Excerpt* from American Popular Sovereignty @2019 by Randall E. White.
“We the People… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
—Preamble to the Constitution of the United States
America’s system of government has a name and a specific history, which are relevant to understanding how government in America is supposed to operate. The name is popular sovereignty, which means that the supreme authority over the state is the People, who have the right to self-government without any outside interference. Literally, the word “popular” means a community of people, and the word “sovereignty” means the top authority. So, We the People are the top authority. We are the creators of government. We embody government. And we have the right to alter our government in any way we see fit, or to abolish the government altogether.
Popular sovereignty is collective, not individual. In America, there is no such thing as a sovereign individual. Citizens possess sovereignty when legally organized as a body politic. The term “body politic” means the people of a nation, state, or society considered collectively as an organized group of citizens. In America, the terms “body politic”, “popular sovereignty”, “the people”, “We the People”, “we the people”, and “we the popular sovereignty”, all mean essentially the same thing.
America’s Declaration of Independence repudiated the doctrine of the divine right of kings (individual sovereignty) and invoked the peoples’ right to self-determination, using language that spoke of the colonists as “the creators of government” in the plural, i.e., “all men, “among men”, “the governed”, and “the people”, which are all terms having the same intended meaning as “body politic” and “popular sovereignty”, as follows:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 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 to 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.” Declaration of Independence (U.S. 1776), para. 2.
Similarly, America’s Constitution is a popular sovereignty document. The Preamble cites “We the People” as the creators of the Constitution for the purpose of supporting the public weal. Public weal means a general state of wellbeing, prosperity, and happiness. This is what our Constitution is really about:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Please note that the language in the Preamble starts with “We the People”, not “The Sovereign States”. The People are the Sovereign; not the States.
America’s State constitutions are also popular sovereignty documents. Most of these constitutions contain provisions asserting the People’s right to self-determination, together with asserting the purpose of government is to support the public weal. An example is this excerpt from Virginia’s Declaration of Rights:
“That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.” Declaration of Rights (Va. 1776), §3.
Another example is the Massachusetts Constitution, which expresses these same principles of popular sovereignty:
“The people of this commonwealth have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent State, and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not, or may not hereafter be, by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in Congress assembled.” (Mass. Const. (1780), part 1, art. IV.)
In accordance with the popular sovereignty principle that the body of citizens are the top authority, the decisions and actions of elected and appointed representatives are proper only to the extent that they conform to the public will. The term “public will” means the desire of the body politic, or organized body of citizens, in the matter.
*Re-posting permission given by the author.
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