The Greatest Question Ever Yet Agitated

Samuel Johnson. By: Joshua Reynolds.

In the early 1770s, the colonists and Britain began to debate “the greatest Question ever yet agitated.” John Adams, entry, Mar. 4, 1773, Butterfield, ed., Diary of Adams, II, 77. That question was focused on sovereignty and John Adams expressed the view that it was necessary and “should some where be lodged a supreme power over the whole.” Id.

As Gordon Wood explained in The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, “[e]very new institution and new idea sooner or later had to be reconciled with this powerfully persuasive assumption that there could be but one final, indivisible, and incontestable supreme authority in every state to which all other authorities must be ultimately subordinate.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 345. This was “the most important abstraction of politics in the entire Revolutionary era.” Id.

Particularly after the Stamp Act of 1765, Americans began to stress the importance of sovereignty. Samuel Johnson wrote that “[i]n sovereignty, there can be no gradations. There may be limited Royalty . . . ; but there can be no limited Government. There must, in every society, be some power or other from which there is no appeal; which admits no restrictions; which pervades the whole mass of the community; regulates and adjusts all subordination; enacts laws or repeals them; erects or annuls judicatures; extends or contracts privileges; exempts itself from question or control; and bounded only by physical necessity.” Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny . . . (London, 1775), in Force, ed., American Archives, 4th Ser., I, 1436, 1431-32. Johnson continued, explaining that sovereignty was a “‘fundamental principle’ of political science, ‘comprising the primary and essential condition of all political society,’ that no one had ever had the effrontery before to doubt ’til it became disputed by those zealots of anarchy, who have denied to the Parliament of Britain the right of taxing the American Colonies.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 349 quoting Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny . . . (London, 1775), in Force, ed., American Archives, 4th Ser., I, 1436, 1431-32.

Samuel Adams stated “that in every kingdom, state, or empire there must be, from the necessity of the thing, one supreme legislative power, with authority to bind every part in all cases the proper object of human laws.” “An American” to the Earl of Carlisle and others, July 16, 1778, Cushing, ed., Writings of Samuel Adams, IV, 37.

The idea of sovereignty being an indivisible power, resting with the people, ensured that the control of government would be firmly placed in the hands of Americans. As John Adams, Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Adams observed, sovereignty was necessary to prevent America from suffering the same fate as Britain. Sovereignty would be the tool that would ensure the people remained in control of their fate.

As John Adams explained, this was a significant, novel issue to explore. Americans were exploring undiscovered political theory, to better develop a system of government that would survive the turmoil that governments experience. More than anything, putting the supreme authority with the people best protected America from the tyranny that consumed Britain.

While it required a great deal of faith to grant the people the supreme power over themselves, it also created an incentive for Americans to learn about issues, participate in discourse, and change the society they live in. Americans should not forget this.

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