentury, and for much of the 19th, to defend the rights of property was not, then, to defend social hierarchy, but to dismantle it.   That is certainly how the arch-radical Tom Paine saw it in Common Sense(1776), and how Madison’s comrades from the revolutionary generation, with the obvious exception of Alexander Hamilton, did as well.   Notice how Madison praises small property-holders (the freeholders) as the political bulwark against the “great Capitaiists in Manufacture & Commerce.”  

***The distinction between strength and power is the bass line of Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition(1958).