The Sovereignty of the People
Sovereignty of the people was a very radical concept in the 18th Century. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the royal families of England did everything in their power to establish the doctrine that they governed the people by the “divine right of kings.” The royal families argued that it was their “God-given right” to govern. This is our twelfth in a series of articles describing the Founders’ Philosophy based on W. Cleon Skousen’s book The Five Thousand Year Leap.
Professor Skousen writes of the beheading of Algernon Sidney. In 1683, King Charles II beheaded Sidney for saying that there is no divine right of kings to rule over the people. Sidney believed that the people were sovereign and thus no person can rule the people without their consent. In responding to the question, “Whether the supreme power be in the people,” Sidney replied, “I say, that they [including himself] who place the power [to govern] in a multitude, understand a multitude composed of freeman, who think it for their convenience to join together, and establish such laws and rules as they oblige themselves to observe.”
In the Second Treatise on Government, published in 1690, John Locke argued that the people will determine, through rules, who will have governing power and that the people should not obey the authorities if they begin to exercise power contrary to the rules. In paragraph 198 of the Second Treatise on Government Locke wrote, “All commonwealths, therefore, with the form of government established, have rules also of appointing and conveying the right to those who are to have any share in the public authority; and whoever gets into the exercise of any part of the power by other ways than what the laws of the community have prescribed hath no right to be obeyed…”
John Locke believed that the people were sovereign and that they [the people] would establish the rules by which government would exercise power. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson incorporated this thought into the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Jefferson believed that the only purpose of government was to secure man’s God-given (unalienable) rights and that the only just powers that the government could exercise were the powers given to it by the people. In other words, the people were sovereign.
Our Founders had quite a different view than their European colleagues. They adamantly opposed the concept of the divine right of kings. They believed that rulers are servants of the people and that all sovereign authority to appoint or remove a ruler rests with the people. The Founders used the Anglo-Saxons as an example. Professor Skousen quotes Dr. Colin Lovell, an expert in the Anglo-Saxons and author of English Constitutional and Legal History. Dr. Lovell describes how the Anglo-Saxon tribal council, consisting of the entire body of freemen, would meet each month to discuss issues. The Chief or King (taken from the Anglo-Saxon word cyning – chief of the kinsmen) was only one among equals. Dr. Lovell writes, “The chief owed his office to the tribal assembly, which selected and could depose him. His authority was limited at every turn, and though he no doubt commanded respect, his opinion carried no more weight in the debates of the assembly than any other freeman.”
All of our Founders shared this belief. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 22, “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of the consent of the people. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of legitimate authority.”
The divine right of the people to govern themselves and exercise sovereignty was expressed by Massachusetts in it Proclamation of January 23, 1776: “It is a maxim that in every government, there must exist, somewhere, a supreme, sovereign, absolute, and uncontrollable power; but this power resides always in the body of the people …”
James Madison counseled the adversaries of the Constitution in Federalist 46 when he wrote, “These gentlemen must be reminded of their error. They must be told that the ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone.”
Did our current administration believe in sovereignty of the people when it passed Obamacare over our objections? Please remember this when voting in November. We must take back our government.
The next principle to be discussed is our Founders’ belief that the people had the right to alter or abolish tyrannical government. Please also consult The Five Thousand Year Leap.