Sovereignty of the People: Jefferson’s Genius

The most famous passage in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which was approved this week in 1776, is, “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.”

But part of Jefferson’s genius are the far lesser known words that follow:  “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

With those words Jefferson gave America its defining political principle. For the first time in history, government was said to derive its legitimacy — its just powers — “from the consent of the governed.”

This ushered in a sea change in our understanding of the nature of government.  Throughout history sovereignty had belonged to a nation’s rulers, be they dictators or kings, and the only rights or freedoms that the people possessed were those given to them by these unelected rulers — and they were usually given grudgingly.

Jefferson’s Declaration changed that principle.  In fact, it reversed it.  Jefferson’s America was founded on the principle that ultimate sovereignty rests with the people themselves — “the governed” — and the only powers that governments possessed were those given to them, equally grudgingly, by the people themselves, when they did “consent” to that delegation of power.

Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers understood that in order to protect individual liberties and rights it was necessary that the people relinquish some sovereignty to a national government — to “give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest,” as George Washington put it.  That is, it was necessary that a government be given enough power to safeguard — to “secure” — our truly fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, and so on.

To this end, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have the same purpose — to ensure the blessings of liberty for all, and taking their cue from Jefferson’s Declaration, the Constitution and Bill of Rights both make sure that those powers the sovereign people do, grudgingly, grant the government are limited in number and clearly defined.  Further, as the Constitution’s 10th Amendment reminds us, all powers not given to the federal government by the Constitution, and all powers not specifically denied to the states or the people by that same Constitution, belong to the states or to the people.

Our core belief is that we are born free, but keeping our freedom is the challenge.  A nation in which the people grant their government limited powers has a lot better chance of meeting that challenge than a nation in which the government grants its people limited rights.