By Jay Cost | This week the United States of America will celebrate the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If the weatherman is to be believed, this July 4th will be an especially hot one for most of the country — but I have no doubt we’ll still brave the high temperatures to enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, and a parade or two. It is part and parcel of being an American.
Usually, when we think about the Fourth of July, we think about our liberties. We recall Thomas Jefferson’s stirring statement that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” What a great line! Nobody in contemporary discourse comes close to having Jefferson’s facility with words.
But there is something else undergirding the Declaration of Independence that is often overlooked: the notion of popular sovereignty.
Who should rule the body politic? We take for granted the answer to this question, that the people should. Yet for most of human history, government has more or less been premised on the rule of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christendom tempered the rapacious quality of government, by inculcating the notion that rulers are God’s anointed and should act accordingly. But that did not stop many sovereigns from being, as James Madison put it, “detestable pictures of tyranny and cruelty.”
During the Enlightenment, there had been sparks of revolt against this longstanding system of abuse. The Florentine republicanism of Machiavelli, the Commonwealth tradition of Bolingbroke, the liberalism of Locke and Hume — all of these pointed in the direction of the idea that government is supposed to be conducted for the benefit of the people, who should have some role in the matters of state.
But it was in America that the idea flourished that only the people should have control over the government. There should be no power-sharing agreement between the many and the few, between the well-born and the commoners. The legitimacy of a government is derived solely from the consent of the people — full stop.
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