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The Principle of Popular Sovereignty–the People’s Rule–in the U. S. Declaration and Constitution

May 28, 2020

When founding the United States, the American founders adhered to the philosophical, governing principle of popular sovereignty, or the people’s rule.  Popular sovereignty is the idea that political power resides with the whole people of a community or state—not with any particular person, group, or ancestral line.  The modern, Western conception of this idea was shaped not only by the ancient models of democracy in Greece and Rome but also, in part, by the Bible and a Bible-oriented worldview.  In the Bible-oriented worldview, the Creator God gives all mankind, as equal and free, dominion over the earth and, therefore, earthly political power.  The people thus have rightful authority within the bounds of God’s moral law to choose how and who to govern for themselves, and their government and governors derive legitimate authority by the people’s consent.  In his 1980 essay, From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought, Donald S. Lutz explains how the people’s consent is the basis of legitimate authority:  “Consent becomes the instrument for establishing authority in the community and for expressing the sovereignty of God.  …  The people’s consent is the instrument for linking God with the rulers, whose authority then is viewed as sanctioned by Him, but because this authority comes through the people, the rulers are beholding to God through them.”[1]  The people may define and limit the powers of their government and governors, and they may remove governors who do not fulfill their duties or abide by just civil law.  It is important to note that the people and their governors are still fallible and accountable to God and His moral law, just civil law, and one another.  Ideally, God’s moral order may potentially be maintained through the people’s just civil law and governance.

The Divine Right of Kings

The principle of popular sovereignty contrasts with the doctrine of the “Divine Rights of Kings” that was practiced in Europe in the middle ages.  Divine Right held that a particular person or ancestral line derives authority to rule directly and only from God, usually by hereditary succession, and so is not accountable to any earthly authority or the people.  Such was the practice of absolute monarchy in which a king or queen ruled with little limit or restriction.  To question or rebel against the monarch’s rule was to question or rebel against God’s rule.  Divine Right emerged when many in Europe, in rejecting the supreme authority of the pope and the institutional Roman Catholic Church, sought the protection of their monarchies during the Protestant Reformation.  For, over time, the church had become, as some saw, corrupt and heretical in its teachings.  But the monarchs had also, in turn, become oppressive.  Popular sovereignty offered a new, hopeful alternative to the absolute rule of the “two swords” of pope and monarch and to the old combined church-state systems of Europe.  It offered greater civil and religious freedom and rights for the people.  In the wake of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s in Europe, Protestant and Catholic political reformers began to develop a case for popular sovereignty, and they did so by drawing from the Bible.  Later, some important God-oriented Enlightenment-era philosophers took up this principle as the basis for just civil society and governance.  Ultimately, founding-era Americans adhered to popular sovereignty to justify the American Revolution and to form the new nation of the United States that values man’s equality, freedom, and consent.

Cover of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos by Stephen Junius Brutus, 1579.

 

Samuel Rutherford, c1600s.

Following the Protestant Reformation—a Christian revival that rejected the authority of the pope and asserted the need for religious reforms in the church—some European reformed political writers rose up and challenged the Divine Right of Kings, calling for not only religious but also political reform in the civil state.  They argued for popular sovereignty based on the practice of the ancient Israelites in the Bible.  The pseudonymed French Huguenot writer Stephen Junius Brutus in his 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos or A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants as well as Scottish Presbyterian minister and Westminster Assembly member Samuel Rutherford in his 1644 Lex Rex or The Law and the Prince looked to the example of the Israelites who chose their first king in 1 Samuel 10, 11, and 12.  In these verses, the Israelites asked God, through the prophet Samuel, for a king.  In response and following God’s direction, Samuel anointed Saul.  However, Saul did not become king until he was confirmed by the people’s consensus.  As Brutus and Rutherford observe, God granted the Israelites a role in choosing their king, and so a scriptural basis for popular sovereignty exists.  Brutus explains, “We have demonstrated that God institutes kings…and elects them.  We now say that the people constitute kings, confer kingdoms, and approve the election by its vote.” [2]  Rutherford also cited 2 Chronicles 22 and 23 in which Queen Athaliah usurped the throne of Judah without the people’s consent and was consequently overthrown by the people.  Rutherford concludes that “the power of creating a man a king is from the people.” [3]  Such political writers strengthened the idea of the consent of the governed–the authority and right of the people to choose their government and governors.

Saint Robert Bellarmine by Italian School 1500s.

