Class and Pluralism in America: The Constitution Reconsidered

By John F. Manley

Originally appeared in The Case Against the Constitution, edited by John F. Manley and Kenneth Dolbeare. Published by M.E. Sharpe, 1987.
John F. Manley, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, discusses the Constitution in the context of two theories that purport to explain political power in America: pluralism, which sees society as comprised of diverse groups and puts little emphasis on class, and class analysis, which sees classes as the basic fact of social life and treats groups as fractions of classes. Manley contends that the Founding Fathers understood society in class terms, and that the Constitution is best understood as a case of class conflict in American history:
The conflict between modern pluralism and Marxist class analysis permeates law, history, and the social sciences.

At times, modern pluralists are so impressed with the absence of class conflict that they speak of the „fact that the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved: the workers have achieved industrial and political citizenship; the conservatives have accepted the welfare state; and the democratic left has recognized that an increase in over all state power carries with it more dangers to freedom than solutions for economic problems“ (Lipset 1963, pp. 442 43; italics added).

In less extreme versions, the prism of class is declared „too crude to follow the swift play of diverse political groups“ (Bell 1961, p. 66). Modern pluralists sometimes describe democracy in America as a system of group conflicts in which „minorities rule“ (Dahl 1963, p. 133). As Polsby summarizes the essential propositions:

Pluralists, who see American society as fractured into a congeries of hundreds of small special interest groups, with incompletely overlapping memberships, widely differing power bases, and a multitude of techniques for exercising influence on decisions salient to them, are not surprised at the low priority Americans give to their class memberships as bases of social action. In the decision making of fragmented government . . . it is the claims of small intense minorities that are usually attended to. Hence it is not only inefficient but usually unnecessary for entire classes to mobilize when the preferences of class members are pressed and often satisfied in piecemeal fashion. The empirical evidence supporting this pluralist doctrine is overwhelming . . . (Polsby 1980; p. 118).
This article raises questions about modern pluralism by examining the case for a class analysis of the U.S. Constitution. Evidence is presented showing that the Founding Fathers saw society in terms of class, perceived dangers from class conflict, wrestled with the contradiction between political equality and economic inequality, and devised the Constitution informed by a class analysis of the society in which they lived.

The argument begins with a look at the classic that stands at the intersection of all these issues, Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Then the Framers in general and the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, are shown to be acute students of class and class conflict. A close look at Madison’s theory distinguishes his pluralism, rooted in class, from modern pluralism which denies or discounts class. Madisonian pluralism and Marxist class analysis, it is argued, give a better explanation of the Constitution than modern pluralism. Modern pluralism not only fails to explain the Constitution; it may be shown, by extension, to be inferior to and subsumed by class analysis as a general theory of American politics.

The Legacy of Charles Beard

„The thing to do is to lay a mine,“ Beard once told his student Raymond Moley, „store it with nitro, and then let it off in such a fashion that it rips the bowels out of something important, making it impossible for the fools to travel that way any more“ (Nore 1983, p. 56).

To one so inclined, controversy was not likely to remain a stranger.

Before the appearance of J. Allen Smith’s (1907) and Beard’s (1913) critiques of the Constitution, the dominant historical perspective on the Founding Fathers was Bancroft’s. His almost lyrical view saw the Constitution as the „sublime achievement“ of a people „led by statesmen of earnestness, perseverance, and public spirit . . . warmed by the mutual love which proceeds from ancient connection, harmonious efforts in perils, and common aspirations“ (Bancroft 1882, v. 1, p. 3). Generations of Americans had been taught to rank the Constitution next to the Bible. The shrill response to Beard sounded the depths of Constitution worship in the United States. William Howard Taft led a national chorus of denunciation of Beard’s book. Nicholas Murray Butler, the conservative President of Beard’s home university, when asked if he had read the Columbia Professor’s last book replied, „I hope so!“ (Nore 1983, p. 63).

Beard’s demystification of the Framers showed that they had more on their minds in Philadelphia than democracy. His argument that many also had financial stakes in the adoption of the Constitution resonated well with progressive and populist critiques of American society then in vogue (Hofstadter 1968; Smith 1907).

But Beard went further. He had been influenced by Marx, and this raised the issue of class. In 1913, improper suggestions about the Framers in a Marxist context were doubly anathema.

They still are, and that is why Beard’s questions recur.

After the initial furor over Beard’s book died down, the economic interpretation was widely accepted among historians for nearly fifty years (Kenyon 1966, p. xxxv). Beard continued to draw spirited criticism from constitutional scholars who felt he slighted such things as the „patriotic sincerity of the motives of the Framers“ (Warren 1937, p. 5). But the most serious criticism came in the 1950s when a series of attacks appeared.

