The Sovereignty of the American People

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Friday, June 20, 2003
Every summer, as the Fourth of July approaches, I’m struck by how inadequate a label “Independence Day” is. This isn’t to downplay the courage of our founders in declaring independence from Great Britain, or in fighting a war to guarantee it. But if you think about it, what we’re really celebrating isn’t a war, it’s a concept. What was truly revolutionary about the American Revolution was the notion it enshrined that in a legitimate government, the people are sovereign, the ultimate rulers. Under this concept, neither Congress nor the President is supreme, because the ultimate authority lies with the people. 

We take this idea for granted now, along with our system of representative democracy, because none of us has seen any other form of government in America, and because most nations today– often following our example—are ruled by some sort of popularly elected legislature. Yet at the time our system was created, it was astonishing. To be sure, there were historical models dating to ancient Greece and Rome, and to the Iroquois Confederacy on our own shores. But nothing was quite like what the Framers devised, and certainly there were no models of such ambitious scope. The conventional wisdom of the day was that democracy on any but the smallest scale would quickly devolve into anarchy and mob rule. 

“Again and again,” historian Bernard Bailyn once wrote about the Founders, “they were warned of the folly of defying the received traditions, the sheer unlikelihood that they, obscure people on the outer borderlands of European civilization, knew better than the established authorities that ruled them; that they could successfully create something freer, ultimately more enduring than what was then known in the centers of metropolitan life.” The cry, “No taxation without representation” may have been born of frustration with dictates from the King of England, but it was rooted in the radical idea that people should have the final voice in their own governance. 

The great phrases of the day ring through our history: “We the people”, “consent of the governed”, “blessings of liberty”, “a more perfect union.” These aren’t just technical terms of political science. They are words we live by, embodying the civic faith to which all Americans adhere. 

Our system rests squarely on the belief that freedom can only exist when one is governed with one’s consent and with a voice in government. No one, the Founders believed, is good enough to govern another person without this consent, and they embedded this concept in the bones of our system. Just as important, they rested our leaders’ authority not on personal traits, but on the offices they hold– offices whose powers are laid out in the Constitution. 

The question the Framers grappled with, one that remains a conundrum, was how to ensure that people’s views be reflected in government. They recognized that direct democracy– a system in which voters have a say on every issue– had its limits. As John Adams wrote in 1776, “As good government is an empire of laws, how shall your laws be made? In a large society, inhabiting an extensive country, it is impossible that the whole should assemble, to make laws.” Direct democracy might work for a small community whose citizens had the time and education to study their options before voting on how to proceed, but in a complex society it had severe drawbacks. Adams and his compatriots wanted to guard against the tyranny of the majority, to ensure that passions of the moment could be cooled in deliberate debate, that the voice of the minority could be heard and its rights protected. And so they opted for representative democracy, in which the people choose elected representatives to carry their voices to Washington. This “representative assembly,” Adams wrote, “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” Above all, it would be accountable to them. 

This is the American experiment. No one knew whether dividing power among various branches and levels of government would ensure popular freedom and political ingenuity. No one knew whether, over the course of decades and centuries, the two tyrannies feared by the Founders– that of a strong executive, and that of a strong popular majority– could be constrained by a written constitution. And no one knew whether Congress would, in fact, reflect the will of a teeming, diverse and inventive society. At any given moment in our history, you could find Americans who would argue that the experiment was in danger of failing. Yet ours is now the oldest written national constitution still in use, and its legitimacy remains solid. It has stood the test of time. But that does not guarantee it will stand all tests of the future. We must never abandon our determination to make it a more perfect union. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)