Sovereignty in America

There is so much to like in Bruce Walker's article "Decentralize Sovereignty" in the June 23 issue of The American Thinker!  We can all agree with Mr. Walker: the Framers of the Constitution intended to prevent the concentration of power in the federal government that exists today.  The very existence of the gargantuan federal Leviathan means that we already live in a post-constitutional America.  And Mr. Walker's "cesspool on the Potomac" and "capitolism" are particularly apt.

However, casting the problem in terms of sovereignty instead of political power raises a problem.  According to the Founders, we the people are sovereign.

The Founders acted on the boldest political vision of all: they staked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor on their conviction that the people are sovereign.  In their era, that idea was a contradiction in terms.  After all, a sovereign then was a king or queen; it was the role of the people to be ruled and the role of the sovereign to rule.

But the Founders had a new vision for America.  In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the first case to elicit a set of opinions in the new Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Jay wrote of the "great and glorious principle, that the people are the sovereign of this country." 

Looking back from the present, we can fail to understand what a radical departure their political experiment was.  According to the vision of the Founders, in each election we exercise our sovereignty by selecting, for strictly limited periods of service, fellow citizens to conduct the work of government for us.  As Professor Randy Barnett wrote in his book Restoring the Lost Constitution:

[T]he appropriate legal construct is not the surrender of rights to a master, but the delegation of powers to an agent.  As [Chief Justice John] Marshall himself wrote: 'It is the plain dictate of common sense, and the whole political system is founded on the idea, that the departments of government are the agents of the nation…'  When a principal engages an agent, the agent can be empowered to act on behalf of and subject to the control of the principal, while at the same time the principal retains all his rights.

In the American idea, in the vision of the Founders, we never surrender our sovereignty.  But bit by bit, we have been surrendering it.  We have been doing that by electing to office people who are indifferent to the Constitution, or hostile to it, or ignorant of it.  The process is so far advanced that even well intended Americans have forgotten this fundamental fact about the American idea.

The framers of the Constitution focused on defining and limiting federal power.  They did so by distributing power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, preserving the political independence of the states and creating a zone of liberty around the individual – even by further dividing the legislative power itself, crafting two legislative bodies with separate powers and competing interests.

Preserving that Constitutional order is our first responsibility as citizens.  The people as sovereign need to choose their governmental agents wisely, just as royal sovereigns need to choose wisely the people they select to conduct the business of governing.  In any case, the failure of the administration chosen by the sovereign is not the end of the sovereign.  There is always the option of a new administration – unless the administration's failure leads to a military defeat or an economic or social collapse that wrests the government away from the sovereign.

Because the responsibilities of sovereignty are ours, the success of the American Republic and the preservation of the Constitution ultimately depend on you and me.  Here we reach the bedrock of the republic the Founders designed for us.  As the sovereign people, preserving and protecting the Constitution is our responsibility. 

Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

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