After a painstaking chapter by chapter attack on Beard, one critic concluded that the „Constitution was adopted in a society which was fundamentally democratic, not undemocratic,“ and warned future historians against beginning „with the illusion that the Beard thesis of the Constitution is valid“ (Brown 1956, p. 200). Beard was faulted for violating the strictures of „scientific,“ value free history. Brown argued that there were no propertyless masses excluded from voting in 1787, that practically everybody had an interest in protecting property, that the Framers believed they were writing a Constitution for a democratic society, and that Beard’s analysis of the economic interests of the Framers was simply wrong (Brown 1956, pp. 194 200).

Forrest McDonald, in an even more exhaustive critique, outlined what he called a „pluralistic“ study of the Constitution. Granting the economic factor some importance, he treated Beard as a value laden economic determinist who, with unerring consistency, got almost everything about the Constitution wrong (McDonald 1958, pp. 400 17).

Political scientists Martin Diamond and John P. Roche joined the case against Beard by viewing the Framers as democrats, not class inclined partisans. Diamond rejected the common claim that the Constitution embodied a reaction against the democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence on the grounds that the Framers believed that political authority derived from the great body of citizens (Diamond 1959, p. 54). Roche says of the Framers „not only were they revolutionaries, but also they were democrats: Indeed, . . . they were first and foremost superb democratic politicians“ (Roche 1961, p. 799).

The Constitutional Convention, in his view, is best seen as a democratic reform caucus in action.

Contrary to the impression sometimes left by his critics, Beard did not present the Framers merely as venal politicians out to secure their property interests; nor did he claim that the economic factor was the only one involved in the Constitution. But in talking of „economic determinism,“ in tracking down the Framers‘ personal financial interests, in pitting finance capital, manufacturing, and commercial interests against small farmers and debtors, and in speaking of the exclusion of a large propertyless mass from influence at the Convention, he gave his critics much to attack. Parts of Beard’s thesis have been confirmed by historians (Main 1961; Benson 1960), but although the thesis has not been demolished its former supremacy has been seriously impaired (Kenyon 1963, p. 327).

From the Marxist perspective, the problem with Beard’s analysis goes even deeper.1 Although Beard was influenced by Marx, the influence was slight. Ironically, had Beard been better acquainted with Marx’s theory he would have avoided many of the traps that mar his analysis. He would have been more concerned, for example, with the class and structural issues of the Convention, and less concerned with the elusive financial holdings of the Framers. As Max Lerner notes:

What was relevant was not the property holdings of the members of the Convention but their property attitudes. To be sure, their attitudes might be inferred from their holdings, but it was a roundabout procedure and one that laid Beard open to the charge of stressing the crass aspects of men’s motivation . . . . Here a more Marxian approach, rather than a straight Madisonian one, would have been helpful (Lerner 1940, p. 162).
Class analysis sees society as made up of conflicting classes, groups, and individuals. At the broadest level, society is divided into those with property and those without, the haves and have nots. Although conflict is objectively rooted in these relationships, it is prosecuted at the class level only during special, revolutionary moments. Groups and individuals operating at subclass levels are crucial to controlling the outbreak and outcome of class conflict. This view does not pit groups against class but rather sees groups as fractions of classes. Groups and classes may be more or less united or hostile. In this light, it is no surprise to see important class and group conflicts surface at Philadelphia. Nor is it surprising that the Framers see society in terms of conflicting classes and groups, a perception that underpins the Constitution. If one asks the modern pluralist question, did the Framers see society as so fractured into competitive groups that class was not a problem, the answer is no. This is precisely what the Constitution was intended to help achieve, an observation that locates the origins of the Constitution correctly in group and class conflict, not just the former.

The Framers‘ View of Society

A common historical view sees the United States of 1787 as a relatively egalitarian and homogeneous society of small farmers. There was no large industrial working class. Most white men were independent producers who worked for themselves. Land was readily available, the frontier was vast, and the democratic ethos had recently received classic expression in the Declaration of Independence.

As the Framers looked at this society, however, they did not see equality. They saw inequality, heard popular demands to change it, and acted to block these demands. Their basic model of society was conflict, not consensus; accordingly, they approached their work with resolving conflict uppermost in mind.

At least most of them did. One of the delegates, Charles Pinckney, argued the case for a consensus model, but his analysis was overwhelmingly rejected by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leaders of the Convention.

