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On Property

On Property

“On Property” was an essay written by James Madison and published in the National Gazette on March 29, 1792. Madison was a statesman and Founding Father who helped draft the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. “On Property” has become one of the most cited documents regarding the legal concept of property in the United States.

James Madison’s Essay: “On Property”

The US Constitution had only been ratified a few years prior. Public debate around the definition of proper representation and civil liberties continued. Madison wrote a series of essays for Philip Freneau’s partisan newspaper National Gazette. Freneau was a proponent of equal political representation, with an emphasis on rejecting aristocratic power and upholding an agrarian society. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would form the Democratic-Republican Party only a couple of months after the publication of James Madison’s essay “On Property”. Madison wanted to explain the relationship between property and civil liberties to the readership and their party.

on property author james madison studysmarterJames Madison's political philosophy evolved throughout his career. Wikimedia.

Federalist Papers and “On Property”

Originally only white landowners, those who owned property, were considered eligible to vote. James Madison, along with his close political ally, Thomas Jefferson, was concerned that wealthy landowners would have an unfair advantage over poorer landowners and landless citizens. “On Property” is similar in spirit to the Federalist Papers in that Madison sought to expand the concepts of which his political philosophies and influence public policy.

on property the federalist papers studysmarterJames Madison, Johny Jay, and Alexander Hamilton wrote over eighty-five essays now known as the Federalist Papers. Wikimedia.

James Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, set out to promote and influence the ratification of the new US Constitution with the Federalist papers. Previously, the Articles of Confederation set out the framework for cooperation between the states. However, it was limited in its ability to address national issues, such as the regulation of commerce or the levying of taxes for federal use.

Madison used his state constitution from Virginia as a model and drafted the Virginia Plan to be a model for the US Constitution. The Federalist Papers argued for the ratification of the US Constitution, breaking down and explaining key concepts to the public. The US Constitution was ratified in 1789. The concept of what is property, however, continued to be hotly debated.

Opponents of Madison’s policies, called Anti-Federalists, felt the US Constitution wasn’t explicit enough in its identification and protection of civil liberties. Madison eventually conceded and helped draft the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, that explicitly addressed civil liberties and rights. The fifth amendment addresses privacy and property.

An active member in the US Congress formed by the US Constitution, Madison continued to write essays explaining the basic principles that laid the foundation of the new US government. “On Property” is an evolution of the political policies advocated by Madison, with an emphasis on redefining property to include intangibles like civil liberties.

James Madison’s “On Property”: Summary

Madison starts his essay with the commonly accepted and political definition of property. Property refers to material possessions, including land, that a man values and asserts exclusive rights to. This definition assumes that every person is equally entitled to make such a claim. Madison then broadens the definition of property to abstractions such as freedom of thought, free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to safety and personal liberty. If a person’s property can be recognized as valid and valuable, then if civil liberties can equally be recognized as valid and valuable, one can conclude they are one’s property as well.

Where there is an “excess” of power, not only are property rights threatened, but also one’s personal freedoms. A fair government’s purpose is to protect and secure these properties and rights. Nothing should obstruct the free exercise of thought and expression. For Madison, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”1

on property james madison montpelier estate studysmarter Madison felt that freedom of thought was just as important as his physical property. Wikimedia.

To Madison, the government should remain separate from the church. No man should be fined, penalized, or taxed for their religious practice. Nor should any man be subjected to arbitrary seizure of their possessions, nor forced to labor under any pretense. The government should also not engage in any sort of dominance or monopoly over any particular market that would force a consumer to purchase particular goods against their personal preferences.

Taxes should also reflect equally on the rich and the poor, with no one economic class carrying too much of the tax burden. Man is entitled to earn his keep and keep what he earns. Ultimately, a government for the people and by the people takes no actions which infringe on these personal liberties. If the people of America want to choose a model government that the rest of the world can be inspired by, then it must be one that enshrines civil liberties. Citizens should have the freedom to pursue a life of liberty and happiness, so long as it doesn’t infringe upon anyone else’s ability to do the same.1

Main Ideas about “On Property”

There are two main ideas from Madison’s essay “On Property”.

