The Evolution of Sovereignty in American Political Thought – Part 1

This is part 1 of a 2-part series examining the evolution of American political thought as it relates to sovereignty in the political system.

When Americans talk about the Revolution, they generally mean the fight with the British. But there was a more fundamental revolution that began long before the first shot was fired and ultimately drove Americans to seek independence– a revolution of thought.

In an 1818 letter to Hezekiah Niles, John Adams described the American Revolution in just such terms.

But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

Adams understood ideas spark revolutions, and in America, what was at the time a radical notion drove the colonists to eventually part ways with England. During the years leading up to the war, and continuing through the post-war era, Americans conceived and developed a revolutionary political idea. Essentially, they came to believe, “Government, is not the boss of us.”

This new conception of political power served as the foundation for the constitutional system the United States would eventually adopt. But by and large, Americans have abandoned this fundamental principle and embraced a notion of centralized government authority that more closely resembles the British system the American colonists fought a long bloody war to free themselves from.

This fundamental change in thought relates to the concept of sovereignty – the question of who holds the ultimate power and authority within a political society.

In the British system, the “King in Parliament” was considered sovereign. Effectively, Parliament was sovereign with the king serving as the arm to put its power into action. This Massachusetts royal governor Sir Francis Bernard summarized the British conception of power in a letter he wrote urging Parliament to exert more control over the colonies in 1764.

The Kingdom of Great Britain is imperial, that is sovereign, and not subordinate to or dependent on any earthly power.

“In all imperial states there resides somewhere or other an absolute power, which we will call the sovereignty.

“The Sovereignty of Great Britain is in the King in Parliament; that is, in the King, acting with the advice and consent of the Lords and Commons (by their Representatives), assembled in the Parliament of Great Britain.

“The King in Parliament has the sole right of legislation, and the supreme superintendency of the government; and, in this plentitude of power, is absolute, uncontrollable, and accountable to none; and therefore in a political sense, can do no wrong” [Emphasis added]

Bernard went on to assert that even the King must ultimately submit to the will of Parliament, while nothing bound that body, not even itself.

Though the King can do acts to bind himself and his successors, he cannot bind the Parliament; nor can the Parliament bind their successors, or even themselves.”

The British developed a constitutional system, but not in the same sense Americans think of it today. The constitution was not written, and in the British system, no distinction existed between “the constitution or frame of government” and “the system of laws.” They were one and the same. Every act of Parliament was, in essence, part of the constitution. It was an absurdity to argue an act of Parliament was “unconstitutional.” Since it was sovereign, anything Parliament did was, by definition, constitutional. In fact, parliamentary acts became part of the constitutional structure.

The British system operated based on a “living breathing” constitution, formed and defined by the government itself

In the years leading up to the Revolution, Americans started to question this conception of political power. They began to think of a constitution as something that exists above the government. The colonists began to reject the idea that government formed the constitution and instead conceived of the constitution as something that binds government.

A year after Parliament began passing the Townshend Acts in 1767, the Massachusetts legislature approved a document written by Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr. known as the Massachusetts Circular Letter. In it we see this revolutionary conception of government beginning to take form. Adams and Otis argued that when Parliament acts outside of its constitutional bounds, it destroys its own foundation.

The House have humbly represented to the ministry their own sentiments, that his Majesty’s high court of Parliament is the supreme legislative power over the whole empire; that in all free states the constitution is fixed, and as the supreme legislative derives its power and authority from the constitution, it cannot overleap the bounds of it without destroying its own foundation; that the constitution ascertains and limits both sovereignty and allegiance, and, therefore, his Majesty’s American subjects, who acknowledge themselves bound by the ties of allegiance, have an equitable claim to the full enjoyment of the fundamental rules of the British constitution.” [Emphasis added]

It wasn’t long before Americans began to question the very notion of sovereignty itself. It was an evolutionary process to be sure, but eventually the colonists began to conceive of sovereignty residing in the people, not in any part of government. Instead of a monarch or a legislative body holding plenary power, the people stood supreme.

Thomas Jefferson incorporated this idea in the Declaration of Independence.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute 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.”

By affirming that government derives its power from the consent of the governed and that the people can alter or even abolish it at their will, the Americans flipped the British conception of government on its head.

By the time delegates gathered at the Philadelphia Convention and began drafting the Constitution, this idea of sovereignty residing in the people was well-established and generally accepted. The state constitutions drafted in the years following the Declaration of Independence reflected this concept. They were written, fixed and alterable only by an act of the people. The legislatures could no longer change these constitutions on a whim.

Writings during the war and the years following reflect this shift in thinking and reveal a new American conception of sovereignty in the people. For instance, as reported in the Hartford Courant, one Connecticut town asserted succinctly in 1783 exactly where plenary power resides in the American political system.

For there is an original, underived and incommunicable authority and supremacy, in the collective body of the people, to whom all delegated power must submit and from whom there is no appeal.”

An anonymously published tract in South Carolina in 1783 titled Rudiments of Law and Government Deduced from the Law of Nature fleshed the idea out even further.

The community are also sole judges in matters of common concern, and, however represented, ought to remain the supreme authority and ultimate judicature.

“No sufficient reason can be assigned, why the representatives of a country should not be restricted in their power. It ought to be a maxim that their authority extends not to doing wrong. In momentous cases, highly essential to the whole, the whole should be consulted maturely; and they alone should fix the decree. In them that plenary power rests and abides which all agree should rest somewhere; and which, sycophants and designing men would deceive us into an opinion, should be vested in kings or parliaments exclusively of the people.”

We see the American conception of sovereignty fully formed in the U.S. Constitution. Note the opening words, We the People  appear in large, ornate letters. When an 18th century British king issued a grant, his name always appeared at the top in the same fashion. The framers merely replaced the king’s name with “We the People,” signifying the sovereign authority from which the delegation of power flowed.

The American Revolution truly was a revolution in thought. The Americans rejected the British conception that government ruled over the people and traded it for the idea that the people ruled over government. Governing bodies merely act as agents for the people. The people retain the right to alter or abolish government at will.

The people are literally the boss.

Sadly, most Americans have rejected this revolution and reverted back to the British model. They’ve placed sovereign power in politically connected lawyers staffing the Supreme Court, or perhaps the president.

Americans can take back control over the federal government, but to do so, they must rediscover the founding principle of sovereignty in the people. More specifically, the need to understand how the people originally exercised their power – through the political societies known as states.

I will cover that in part two of this series.

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