As Pinckney saw it, the United States was singular because „there are fewer distinctions of fortune and less of rank, than among the inhabitants of any other nation“ (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 400). There were different classes in America, he acknowledged, and he even named them (landed, professional, and commercial). But because their interests were not in conflict, he concluded, a strong national government was not needed to protect the property interests of members of the upper class (Farrand 1937, v. 1, pp. 397 404, 410 412).

The day after Pinckney presented his consensus theory of American society Madison took the floor to refute it. Madison and others wanted to strengthen government to stabilize a society they saw as turbulent. They could hardly let Pinckney’s argument stand unchallenged. At issue was social equality.

Madison admitted that the United States did not have hereditary distinctions of rank, nor the extremes of wealth and poverty found in Europe. But he rejected consensus as dangerously misleading. „In all civilized countries,“ he told the delegates, „the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests. “ There are creditors and debtors, farmers, merchants, and manufacturers. „There will be particularly the distinction of rich and poor,“ he added. We cannot be regarded even now, he continued, as „one homogeneous mass.“ In the future, importantly, there will be even greater inequality. This posed a problem:

An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in this country, but symptoms of a levelling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarters [sic] to give notice of the future danger (Farrand 1937, v. 1, pp. 422 23).
The Father of the Constitution thought the issue of class important enough to return to it later in the Convention.

Madison admitted that „the United States have not reached the stage of society in which conflicting feelings of the class with, and the class without property, have the operation natural to them in countries fully peopled.“ But, looking ahead, in „future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of, property. “ This posed a twofold danger: one, interests will either combine under the influence of their common situation, in which case the rights of property and the public liberty will be put at risk; or, two, the people will become the „tools of opulence and ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side“ (Farrand 1937, v. 2, pp. 203 04). Madison’s message was clear: inequality and property were at risk, and had to be protected, Pinckney’s rosy views to the contrary notwithstanding.

No one agreed more heartily than Hamilton. Although Hamilton is usually regarded as having little influence at the Convention, his four to five hour speech on June 18 probably had a profound effect on his listeners. In this speech, which Gouverneur Morris declared one of the ablest he had ever heard, Hamilton drew the class lines sharply. In „every community where industry is encouraged,“ he said, „there will be division of it into the few and the many. “ Separate interests, especially that between creditors and debtors, will inevitably arise. „Give all power to the many,“ he warned, „they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few they will oppress the many. “ Which was to be feared most? He left no doubt on this question as he talked of the „violence and turbulence of the democratic spirit,“ and of „popular passions“ that „spread like wild fire, and become irresistable [sic]“ (Farrand 1937, v. 1, pp. 288 89).

As for the consensus view, Hamilton argued that nothing like equality of property existed. Indeed, he contended, as long as liberty existed, inequality would exist, for inequality „would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself.“ Efforts to level society were useless. He, like Madison, believed that inequality in the United States would not only exist but inevitably increase. „The difference of property is already great amongst us. Commerce and industry will still increase the disparity. Your government must meet this state of things, or combinations will . . . undermine your system“ (Farrand 1937, v. 1, pp. 424, 432).

When Hamilton warned that government must deal with rising social inequality, or combinations would arise that would undermine the system, he stated the fundamental task of the Convention. He and his colleagues came to this view after years of experience with threats to property from the „people“ and democratic state legislatures. The driving force behind the Convention was the widespread perception that a stronger national government was needed to bolster the ability of government to protect property from real threats.

It is true, as Beard’s critics contend, that the Framers were interested in promoting national control of commerce and protecting the union from dissolution. But these objectives were not in competition with the concern for property. Indeed, national control of commerce was a way of preventing threats to property at the state and local levels, and the fear of dismemberment was related to the economic anarchy that prevailed in many states.

A sense of urgency was created by Shays’s Rebellion, the latest in a long line of threats to property. This Massachusetts debtor uprising in the fall of 1786 generated fear among creditors and property owners all over the country. Madison, Washington, and others received alarming reports from such observers as Henry Lee. Lee warned Madison not to be deceived by reports of moderate alms among Shays and his followers, for they intended „the abolition of debts public and private, a division of property and a new government founded on principles of fraud and inequity, or re connexion with G.B.“ (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 144).

Madison took the warning seriously. In November he wrote his father about the „great commotions“ in Massachusetts. He said he feared an „appeal to the sword“ because the discontented were said to be as numerous as the friends of government, and he relayed Lee’s judgment that the rebellion sought to abolish debts and divide property (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 154).