Civil Liberties as Property

Madison expands the definition of property to include civil liberties. Historically, property referred to land and the material possessions upon it. Madison argues that if property is considered valuable, then other things that one considers valuable should be considered property as well.

Just Government

Before the American Revolution for Independence, aristocracies and monarchies scoffed at the idea of the common man being capable of ruling himself. The US Constitution derived its power from the consent of the people. When the government no longer serves the interest of the people, they are entitled to dismantle it and replace it with one that does. Madison argues that the main purpose of a fair and just government is to protect and secure not only property rights but civil liberties like freedom of speech and religion as well.

on property original hand written us constitution studysmarterMadison's "On Property" expanded upon basic concepts enshrined in the US Constitution. Wikimedia.

Significance of ”On Property” by James Madison

“On Property" reiterated and expanded the standards set by the American Revolution. America as a nation was only a few years old and growing quickly. As Secretary of State in the Jefferson administration, Madison oversaw the doubling of US territory through the Louisiana Purchase. He pushed for starting a Second National Bank to fund federal operations, such as a stronger navy to protect US merchant ships from seizure and piracy. As the growing country necessitated more centralized power, Madison hoped to maintain the principles the country was founded upon.

In Madison’s time, most people in power considered the concept of civil liberties and universal representation in government radical. Only white men who owned property, such as land, managed to accrue wealth and representation in government. Then they could influence and shape policy to their benefit, often excluding landless white men and other demographics such as women and people of color. By including civil rights within the realm of property, Madison included more citizens into the newly formed representative democracy. He appealed to and challenged those who held that property was the base of their citizenship. Interpreting civil liberties as property granted protection under the law, limiting the central government’s ability to legally infringe on the rights of American citizens.

To this day, Madison’s “On Property” is referenced as a basic founding principle in the crafting of public policy and political debate, despite its publication years after the ratification of the US Constitution.

"On Property" - Key takeaways

  • "On Property" is an essay written by statesman and eventual fourth President James Madison.
  • Madison frequently wrote and published essays, like the Federalist Papers, to explain political platforms and influence public policy.
  • He wrote "On Property" to expand the definition of property to include civil liberties.
  • "Conscience" or freedom of thought or to act however one chooses is the most sacred property to Madison.
  • Madison's essay "On Property" reiterated and expanded the standards set by the American Revolution.
  1. Madison, James. “On Property”. National Gazette. March 29, 1792

Frequently Asked Questions about On Property

James Madison wrote “On Property” to expand the definition of property to include civil liberties.


James Madison called “Conscience” the most sacred of all property.


James Madison said “Conscience” is the most sacred of all property.


James Madison meant that property not only included material possessions, but civil liberties as well.

The Fifth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights that James Madison contributed to, addresses privacy and property rights.

Final On Property Quiz

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Who wrote "On Property"?

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James Madison

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When was "On Property" published?

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March 29, 1792

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Which newspaper published "On Property"?

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The National Gazette

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How is "On Property" similar to the Federalist Papers?

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"On Property" and the Federalist Papers both sought to explain political platforms and influence public policy.

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How does Madison expand the definition of property?

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He includes civil liberties as property.

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How does Madison justify his expansion of the definition of property?

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Madison says that if one recognizes property as valuable, then what one values should be recognized as property.

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What threatens property?

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An excess of power

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According to "On Property" what is a government's purpose?

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To protect and secure property.

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According to "On Property" how does a government derive its authority?

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From the consent of the people.

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What is the most sacred of properties?

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Conscience

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American citizens should have the freedom to


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to pursue a life of liberty and happiness, so long as it doesn’t infringe upon anyone else’s ability to do the same.

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Man is entitled to 


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earn his keep and keep what he earns.

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A main idea of "On Property":

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Civil Liberties as Property

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If America wants to choose a model government, then it needs one that

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enshrines civil liberties

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To this day, Madison’s “On Property” is referenced as 


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a basic founding principle in the crafting of public policy and political debate.

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