Popular Basis of Political Authority
[Volume 1, Page 73]
CHAPTER 2|Document 26
James Madison, Public Opinion19 Dec. 1791Papers 14:170
Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.
As there are cases where the public opinion must be obeyed by the government; so there are cases, where not being fixed, it may be influenced by the government. This distinction, if kept in view, would prevent or decide many debates on the respect due from the government to the sentiments of the people.
In proportion as government is influenced by opinion, it must be so, by whatever influences opinion. This decides the question concerning a Constitutional Declaration of Rights, which requires an influence on government, by becoming a part of the public opinion.
The larger a country, the less easy for its real opinion to be ascertained, and the less difficult to be counterfeited; when ascertained or presumed, the more respectable it is [Volume 1, Page 74] in the eyes of individuals. This is favorable to the authority of government. For the same reason, the more extensive a country, the more insignificant is each individual in his own eyes. This may be unfavorable to liberty.
Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people, and Representatives going from, and returning among every part of them, is equivalent to a contraction of territorial limits, and is favorable to liberty, where these may be too extensive.
The Papers of James Madison. Edited by William T. Hutchinson et al. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962--77 (vols. 1--10); Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977--(vols. 11--).
© 1987 by The University of Chicago