Madison was not alone. On November 5, 1786, George Washington wrote him about the „impending storm.“ Washington quoted a letter he had received from General Knox which described Shays as believing that since the property of the United States had been secured from the British by the joint exertion of all, it „therefore ought to be the common property of all.“ As Washington saw it, the rebels meant to have „agrarian laws“ and paper money, which were just ways of redistributing property (Rutland 1975, v. 9, pp. 161 62. Italics his).

Washington drew an important political lesson from Shays’s Rebellion: want of „energy“ in government was a grave threat. He warned Madison that „thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head will soon bring ruin on the whole . . . .“ A new liberal and energetic Constitution, he said, was needed to restore respectability (Rutland 1975, v. 9, pp. 161 62).

„Energy“ in government was a favorite theme of the Federalists. It was, in fact, code for the protection of property. Madison replied to Washington that based on reports he had received the situation outside Congress was „desperate,“ but, on a hopeful note, the legislature had agreed to the Annapolis call for a convention and had also unanimously rejected petitions for depreciating military certificates (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 166). In January 1787 Madison, still alarmed by Shays, feared that „civil blood“ would be shed, and cited these events as furnishing „new proofs of the necessity of such a vigour in the General Government as will be able to restore health to any diseased part of the federal body“ (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 231). The Convention was set for May.

Viewed from Paris, and through the special lens of Thomas Jefferson, the „late troubles in the Eastern states“ did not appear too serious. It was on this occasion that Jefferson commented to Madison „that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical“ (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 248).

But viewed from Congress, the „spirit of insurrection,“ as Madison called it, was a threat to nothing less than the survival of republican government in the United States. Madison also felt that if the Convention failed to agree on some remedy the union would dissolve: „The late turbulent scenes in Massachusetts and infamous ones in Rhode Island, have done inexpressible injury to the republican character in that part of the United States . . . .“ He noted a propensity toward monarchy in certain quarters but predicted that the bulk of the people „will probably prefer the lesser evil of a partition of the union into three more practicable and energetic Governments“ (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 295). Madison opposed separation, and set out to prevent it.

Madison’s allusion to Rhode Island revealed his fear of the „people. “ In 1786 the country or paper money party won control of the governorship and legislature in Rhode Island. It tried to force merchants and creditors to accept depreciated currency. The lower house even refused to help Massachusetts apprehend insurgents from Shays’s Rebellion. Madison’s fears were reinforced by reports from Virginia where, in the face of a scarcity of hard money, Virginians were cooperating against buying property sold by execution, supporting debt payments in property or on installment, and even talking about following Massachusetts’s lead in preventing the courts from enforcing property laws (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 381). A month before the Convention Madison defined the central constitutional issue as follows:

In republican Government the majority however composed, ultimately give the law. Whenever therefore an apparent interest or common passion unites a majority what is to restrain them from unjust violations of the rights and interests of the minority, or of individuals? (Rutland 1975, v. 9, p. 355).
The above evidence shows that the Framers did not see their society as so dominated by small group conflicts that class conflict was not a consideration. The inability of government to deal with class conflict in fact threatened the entire system. Two leaders not at the Convention, but who may nonetheless be called Founding Fathers, may also be cited here. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most democratic leaders of the day, and John Adams, one of the most elitist, for all their differences, saw society in remarkably similar, class, terms.

As Jefferson put it:

Men by their constitution are naturally divided into two parties. First, those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. Secondly, those who identify themselves with the people . . . . Call them therefore liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats . . . they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last appellation of aristocrats and democrats is the basic one expressing the essence of all (Foner 1944, p. 800).
Adams was even more explicit. He had a deep fear of the people (Dauer 1953, p. 39). „The moment the idea is admitted into society,“ he wrote, „that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect, anarchy and tyranny commence“ (Adams 1971, v. 6, p. 9).

Adams noted that in every nation the great majority is usually destitute of property, and asked incredulously whether „. . . if all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, the eight or nine millions who have no property, would not think of usurping over the rights of the one or two millions who have?“ (Adams 1971, v. 6, p. 8). As he saw it, „the populace, the rabble, the canaille move as naturally in the circle of domination, whenever they dare, as the nobles or a king; nay, although it may give pain, truth and experience force us to add; that even the middling people, when uncontrolled, have moved in the same circle; and have not only tyrannized over all above and all below, but the majority among themselves has tyrannized over the minority“ (Adams 1971, v. 6, p. 10).

Adams‘ views are important because he spoke for one of the leading factions in America, the „Adams Federalists.“ But his views are also important because he articulated a view of human nature congruent with his view of society, and both were widely shared among the Founding Fathers.