 

Francisco Suarez

Catholic counter-reformers of the Counter-Reformation—a Catholic revival that upheld the leadership of the pope but recognized his fallibility and the need for institutional reforms in the church—also argued for popular sovereignty for the civil state, though they did so separately.  They asserted from Genesis that God gave all mankind earthly dominion and therefore political power.  Italian Jesuit priest Robert Bellarmine in his De Laicis or Of the Laity from his 1596 Disputations de Controversiis Christianae Fide and Spanish Jesuit priest Francisco Suarez in his 1612 De Legibus or Tract on Laws cited Genesis 1 in which God created mankind, represented by Adam and Eve, and told them to multiply and take dominion over the earth.  Genesis 1:27-28 states, … 

Bellarmine and Suarez asserted from these verses that God gives earthly dominion to all mankind—not to any particular person, group, or lineage.  As such, the whole people rightly hold earthly political power.  Bellarmine states, “Secular or civil power…is immediately in the whole multitude…for this power is in the divine law [the Bible], but the divine law has given this power to no particular man [brackets mine].”[4]  Suarez similarly argued that political power began when people formed communities.  He explains, “Political power did not begin until families began to be gathered together into one…community; …the community did not begin by the creation of Adam, or by his will alone, but of all of them which did agree in this community.”[5]  These churchmen concluded that the people of a community or civil state hold political authority in that realm, and the people may delegate authority to their chosen governors.  In this way, popular sovereignty, as Lutz notes, was “developed both by Protestant thinkers and by Catholic theologians independently.”[6]

In the 1600s, Enlightenment-era British philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney presented and supported popular sovereignty in a more secularized context based on reason.  However, they also notably grounded their ideas in the Bible.  In fact, they reasserted the same the Bible-based arguments as the earlier Protestant and Catholic writers on the subject.

Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697.

In his 1689 First Treatise of Civil Government, Locke refuted the Divine Right of Kings as asserted by King James I’s court theologian Robert Filmer in his 1680 Patriarcha.  Filmer claimed that the first man in Genesis, Adam, was the first king and that the king of England, being a direct heir of Adam, was rightfully king by succession.  Locke countered that, according to Genesis 1, no rank pre-exists among human beings in which one person naturally has authority over another person simply by succession.  Rather, human beings in creation and in a state of nature exist as equal.  As such, they are naturally free.  Referencing Genesis 1:28, Locke observes, … 

Locke went on to argue from the Bible and reason in his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government that because all men naturally are equal and free, “without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man,” a just civil society is based on popular sovereignty through the people’s consent.[8]  He says, “That which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of majority, to unite and incorporate into such a society.  And this is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”[9]  As such, free men may willingly enter into civil society and submit themselves to a chosen authority by consent.

Algernon Sidney

English Whig parliamentarian Algernon Sidney shared Locke’s view of popular sovereignty and similarly defended it from the Bible and reason.  In his 1698 essay, Discourses Concerning Government, Sidney asserted that absolute monarchy was flawed and not favored in the Bible but that popular sovereignty agreed with Holy Scripture.  He aligned with Bellarmine’s interpretation of Genesis 1.  Referring to Filmer’s Patriarcha and Bellarmine’s Of the Laity as well as to Genesis 1:28 and Deuteronomy 17:20, Sidney pointed out that Filmer’s opposition to Bellarmine’s interpretation had no scriptural or rational merit.  Sidney explains, … 

Sidney essentially argued that unlimited, absolute power held by fallible men often leads to corruption and tyranny.  Instead, the Bible supports popular sovereignty among men.

During the American founding era in the mid-1700s, early Americans drew heavily from Locke and Sidney on popular sovereignty to justify and defend the American revolutionary cause and the forming of a new, independent nation.  Revolutionary Americans frequently cited Locke and Sidney because these philosophers clearly articulated the long-held views and practices of colonial Americans.  Indeed, the American colonists had applied popular sovereignty in their colonies for over a century.  Locke and Sidney effectively expressed and refined the political thought of early Americans during the founding era.  American Founder and statesman Thomas Jefferson, in fact, cited Locke and Sidney as some of his direct sources in writing the U. S. Declaration of Independence.  In a 1825 letter to Henry Lee, for instance, he explained that the Declaration’s authority rests on “the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”[11]  In a 1825 Report to the President and Directors of the Literary Fund at the University of Virginia, Jefferson later reiterated that “as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke…and of Sidney…may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of…the United States.”[12]  The language of the Declaration resembles Locke’s, explains Donald S. Lutz in his 1988 Origins of American Constitutionalism, “because the Americans enthusiastically fastened upon his clear, efficient vocabulary for expressing what they had already been doing for years” in their colonies.[13]  Sidney’s Discourses likewise became well-known in America as a “textbook of revolution” during the American Revolution.  As it were, Locke and Sidney’s grounding of popular sovereignty in the Bible reveals a strong connection between the Bible and American political thought.  Lutz affirms that Sidney “combines reason and [biblical] revelation in his analysis, and thus shows how easily the Declaration can be an expression of earlier, biblically based American constitutional thought [brackets mine].”[14]

U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson

 

Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, c1818.

