The Clare Spark Blog

January 28, 2012

Popular sovereignty on the ropes

I restarted my study of the making of the Constitution last summer, by reading the Federalist papers. I was very excited by Hamilton’s insistence on popular sovereignty as the fountain of authority that must guide the entire national government. (See “…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.” [Federalist #22. Hamilton’s emphasis, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]  Hamilton stressed the power of the House of Representatives as the most direct route to popular control of government.  I was somewhat shocked as the prevalent [Jeffersonian] line on Hamilton is that he was an aristocratic thinker, a quasi-monarchist, who declared at a banquet that the people were “a great beast.” This latter slap at popular sovereignty was disseminated by medievalist Henry Adams and no one has found any source to confirm Adams’s claim. And unlike Stephen Douglas (1813-1861), Lincoln’s opponent in the election of 1860, Hamilton was an abolitionist, and would not have approved Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty as a route to the expansion of slavery.

So popular sovereignty is linked, not to Rousseau’s notion of the general/popular will (an idea taken up by the Jacobins and by many leftists today), but to the deliberations of a representative republic in which, presumably, the House of Representatives is recognized by the other branches of government as the “pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”

We find ourselves in campaign season 2012, in a condition where “the consent of the people” is a dream. In this polarized polity, characterized by a mish-mash of religious, class, ethnic, and gender politics, plus a stunning ignorance of political science, economics, and American and European history and its bevy of authoritarian social movements, “the people” is a convenient fiction of demagoguery, trotted out as counterpoint to special interests/”the nanny state.”

What is a writer with a popular audience to do? What can educators, including parents do to instill the mental habits that would make a representative republic more than a recruiting slogan for conservatives wishing to restore the divine origin of such innovations as the separation of powers and checks and balances, all treated in The Federalist? “God” is barely summoned in The Federalist; rather these pamphlets were a scientific, materialist proposal and defense of an unprecedented national government that would halt the slide to chaos and failure under the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the U.S. Constitution, and before that, the Declaration of Independence were products of the Enlightenment. “We” were “Nature’s nation” and for many, bearers of a providential mission to lead the world in political democracy. When Charles Sumner asked “Are We A Nation?” in 1867, he envisioned “the people” as the repository of those rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and these “human rights” were universal, and, quoting James Otis, “without distinction of color.” (Sumner also nodded to The Federalist and Alexander Hamilton). For more on Providence and American mission, see  Rooseveltian internationalists, leaders of the American Studies movement, were fond of trouncing the Founders and Herman Melville’s character Captain Ahab as messianic and rabidly imperialistic. Thus “American exceptionalism” has come to signify the overweening desire to dominate the globe, rather than the invention of a nation grounded in natural, i.e., universal human rights: life, liberty, and property. However guided by “Providence,” Sumner, echoing Hamilton, insisted that “We the people,” not “We the States” were the source of legitimacy for the Constitution.

Although the President, along with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has called for the beefing up of “education,” neither one suggested a debate about the curriculum, particularly who decides what is the proper training for would-be citizens. And by citizenship, I refer to a person with the critical tools to read the messages that affect all our choices. Here is where “protestant pluralism” founders on the rocks of neo-tribalism, “local control,” anti-intellectualism, populism, proto-fascism, and other man-traps. We are cathected to leaders who pander to our pre-existent prejudices or to reverence for ancestors, to the fear of an eternity in hell, to the presidential horse-race that the media promote, and to groupiness and partisanship in general. (See We are constantly agitated and may enjoy the inner turmoil and suspense that a political campaign offers. Or we may feel helpless and permanently unrepresented in both high and popular culture, so turn inward to self, or to family, friends, employment, sports, and sex/personal appearance as primary sources of identity and purpose. Patriotism is taken to be a tic of “the Right,” not exemplary loyalty to human rights without distinction of color.