The Fathers granted to all people a certain moral equality, but Adams and others scorned those who argued for egalitarian democracy. Inequality of property was rooted in inequality of ability. Take a hundred people, Adams wrote John Taylor, and make them a „democratical“ republic. After a few sessions, the superior few will emerge and democracy will give way to an aristocracy of the able few. „Aristocracy was, from the beginning, now is, and ever will be, world without end, independent of all these artificial regulations. . . “ (Adams 1971, v. 6, p. 457). Even if wealth were broken up and distributed equally, it would inevitably become unequal. Inequalities, he concluded, are a part of the natural history of man (Adams 1971, v. 6, p. 458).

Jefferson, the egalitarian, agreed. In a famous 1813 letter to Adams, Jefferson concurred that there was a natural aristocracy among men. Jefferson was careful to distinguish the natural aristocracy based on talent and virtue, from that of the „pseudo aristoi“ of wealth and birth (Foner 1944, p. 715), but Adams had no quarrel with this distinction. The two leaders differed over such important questions as how much reliance to place on the people in distinguishing the natural from the false aristocrats, not on the basic question of inequality.

The evidence that the Framers were primarily concerned with protecting property is overwhelming, but this does not mean the voice of the „people“ was absent from the Convention. A few delegates defended the people when they felt their colleagues veered too far in the aristocratic direction, but the single greatest restraint on aristocracy was probably fear of what the people might do if aroused.

As a delegate from conflict torn Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry spoke to this point with special authority. Gerry, an aristocrat who had earlier warned the Convention that the people in the east supported the „wildest ideas of Government,“ such as abolishing the Massachusetts Senate and giving all power to the other branch, resisted pressure from Benjamin Franklin and others to sign the Constitution because he feared that it went so far in protecting property that it might provoke civil war. As Madison summed up Gerry’s remarks: „In Massachusetts, particularly he saw the danger of this calamitous event. In that State there are two parties, one devoted to Democracy, the worst he thought of all political evils, the other as violent in the opposite extreme“ (Farrand 1937, v. 2, p. 647). Gerry’s fears of immediate civil war proved excessive, but his analysis of the situation clearly shows the importance of class in the thinking of the Framers.

Madison’s Theory of Class

A remarkable fact about Madisonian or classical pluralism, which separates it radically from modern pluralism, is that far from being opposed to class analysis it was deeply embedded in it. When Madison spoke to the Convention about the „class with and the class without property,“ warning that the latter would naturally and dangerously increase in number, class considerations were obviously very much on his mind. This raises the possibility that instead of being hostile to Marxian class analysis, Madisonian pluralism may have interesting parallels in Marx. If Madison and Marx both see society as comprised of classes and fractions of classes (groups), then on this crucial point Madison may be seen as a forerunner of Marx, not an antagonist. The essential difference between them may be, as Lerner notes, more the difference between Madison’s brilliant apercus and Marx’s more systematic theory of political economy than anything fundamental (Lerner 1940, p. 165).

Before presenting the evidence on this, it is important to note a point on which Madison and Marx obviously disagree. Madison saw the existence of groups in society as the key to preventing class conflict. Marx saw groups as something that had to be overcome to foment it. Again, however, one sees important agreement: political values aside, groups are central to understanding class, and class is central to understanding groups.

It is possible, of course, that Marx and Madison defined „class“ so differently that any agreement between them is illusory. But this is not the case.

Both use the term to refer to how people in society define and establish their social relations in the course of producing what they absolutely have to have, first to live, and then to live well.2 The material necessities and niceties of life come first for Marx and Madison.

Listen to Madison writing in 1829:

It is a law of nature, now well understood, that the earth under a civilized cultivation is capable of yielding subsistence for a large surplus of consumers, beyond those having an immediate interest in the soil; a surplus which must increase with the increasing improvements in agriculture and the labor saving arts applied to it.
And it is a lot of humanity that of this surplus a large proportion is necessarily reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessaries of life.

That proportion being without property, or the hope of acquiring it, can not be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights, to be safe depositories of power over them.

Listen to a younger but equally mature Madison in Federalist 10:

. . . the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views (Hamilton, Madison and Jay 1961, p. 79).
As the simple agrarian society of his day was replaced by „wealthy capitalists and indigent labourers“ Madison believed that inequality would grow worse. He predicted that capital accumulation would not be inhibited by inheritance laws, so great wealth in the hands of the few would not be „unfrequent.“ The question recurs:

. . . whenever the majority shall be without landed or other equivalent property and without the means or hope of acquiring it, what is to secure the rights of property against the danger from an equality and universality of suffrage, vesting complete power over property in hands without a share in it: not to speak of a danger in the mean time from a dependence of an increasing number on the wealth of a few? (Meyers 1973, .pp. 504 05).
Madison realized that not all groups were equal. There was a most common and durable source of faction, „property.“ On this point, he and Marx are one.