The American Founders aligned with Locke and Sidney’s views and explanations of popular sovereignty—drawn and defended from the Bible as well as reason—in order to justify the American Revolution and the founding of the self-governing nation of the United States.  They upheld the view that all men are created naturally equal and free by God.  As such, political power resides with the people, and just governments are based on the people’s consent.  Founder and law professor James Wilson thus expressed in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law, “As in civil society, previous to civil government, all men are equal.  So, in the same state, all men are free.  In such a state, no one can claim, in preference to another, superior right.  In the same state, no one can claim over another superior authority.”[15]  In his 1793 court decision Chisholm vs. Georgia, Wilson again asserted popular sovereignty as it relates to civil law, stating, “Laws derived from the pure source of equality and justice must be founded on the CONSENT of those, whose obedience they require.  The sovereign, when traced to his source, must be found in the man.”[16]  Notably, the Founders took both a Bible-oriented as well as a rational, common-sense approach to support equality and popular sovereignty.  However, both approaches still acknowledged a Creator God.  In his 1798 essay, Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, Founder and physician Benjamin Rush, for example, cited the Bible as the basis for equality among men.  Alluding to Genesis 1, he expresses: … 

In a 1826 letter, Jefferson affirmed the equality of men from a more rational, common-sense perspective.  He writes, … 

Jefferson, however, still acknowledged a Creator God and mentioned as much in the Declaration.

Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

 

Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806.

Significantly, the Founders expressed and applied the philosophical principle of popular sovereignty in the key founding documents of the United States—the Declaration and Constitution.  The U. S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 recognizes, for example, a Creator God, the equality of all men, and just government instituted by the people’s consent.  In doing so, it asserts the philosophical basis as well as the act of founding the new nation.  It reads,

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. [bold face mine][19]

Subsequently, the Founders practically applied popular sovereignty in the U. S. Constitution of 1787 by setting up a modern, democratic form of government—a Constitutional Republic—in which the people freely vote on and elect their governors and representatives.  The people elect, for example, their president and congressional legislators.  The Constitution lays out and defines the laws, powers, and structure of this new form of government.  Moreover, the Founders required the Constitution, with its new government and laws, to be approved and ratified by the American people in order to go into effect.  It was thus based on the people’s consent.  The Constitution’s Preamble thus begins, “We the people of the United States…do ordain and establish this Constitution [bold face mine].”[20]  In his 1787 Federalist Paper 22, Founder Alexander Hamilton affirmed popular sovereignty through consent as the basis and legitimacy of American government.  He writes, “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE.  The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”[21]  Clearly, the Founders strongly adhered to popular sovereignty and shaped their new nation and its civil government and laws according to this principle.

United States’ Constitution and Declaration of Independence

In conclusion, founding-era Americans formed the United States of America based on the principle of popular sovereignty—the idea that political power resides with the whole people of a civil state, not with a particular person by succession.  This idea is expressed and applied in the U. S. Declaration and Constitution through the consent of the governed—the people’s authority and right to choose and define the powers of their government and governors.  Articulated by Bible-oriented thinkers of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Enlightenment; this American principle was derived not only from ancient democratic models, reason, and common sense but also from the Bible and a Bible-based worldview in which God created all mankind equal and free and gave them dominion over the earth including political power.  Such had been, as it were, the long-held belief and practice of the early American colonists.  Adopting the language of Enlightenment-era philosophers Locke and Sidney, founding-era Americans asserted this principle to justify the American Revolution and their authority and right to form an independent, self-governing nation.  The American Founders subsequently developed for the nation a unique, modern democratic political system with elected representatives—a Constitutional Republic—that honors and respects the people’s values of equality, freedom, rights, and consent.  The early Americans’ adherence to the modern, Western principle of popular sovereignty thus demonstrates the strong role of the Bible and a God-oriented worldview on America’s founding political philosophy.

