Wednesday, August 28, 2013

All Political Power Emanates from the People

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” —Declaration of Independence

In 1776, upstart colonists penned the most revolutionary document in history. The Declaration of Independence flipped the world upside down, and the Divine Right of Kings suddenly became the consent of the governed. The individual was now the one endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. This was a world-shattering concept.

Like most revolutionary visions, this one didn't suddenly spring onto the world stage. John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine were among many who advocated that consent of the governed was dictated by the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Not everyone accepted this concept, of course—certainly not King George III or the English nobility.

The Founders, however, were steeped in this incendiary idea. Self-governance had been part of their experience in the New World. The colonists were subjects of England, but a round-trip sail across the great Atlantic put three to four months between them and their king. Self-rule started the Pilgrims. The Mayflower Compact began by pledging loyalty to King James, but then went on to decree that the colonists would “combine together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid: and by virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.” Basically, the Mayflower Compact was a written statement declaring self-government in colonial America.

Geography may have allowed the early colonists to govern themselves, but it was the writings of the Enlightenment that reminded them that self-rule was a natural right. This grand notion eventually led to the Declaration of Independence, which asserted that it was the right of the people “to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” This founding principle basically said that the people themselves held the power to form a new government at any time and in any shape that met their needs. It was a radical concept used to justify radical action.

The initial exercise in self-government at a national level did not work well. The Articles of Confederation were too weak. The fatal flaw in the Articles was that it formed a government that represented states instead of people, and any state could veto crucial collective action. In 1787, a convention met in Philadelphia “for the sole and express purpose of revising the articles of confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures, such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress, and confirmed by the States, render the federal constitution, adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the union.”

The convention was supposed to recommend changes to the Articles of Confederation, and submit them to Congress and the state legislatures for approval. The delegates wrote an entirely new constitution—one that dissolved the existing national government. How would they get this thing approved? It threatened every entrenched political figure in the country. James Madison had an idea. All power emanates from the people, so neither Congress nor the state legislatures had the authority to approve a new government. In “Federalist No. 46,” he wrote, “The ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone.” To legitimatize their work, they needed to bypass Congress and the state legislatures and go directly to the people. This was the reason that the ratification conventions were independent of the state legislatures and Congress.

A national debate erupted that included newspaper articles, sermons, competing pamphlets, and ratification conventions. It wasn't the Constitutional Convention, Congress, or the state legislatures that made the Constitution a binding contract between the people and their government; it was ratification conventions and the surrounding debates that occurred in churches, taverns, and on street corners.

The United States Constitution reads, “We the People … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It is not a small matter that our Constitution starts with the words We the People in out-sized letters. The entire document is the people’s document—a written contract wherein the people delegate specific authority to a national government.

Today, some people think the Constitution made the national government supreme. Others believe the national government is a creature of the states. The Founders were never confused. They knew in their hearts that governments derived their just powers from the consent of the governed. Period.

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