Madison was not only aware of class, he was one of its most profound students. This was not a paradox for Madison because he did not recognize the modern division between pluralism and class. His integrated conception emerges clearly when, as constitution makers must, he looks to the future. „In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce,“ he drolly told the Convention in the same breath that he told them an increase in population would of necessity increase the proportion of those who will secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of life’s blessings (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 422).

The paradox for Madison was that property, the raison d’etre of society, was simultaneously society’s greatest threat. His answer to this threat was hyperpluralism: class conflict could be avoided by maximizing group conflicts. In what was to be one of the most brilliant invocations of divide and conquer ever made, Madison devised a pluralist solution to class conflict.

Madison’s Solution

Hyperpluralism was Madison’s solution to class conflict because it made it hard for the majority to find a common interest or, if found, to act successfully on it.

„Extend the sphere,“ Madison writes in Federalist 10, „and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens . . . .“ The advantage of such a system? „A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it . . .“ (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 1961, pp. 83 84).

Madison said the same thing behind the Convention’s closed doors. The rich could oppress the poor; but the chief threat was to property, not from it:

The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interest and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be apt to unite in the pursuit of it (Farrand 1937, v. 1, pp. 135 36).
There was, of course, another solution to the problem of inequality, the „socialist“ solution. Government could be used to promote social equality thereby removing what Madison saw as the chief cause of faction. Madison faced this question squarely and made the first object of government precisely the opposite: the protection of the differences in natural faculties from which inequality in property necessarily flows. He, like Adams, believed that men were by nature unequal. Madison, writing about the „diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate,“ said:

The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results, and from the influence of these on the sentiment and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 1961, p. 78).
The causes of faction, in Madison’s famous phrase, are sown in the nature of man. They cannot be cured by the repression of liberty, even though liberty yields inequality, for this is worse than the disease. Nor can they be cured by promoting consensus on the common good. Ideology and beliefs have limits. The only solution to the problem of faction is to deal with its effects. For this, Madison proposed a large pluralistic society matched by a stronger and more pluralistic government operating under a Constitution rooted in respect for private property.

Class and Constitutional Balance

Class considerations openly dominated the Framers‘ consideration of how the national government should be structured, lending strong evidence to Gordon Wood’s contention that the pivotal battle at Philadelphia was that between aristocracy and democracy (Wood 1969, p. 485).

Elbridge Gerry expressed the dominant view when he said the „evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.“ Claiming he still supported „republican“ government, he confessed he „had been taught by experience the danger of the levelling spirit“ (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 48).

The question, of course, was how to structure the system to protect against the levelling spirit; the answer was checks and balances.

The system of checks and balances is often linked to the Framers‘ fear of concentrated political power, but in fact the system had a sharp political economic point: through checks and balances ordinary people could be given some representation in government while being kept from dominating it. John Adams understood the general principle well:

In every society where property exists, there will ever be a struggle between rich and poor. Mixed in one assembly, equal laws can never be expected. They will either be made by numbers, to plunder the few who are rich, or by influence to fleece the many who are poor. Both rich and poor, then, must be made independent, that equal justice may be done, and equal liberty enjoyed by all (Adams, 1971, v. 6, pp. 68 69).
Following the example of the states, most of which had bicameral legislatures, the House of Representatives was to be the repository of the democratic principle in the new government. Several delegates worried about even this much „democracy.“ John Dickinson proposed property qualifications on voters for the House, explaining that such a restraint was „a necessary defense against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle, with which our country, like all others, will in time abound“ (Farrand 1937, v. 2, p. 202).

Roger Sherman opposed popular election of the House because the people lack information and are easily misled. Gouverneur Morris expressed similar views, predicting that „the time is not distant when this country will abound with mechanics and manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers“ (Farrand 1937, v. 2, p. 202).

In the end; property restrictions were not adopted. But a bow to democracy in the House was made easier by the knowledge that Congress would consist of two houses, the second of which would „filter“ predictable democratic excesses from the people’s chamber. As Edmund Randolph put it: „The object of this second branch is to control the democratic branch of the National Legislature“ (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 218). Such a need, he felt, had been amply demonstrated by the „democratic licentiousness“ of state legislatures.

