Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson (1786)

No study questions

Since my last which was of the 18th of May I have recd. your very agreeable favor of the 28th of October. I began to fear it had miscarried. Your reflections on the idle poor of Europe, form a valuable lesson to the Legislators of every country, and particularly of a new one. I hope you will enable yourself before you return to America to compare with this description of people in France the Condition of the indigent part of other communities in Europe where the like causes of wretchedness exist in a less degree. I have no doubt that the misery of the lower classes will be found to abate wherever the government assumes a freer aspect, the laws favor a subdivision of property. Yet I suspect that the difference will not fully account for the comparative comfort of the mass of people in the United States. Out limited population has probably as large a share in producing this effect as the political advantages which distinguish us. A certain degree of misery seems inseparable from a high degree of populousness. If the lands in Europe which are now dedicated to the amusement of the idle rich, were parceled out among the idle poor, I readily conceive the happy revolution which would be experienced by a certain proportion of the latter. But still would there not remain a great proportion unrelieved? No problem in political Oeconomy has appeared to me more puzzling than that which relates to the most proper distribution of the inhabitants of a country fully peopled. Let the lands be shared among them ever so wisely and let them be supplied with laborers ever so plentifully; as there must be a great surplus of subsistence there will also remain a great surplus of inhabitants, a greater by far than will be employed in cloathing both themselves and those who feed them, and in administering to both, every other necessary and even comfort of life. What is to be done with this surplus? Hitherto we have seen them distributed into manufacturers of superfluities, idle proprietors of productive funds, domestics, soldiers, merchants, mariners, and a few other less numerous classes. All these classes notwithstanding have been found insufficient to absorb the redundant members of a populous society; and yet a reduction of most of those classes enters into the very reform which appears so necessary and desirable. From a more equal partition of property, must result a greater simplicity of manners, consequently a less consumption of manufactured superfluities, and a less proportion of idle proprietors and domestics. From a juster government must result less need of soldiers either for defense against dangers from without or disturbances from within. The number of merchants must be inconsiderable under any modification of society; and that of Mariners will depend more on geographical position, than on the plan of legislation. But I forget that I am writing a litter not a dissertation.

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