Plato set out the first elaborate defense of inequality in political power. He argued that a class of guardians possessing knowledge should rule for the common good. Plato believed that democracy, the equal rule of all, would lead to corruption and eventually, tyranny. Similar doctrines have assured monarchs and aristocrats throughout history that nature or God or necessary circumstances have decreed that some people should rule over others.1
In contrast, the rule of the people—directly or via representatives— carries the assumption that no one has a special right or capacity for exercising political power for the common good. As Thomas Jefferson famously put it, “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”2 If no individual or group had the right to rule over others, individuals had an equal claim to their natural rights and to creating government.
We should understand what this idea of equality did and did not mean. Madisonians believed that citizens should be equal before the law in their rights. This notion excluded certain other ideas of equality. Individuals did not have a right to equality of property in part because bringing it about (or moving toward it) would require government to violate some individuals' right to property, violations that were both bad in themselves and sources of civil war, as Madison noted in Federalist no. 10. The Madisonian idea also did not imply an equality of political power in general or direct rule of the people all the time. Madison's idea of “popular government” did not entail equality of political influence in all matters.3