Madison concurred. According to Yates’s summary of Madison’s comments on the Senate, „Landholders ought to have a share in the Government . . . . They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority“ (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 431).

Gouverneur Morris summed up the prevailing view when he said they had all witnessed excesses against personal liberty and private property from the democratic branches of state legislatures. He feared the rich as well, he said, for they would seek to enslave the rest. The only solution was to balance these classes in Congress. The first branch would be democratic, the second aristocratic and, he felt, it should be chosen for life. „Such an aristocratic body will keep down the turbulency of democracy,“ he concluded (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 517). He did not add that the House would also keep down the turbulency of the aristocracy, but this fear was not as pronounced as fear of the people.

The above evidence shows that the Framers were highly conscious of the dangers to property from democracy. By no stretch of the evidence can this meeting be considered a democratic reform caucus in action. If more proof is needed it was supplied when the Framers got into a discussion of the most general question of all: the purpose of society.

On this question, they showed themselves to be in full agreement with John Locke: men create government for the protection of property. Gouverneur Morris touched the discussion off by observing that „property was the main object of Society. “ He conceded that the savage state of nature was more favorable to liberty than the civilized state. This state was preferred, he said, by all men who had not acquired a taste for property, and „was only renounced for the sake of property which could only be secured by the restraints of regular Government . . .“ (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 533).

Morris’s views received strong support. Rutledge and Butler of South Carolina agreed, and so did King of Massachusetts. As King summarized Morris’s speech, „Men don’t unite for liberty or life, they possess both in the savage state in the highest perfection, they unite for the protection of property“ (Farrand, 1937, v. 1, p. 536).

Not everyone agreed with this view. Wilson did not believe that property was the sole or even the primary object of government and society: cultivation and improvement of the mind were (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 605). The records of the Convention report no one agreeing with him.

Conclusion: Pluralism, Class, and the Constitution

The Framers saw society in terms of class, government in terms of protecting property, and the people as a threat. As „republicans“ most of them opposed monarchy and accepted the necessity of some role for the „people“ in government. But Randolph of Virginia was not alone in identifying the chief danger as the democratic parts of the state constitutions, none of which provided sufficient checks against democracy (Farrand 1937, v. 1, p. 27). The Framers established a mixed or republican system in which the majority without property (or much of it) would be satisfied to coexist with the propertied minority. They recognized that conditions were propitious: most of the white male population held land. But they also recognized that this had not prevented serious threats to property (Shays) and they expected society to grow more unequal in the future. The Constitution was designed as a balance between democracy and aristocracy which could protect justly acquired property from democratic disturbance. From this view of class, the Framers proposed the Constitution as a potential solution to the riddle of economic inequality and political democracy. It is fitting that Madison, who had most to do with the design, stated it best in 1833:

Those who framed and ratified the Constitution believed that as power was less likely to be abused by majorities in representative Government than in democracies, where the people assembled in mass, and less likely in the larger than in the small communities under a representative Government, inferred also that by dividing the power of Government and thereby enlarging the practicable sphere of Government, unjust majorities would be formed with still more difficulty . . .“ (Meyers 1973, p. 524).
If groups and class were joined in Madison, why were they split? The question also arises as to whether the separation renders society and constitutions easier or harder to understand.

Groups and class were split after Marx published his critique of capitalism. To dispel any doubt over whether these two events are linked, the father of modern pluralism, Arthur F. Bentley, offers his theory explicitly as an answer to Marx.

Pluralists since Bentley have followed his lead, and the two theories remain opposed today (Manley 1983).

Bentley likens American society to a spherical mass through which pass an unlimited number of planes, each representing a different principle of group organization: race, ethnicity, region, religion, language, etc. The result is a great confusion of groups, and a denial of class. „When the groups are adequately stated,“ Bentley says, „everything is stated.“ For emphasis, he adds, „When I say everything I mean everything“ (Bentley 1908, p. 208).

According to Bentley, Marx raised the group to the level of class and spun a theory of history around the fictitious aggregate. The failure of the so called proletariat to unite behind a common interest proved Marx’s theory wrong, in Bentley’s view. Indeed, Bentley declares that a „proletariat class, such as Marx and Engels conceived it, simply did not exist“ (Bentley 1908, p. 467). The central social reality is neither the individual nor class, but groups.

Bentley recognized that not all groups are equal. „Wealth groups“ had special advantages, but were by no means the entire story. Groups could join forces and for such alliances he used the term „class. “ But classes form rarely, which is just as well, for Bentley links them with despotic government. „The economic basis of political life must, of course, be fully recognized,“ Bentley writes, „though it does not necessarily follow that the economic basis in the usual limited use of the word is the exclusive, or even in every detail the dominant basis of political activity“ (Bentley 1908, p. 209).