What I complain about here regarding our distorted and irrational political culture may seem so cosmic, so impossible to rectify, that a sane person must give up on this country and its survival as a representative republic. Indeed, the powerful historian Edmund S. Morgan denies that we ever had anything resembling popular rule, nor does he appear to be sanguine as to its prospects. (See his 1988 publication: Inventing the People, in which he concludes that we have moved from the politics of deference to the politics of leadership, i.e., the manipulation of public opinion.) So to be concrete, I suggest that each person concerned with her or his child’s education, encourage that child to look up the phrase “popular sovereignty” and to urge her or his teachers to discuss it in the appropriate grades. But first, look inside, and what do you see?  A terrified conformist, a romantic renegade, or a competent voter–a faithful seeker after truth, the universal truth that is the foundation of human rights and the glory of American nationality?  Captain Ahab, arousing his crew to find and fight Leviathan, echoed Milton’s Satan in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, when Ahab/Satan declared “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Are We a Nation? For more on Alexander Hamilton and the search for truth see (retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke).


  1. […] How then should we see Fox News Channel’s coverage of the second Obama inauguration?  Is this supposed vindication of the eighteenth century Constitution awesome, as in remarkable and admirable, or should we return to the words original meaning: awe-inspiring as terrifying. As Charles Sumner awesomely asked in the nineteenth century “Are We A Nation?” And how do we know (this weekend) when we are not fascists?  See ( […]

    Pingback by An awesome Inauguration « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 20, 2013 @ 9:24 pm | Reply

  2. […] Spark on what the term means, why it’s critical to the American project, why it’s endangered, and what we can do to […]

    Pingback by Popular Sovereignty on the Ropes – Glimpse From a Height — January 2, 2013 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

  3. […] more on Hamilton’s Federalist #22, see The essential word here is rational. Hamilton was horrified by the mayhem of the French […]

    Pingback by Alexander Hamilton’s rational voice of the People « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 1, 2012 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  4. Popular sovereignty was “announced”, not created, in the constitution in the Ninth Amendment. Do not confuse this term with popular democracy. They’re anathema to each other. You find that in the Federalist, too.
    The reason popular sovereignty is on the ropes can also be found elsewhere in the Federalist. In a nutshell the government has broken the shackles and shed the chains that were built to restrain it.
    That Robert Bork, to name the most infamous, and Anton Scalia think the Ninth is an inkblot on the constitution is explanitory. That THEY cannot discern the breadth, scope, detail and limits of rights in some codified form indicates to them that those rights don’t exist. Does a right to privacy exist? They say, no. Popular sovereigns would hang the utterer before the breath cooled.

    Comment by Mike Mahoney — February 7, 2012 @ 10:56 pm | Reply

    • This blog evolved after I read Charles Sumner’s “Are We A Nation?” (1867) that emphasized the status of “We The People” as compared to “We the States”. Of course he was writing on behalf of human rights for everyone.
      Perhaps I did not blend the first and second versions well enough. I always liked Sumner’s conception of The People an aggregate of individuals, not collectivities. And he was arguing against the Southern conception of State’s Rights that justified slavery and its expansion. If I understand you, Mike, Sumner’s is your standpoint as well.

      Comment by clarespark — February 7, 2012 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

  5. […] Popular sovereignty on the ropes ( […]

    Pingback by Gingrich primus inter pares « Verbum Sapienti — January 29, 2012 @ 4:48 pm | Reply

  6. Clare – with my children I have offered up the models from past political systems, most particularly nasty. I have juxtaposed these systems and the cruelty of the tyrant against the declaration of independence which of course is the emotional basis for the rational constitution. I ask them under which system do you want to live. I then give to them the several admonitions the founders had about the likelihood the republic could survive. We couldn’t live in a better time to teach about how hard it is to remain free. Government and special interests are dominating the culture and destroying the republic. We will, over time, watch the progressive left collapse; we are seeing its logical outcome in Europe. Have faith.

    Comment by Don Lovell — January 28, 2012 @ 11:53 pm | Reply

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