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[1] Donald S. Lutz, From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought, in Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism:  Publius:  The Journal of Federalism, v10, n4 (1980):  109-110.

[2] Stephen Junius Brutus, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Concerning the Legitimate Power of a Prince Over the People, and of the People Over a Prince (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), 1579, ed. George Garnett (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge U Press, 1994, 2003), 68-69.  Brutus is thought by many scholars to be Theodore Beza, Philippe de Mornay, or Hubert Languet.

[3] Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, or the Law and the Prince, 1644 (Edinburgh, Scotland:  Robert Ogle and Oliver & Boyd, 1843), 6-8, 80, 143.

[4] Robert Filmer, Patriarcha, 1680, in Two Treatises on Civil Government, John Locke (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 14.  See also Robert Bellarmine, De Laicis (Of the Laity) or The Treatise on Civil Government in Book 3 of 1596 Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei.  Bellarmine and Suarez were cited by Sir Robert Filmer, the court theologian of King James I of England, who in his Patriarcha defended the Divine Right of Kings.  Filmer refuted Bellarmine and Suarez.

[5] Filmer, Patriarcha, 24.  See also Francisco Suarez, Tractatus de Legibus or Tract on Laws III, 1612, vol. 5.

[6] Lutz, Covenant to Constitution, 109-110.

[7] John Locke, A First Treatise of Civil Government, 1689, in Two Treatises on Civil Government, John Locke (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 122-3.

[8] John Locke, A Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1689, in Two Treatises on Civil Government, John Locke (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 217.

[9] Locke, Second Treatise, Routledge, 242.

[10] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, to which are added Memoirs of His Life, 1698, 3rd ed. (London:  Printed for A. Millar, 1751), 16-17.

[11] Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, Monticello, 8 May 1825, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, definitive ed., ed. Albert E. Bergh, vol. 15 (Washington, DC:  Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 118-119.

[12] University of Virginia Board of Visitors, Transcript of the Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, during the Rectorship of Thomas Jefferson, Mar. 4, 1825, from Manuscripts From the University of Virginia Collection, 360-498, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 19, ed. Albert E. Bergh (Washington, DC:  Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 460–461.

[13] Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 114.

[14] Lutz, Origins, 119.

[15] James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, vol. 1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 309.

[16] Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793). Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism Online Resource (2012), Witherspoon Institute, <http://www.nlnrac.org/american/scottish-enlightenment> (accessed April 2012).

[17] Benjamin Rush, Of The Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, in Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), 8-9.

[18] Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, Monticello, 24 June 1826, in Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies:  From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Thomas J. Randolph (Charlottesville, VA:  F. Carr & Co., 1829), 441.

[19] United States Declaration of Independence, 1776.  See also Angela E. Kamrath, The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief (Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Fdn, 2013, 2015, 2020), 236.

[20] Preamble, United States Constitution, 1787.  See also Kamrath, Miracle of America, 289.

[21] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper #22, The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 152.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This article is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America articles.

Source for more information:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015, 2020.  Third Edition (2020) is now available!

Related Blogs/Videos:
1.  How Protestant Religious Reformers Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
2.  How Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty From the Bible
3.  How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
4.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
5.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
6.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
7.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation Era
8.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation
9.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
10.  Thomas Hooker as the “father of American Democracy”
11.  Why the Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
12.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
13.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
14.  How the Great Awakening Affected Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, Gospel
15.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
16.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
17.  The American Revolution
18.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
19.  The American Quest for Self-Government
20.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the Declaration
21.  Self-Evident Truth:  Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence
22.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind in the Declaration
23.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights in the Declaration


High School Activity – The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The Consent of the Governed

Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 6:  Principle of Popular Sovereignty, p. 57, 328.  HS.

Purpose/Objective: Students learn definition, meaning, basis, and characteristics of Popular Sovereignty and how it differs from the Divine Right of Kings and absolute power.

Suggested Reading: Chapter 1 of Miracle of America text/sourcebook. Students read sections 1.2-1.3.  See also Miracle of America reference book/text, Sections 1.2-1.3, 2.4, 3.10, 6.5, 7.11, 7.16, 8.6, 8.14.

Comparison/Contrast Chart: Students create a two-column chart, titling the left column “Divine Right of Kings” and the right column “Popular Sovereignty.” Students right down characteristics of each concept in the appropriate column, perhaps including definition, basis/reasoning for it, who holds power and why, how power is obtained/delegated, how this system characterizes society, historical context/time, etc.

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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