Since it would be hard to find anyone who ever treated the economic as the exclusive or in every detail the dominant basis of politics, a bit of straw enters Bentley’s argument here. But with only slight variation, Bentley’s charge of economic determinism, his assertion of the primacy of social and political variables over class variables, and the „failure“ of Marx’s prediction regarding proletarian revolution have become core items in pluralism’s rejection of Marx.‘ John Dewey, who proposed scientific method and organized intelligence as substitutes for Marx’s class struggle, and who, with Bentley, laid the philosophical foundations of modern pluralism, summed up the modern pluralist case as follows:

In spite of the existence of class conflicts amounting at times to veiled civil war, any one habituated to the use of the method of science will view with considerable suspicion the erection of actual human beings into fixed entities called classes, having no overlapping interests and so internally unified and externally separated that they are made the protagonists of history itself hypothetical (Dewey 1935, p. 80).
Madisonian pluralism avoids the anticlass pitfalls of modern pluralism. Madison and his colleagues had a profound appreciation1br the dangers and reality of class conflict; and they proposed the encouragement of pluralism as a way to prevent it. 4

The Framers needed a theory that could explain the conflict among groups and classes that continually occurred in the world as they knew it. The best minds among them developed such a theory. This theory rejected classical democracy, justified social inequality, and defended property. Rather than choose between human rights and property rights they saw property as the human right. It was only proper therefore for other rights to bow to it. Beard’s interpretation of the Constitution went off in a number of easily criticized directions, but on the basic point he was right. The Constitution cannot be understood apart from property and class. Bentley’s response to Marx erected a false choice between pluralism and class. His formulation of pluralism has been a popular answer to Marx, or at least to one version of Marx. But modern pluralism’s insistence on denying or minimizing class weakens it compared to a theory that sees both as essential components of society. A theory of class that subsumes groups is more powerful than a theory of groups that denies class.


Beard appears to have little understanding of the dialectics of class conflict or the complex ways in which economic and other factors in combination produce a result. He is therefore vulnerable to Kenyon’s argument that many factors other than the economic (especially the Framers‘ ideology) played an important role (Kenyon 1966, p. xxxvi). By asserting the „primordial“ importance of the economic, Beard made the mistake of treating economic, social, and political variables as if they were separate. Arid disputes followed over the relative weight to give the economic compared to the political or social, in a situation where no one had agreed upon measures of any of the variables. To call into doubt the entire economic interpretation, therefore, Beard’s critics had only to find and assert plausibly the primacy of some (putatively) noneconomic influence. Beard replied that he never reduced everything to the economic, and this was true. But in treating the variables as separate instead of dialectically joined, he could only claim the primacy of the economic, he could not show it (Beard 1962, p. xii).

As is well known, the chapter on classes in volume three of Capital breaks off after a page and a half, thus depriving scholars of Marx’s mature theory of class (Capitall 1967, v. 3, p. 885). Still, it is possible to piece together a coherent view of Marx’s position from a number of his writings, especially Capital, The Communist Manifesto, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and Wage Labour and Capital. For a convenient source on these see 7bcker 1978).

It would take us too far afield to refute in detail modern pluralism’s reduction of Marx to economic determinism, its claim that noneconomic variables are superior to class, and its reading of the „failure“ of Marx’s predictions. But on all three points, it may be noted, modern pluralism is seriously flawed. To gee7Vfacxas a crude economic determinist misconstrues the dialectic, the essence of which is the interaction of variables, their mutual determination, and complex interdependence. As Sidney Hook wrote long ago, „One could fill pages with quotations to show how unjust such a characterization is“ (Hook 1933, p. 93). To present Marxism as a simplistic bipolar social theory ignores the fact that Marx was well aware of the middle class and of diverse „fractions“ within classes. To rebut Marx’s prediction of proletarian revolution is to ignore his later work which explains how a sufficiently large economic surplus may support a middle class and prevent capitalist society from splitting into two (Nicolaus 1970; Ehrlich 1982, p. 144).

In terms of classical democratic theory, it was well understood in eighteenth century America that classical democracy could only be practiced in a small territory with a relatively homogeneous population. On this point, the Framers‘ opponents, who argued that an extensive territory cannot be governed on the principles of freedom, were more democratic than the nationally minded Federalists (Storing 1985, p. 201; Kenyon 1966, pp. xlix4xi).

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