A Shift in Sovereignty

In my last post I wrote about the complexities of sovereignty, of who has the supreme power and authority in a given polity and where that authority comes from. The Revolutionary War in the United States ushered in a new government with independent states, each sovereign within their own territory, held together by a loosely constructed national government. Power and authority held within the state was derived from the citizens of the state who had come together to forge new lives in America.

 

This arrangement, however, was not politically stable and did not hold the states together in a way that protected the interests of each state and of each citizen within each state. A new government was needed to cement the bonds between the states, and the new government required a re-imagining of sovereignty. Today it is obvious that the Federal Government is sovereign over the state governments. It is clear to us that our elected officials represent us and receive their power with the consent of our votes, but at the time of the American Revolution and at the time of the writing of our Constitution, this was not obvious. Joseph Ellis describes the shift in sovereignty in his book The Quartet by writing:

 

“Sovereignty had shifted from a monarchy claiming to derive its authority from God to a legislature claiming to derive its authority from ‘the people.’ Political power flowed not downward from the heavens but upward from the citizenry. Indeed, this was the fundamental change that had made the war for independence a revolution.”

 

This view of power and authority was radically different from a view of a monarch ordained by God to lead a people. There were many questions that were addressed in the constitution to answer questions about how power and authority would be transmitted through the people to the governing authorities of the nation, and at the time these were new ideas that required a shift in thinking about both power and governance. Sovereignty now had a new basis for legitimacy, and it was bottom up, growing from the public and not top down from a ruler.

Sovereignty

Sovereignty is a difficult concept, even though it seems pretty easy and strait-forward. A quick Google definition of sovereignty is “supreme power or authority,” but what this means in the real world is more muddy than what the Google definition suggests. From the quick definition one might think of the Supreme Court and suggest that the court is the supreme power and authority in the United States, but with our separation of powers, the Supreme Court’s authority is somewhat limited and is not all encompassing. The Supreme Court is a good example of the complexity of sovereignty and the challenges of truly understanding how power and authority interact within a society and government.

 

The most challenging question about sovereignty and authority is the question of where authority comes from. The American Revolution was fueled by the idea that sovereignty rested within the individual states, whose constitutions governed the relationship between their populations and their ruling authorities. Today, sovereignty rests far more with the federal government rather than with the states. At the time of the writing of our constitution, a fundamental shift in sovereignty was taking place between the federal government and the states. Joseph Ellis captures this conflict in his book The Quartet describing the way that Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay bent the idea of sovereignty to give rise to the sovereign federal government that we eventually came to understand today.

 

“The knotty question of sovereignty – did it reside in the states or in the federal government?-was the central issue requiring a clear resolution. If the federal veto proved impossible, an alternative argument, an artful finesse, might be that sovereignty was located in “the people,” a somewhat ambiguous formulation that bent the shape of the new constitution in a national direction.”

 

Ellis explains the way that our national focus on the individual, the liberties of the individual, and the notions of sovereignty came together to create a new idea of how governments and individuals should relate to each other. Sovereignty was believed to rest with the people, and people had natural human rights and authority which they could then divest in the government. This is not an obvious thought and idea, and even today, we have retreated from this view. We often now see the Federal Government as the ultimate authority of the land, not the people. Our rights and freedoms flow from the Federal Government which decides what we can and cannot do and which guarantees us certain rights in writing. Power and authority seem like they are strait-forward concepts, but Ellis’s writing on sovereignty at the nation’s founding and our complex shifting views of sovereignty demonstrate that it is more complex than it first appears.