The Delegation of Sovereignty

Noah Webster. By: James Herring.

Prior to the creation and ratification of the Constitution, Americans struggled with legislatures who had run rampant. This, however, was the doing of the people themselves.

Upon the founding of the American republic, the people “vested the sovereignty ‘where and in what manner’ they pleased; ‘he or they to whom it is delegated is the sovereign, and is thus vested with the political understanding and will of the people, for their good and advantage solely.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 372 quoting Noah Webster, “Government,” American Magazine, I (1787-88), 76. Because the people had vested their legislatures with the power to make laws, “the legislatures of the states had become the sovereign powers in America.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 372.

Upon realizing this, the search for a remedy began. There had been a “breakdown of confidence between people and representatives and the atmosphere of suspicion and jealousy so much condemned.” Id. at 376. Most problematically, once the people had delegated sovereignty to the legislatures, “there could be no logical way of restraining the slippage of nearly all authority away from the legislature to the people-at-large.” Id.

Americans understood that they were not “simply making the people a nebulous and unsubstantial source of all political authority.” Id. at 383. The sovereignty of the people began to be defined in new ways: by the “new conception of a constitution, the development of extralegal conventions, the reliance on instructions, the participation of the people in politics out-of-doors, the clarification of the nature of representation, the never-ending appeals to the people by competing public officials.” Id.

It was obvious that the people had realized their mistake: giving away too much power to a source that ultimately abused it. The legislatures, through their actions, had undermined the people’s belief in the sustainability of an unrestrained legislature.

While it is not entirely clear to what extent, these developments influenced the creation of the checks and balances in the federal government in the Constitution. Just as many states permitted their constitutions to have a powerful governor able to prevent rogue legislatures from effectuating undesirable agendas, the President of the United States would be given the extraordinary power to veto legislation.

After this ordeal, Americans would not forget the importance of sovereignty to the protection of rights in American society. Every delegation of power to a body, legislative or otherwise, henceforth would be widely considered and carefully executed. To this day, Americans are well aware of the undesirability of letting someone disconnected from their lives dictate how they should live their lives.

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