A Supreme Sovereign Power

Page 1 of the Articles of Confederation.

Despite the fact that the Articles of Confederation loosely held the states together, there was still a remarkable union achieved. There were privileges and immunities granted, “reciprocity of extradition and judicial proceedings among the states,” no “travel and discriminatory trade restrictions between states, and the substantial grant of powers to the Congress in Article 9 made the league of states as cohesive and strong as any similar sort of republican confederation in history—stronger in fact than some Americans had expected.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 359.

Despite this union, the power of Congress was disintegrating in the years following the Revolutionary War. See id. In fact, “delegates increasingly complained of the difficulty of gathering even a quorum.” Id. By the time the mid-1780s arrived, “Congress had virtually ceased trying to govern.” Id. citing Roger Sherman, Aug. 25, 1777, cited in Van Tyne, “Sovereignty in the American Revolution,” Amer. Hist. Rev., 12 (1906-07), 538.

The impact of the Articles of Confederation on sovereignty revealed the necessity of reform. The Massachusetts General Court, in January 1776, proclaimed “It is a Maxim that, in every Government, there must exist, Somewhere, a Supreme, Sovereign, absolute, and uncontroulable [sic] Power; But this Power resides, always in the body of the people, and it never was, or can be delegated, to one Man, or a few.” Proclamation of the General Court, Jan. 23, 1776, Handlin, eds., Popular Sources, 65.

The fact that sovereignty rested with the people meant a smooth transition from the Articles of Confederation to a Constitution could occur. Ultimately, it became clear that the Americans’ extra-legislative action, conventions, and participation in government were manifestations of the belief that sovereignty rested with the people, nowhere else. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 363.

Perhaps this development was a bit of good fortune, but also, the need for transformation of government became increasingly obvious as the dysfunction of the United States worsened. More than anything, the idea that sovereignty rests with the people was solidifying. This is one example where the Founding Fathers’ interests and the common Americans’ interests aligned. Everyone could benefit from having a more functional government that was centered on the idea of sovereignty resting with the people as a whole.

Where interests align between the leaders and the people, true progress can be made. While that is rare, when it does happen, leaders must remember this and take prompt action, so as to advance American society.

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