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Popular Sovereignty and the Consent of the Governed

As nations emerged, their rulers needed more than an ability to punish people to hold their countries together. They needed their citizens to feel a loyalty to the nation, and they also needed people to accept their rule as legitimate. In Europe, some philosophers and kings asserted the idea of “divine right,” claiming that just as God had given priests and preachers authority over churches, he gave kings and other royalty—as well as their descendants—control over nations. It’s not surprising that people of royal descent latched on to this idea. If people believed rulers were appointed by God, they would be less likely to revolt, and more likely to obey.

Boston tea party

The American colonists cried “No taxation without representation” when the British began taxing colonists for items like tea. This painting depicts the Boston Tea Party where Patriot leaders disguised as Native Americans dumped tea into Boston Harbor.

This idea persisted in England until war and revolution in the late 1600s led to a Bill of Rights. Written 100 years before our own, the English Bill of Rights focused on limiting the powers of the monarch. Among other measures, legislators also wrote a coronation oath for future kings and queens, to make them swear to govern British citizens according to the laws of Parliament. The idea that kings could be held accountable for abusing the rights of people had firmly taken root.

The competing belief—that rulers could run a country because they had been born to a family of kings, or because the head of a church approved them—was fading. Philosophers had begun to ask what makes a government good and just. They wrote that governments come into being because people are willing to give up some of their natural freedom in exchange for the protection that comes from being citizens of a nation powerful enough to defend their rights.

They called this a “social contract.” It was based on a belief that the purpose of government is to guard against murder, coercion, and robbery.

These were revolutionary ideas. They meant that the job of a just ruler was to protect the inalienable rights of citizens. The American Founders believed there was an unwritten contract between rulers and the people. If a ruler violates this contract by taking more freedom from people than is necessary to protect their rights, then the citizens are justified in seeking to overthrow such a ruler. This was why, the Founders explained in the Declaration of Independence, they were ending their allegiance to Great Britain and King George III.

Benjamin Franklin explained it like this: “In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.”

Thinkers who believed this used the term “popular sovereignty” (meaning not that the most popular people are in charge, but that the authority to rule people is based on their consent to be ruled).

At the same time, these thinkers did not believe that putting everything to a vote of the masses would make for a good government.

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths” (James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 1787).

The history of Greece and Rome showed how direct democracy can allow persuasive speakers to charm crowds into giving them power, and how even bodies of representatives who should know better can “yield,” as Madison wrote, “to the impulse of sudden and violent passions.” Democracies also failed to protect minorities from abuse by tyrannical majorities. According to Benjamin Franklin, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”

People voting 2

People consent to their government by voting for representatives.

The Founders believed a government could only be legitimate if its authority comes from the people, but they also knew that the desires of the people should be constrained. They aimed to create, therefore, a republic—a society in which the people are sovereign, but which at the same time limits the power of government in order to protect individual freedoms.

To combat abuse of minority rights by majorities, for example, the Founders strictly limited the powers of the federal government, and added to the Constitution a Bill of Rights listing some rights that our national government should never infringe—even when a large majority of voters wants to violate them. They also split the functions of government, so that no single persuasive person can get control of all of it. Their hope was that ambitious government officials would keep an eye on one another’s actions, and prevent any one person from gaining too much power.

Their even greater hope was that we the people would exercise our popular sovereignty to elect virtuous leaders who believe in freedom, and who uphold the Constitution. While they believed that the only just government is one based on the consent of citizens to be governed, they also believed that citizens have to be worthy of such authority.

“Public virtue,” wrote John Adams, “cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue], and public virtue is the only foundation of republics” (John Adams to Mercy Warren, April 16, 1776).

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