“Conscience is the most sacred of all property”

Or: James Madison weighs in on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act!

On her facebook page today, Tara Ross quoted from a column written by Madison in 1792. She connected his words on property to religious objections people have had to Obamacare, but as I was reading, I thought immediately of the uproar this week over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

You can read Madison’s brief column at the Heritage Foundation.

Then-Congressman James Madison’s newspaper essay on property emphasizes that word’s wide-ranging meaning, which covers not just land and buildings but opinions, conscience, and rights….

The notion that the Founders were obsessed with property as material possessions is an unfortunate legacy of Marxist historians such as Charles Beard….

This conception of property as rights and thus the ability to acquire, opine, and think would lead to a flourishing of individual talents and a dynamic and prosperous society. Thus, any attack on property rights also assails what Madison called “the most sacred of all property”—conscience—and the property right in “the safety and liberty of [one’s] person.”

James Madison

National Gazette
March 29, 1792

This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”

In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.

He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them….

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

According to this standard of merit, the praise of affording a just securing to property, should be sparingly bestowed on a government which, however scrupulously guarding the possessions of individuals, does not protect them in the enjoyment and communication of their opinions, in which they have an equal, and in the estimation of some, a more valuable property.

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government, where a man’s religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property; other property depending in part on positive law, the exercise of that, being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man’s house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man’s conscience which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection, for which the public faith is pledged, by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact….

If there be a government then which prides itself in maintaining the inviolability of property; which provides that none shall be taken directly even for public use without indemnification to the owner, and yet directly  violates the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons, and their faculties; nay more, which indirectly  violates their property, in their actual possessions, in the labor that acquires their daily subsistence, and in the hallowed remnant of time which ought to relieve their fatigues and soothe their cares, the influence [inference?] will have been anticipated, that such a government is not a pattern for the United States.

If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.

James Madison signature

James Madison signature: Raeky. (CC BY-SA 3.0), GFDL: Version 1.2 or any later version published by FSF.


2 thoughts on ““Conscience is the most sacred of all property”

  1. Hi INC. Email below… If that’s not right. I can come back and put the email in the comment box.

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