James Madison Papers

For the National Gazette, [ca. 19 December] 1791

For the National Gazette

[ca. 19 December 1791]

Public Opinion.

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 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.

Printed copy (National Gazette, 19 Dec. 1791). While no Ms in his hand has been found, JM initialed his essays, including this one, in a bound volume of the National Gazette which is now in the Library of Congress. See JM’s Notes for the National Gazette Essays, ca. 19 Dec. 1791–3 Mar. 1792, where similarities of style and thought are obvious, particularly in the segments labeled “Influence of public opinion on Government” and “Influence of the size of a nation on Government.”

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