Retention of the Supreme Power

James Wilson, as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. By: Robert S. Susan, after Leopold G. Seyffert, after Max Rosenthal.

Capturing the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution was expressing “the inherent and unalienable right of the people” to determine their system of government. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 535 quoting Wilson, in McMaster and Stone, eds., Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution, 317.

Francis Hopkinson, a poet, remarked that the people were exercising their “first and greatest power—performing an act of sovereignty, original, and unlimited.” Francis Hopkinson, Account of the Grand Federal Procession, Philadelphia, July 4, 1788 . . . (Phila., 1788), 14.

Edmund Pendleton said, in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, that Americans “had finally showed the world how to form a real constitution.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 535.

James Wilson observed that “Americans had no need to resort crudely to revolution in the traditional Whig fashion, ‘conveying an idea of force.'” Id. quoting Wilson, in McMaster and Stone, eds., Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution, 318. Rather, said Wilson, Americans “will assemble in Convention; wholly recall our delegated powers,” and then, “we, the people, possessing all power, form a government, such as we think will secure happiness.” Id. Wilson continued, saying that the ratifying conventions in the states met “under the practical influence of this great truth . . . that in the United States the people retain the supreme power . . . . Under its operation, we can sit as calmly, and deliberate as cooly in order to change a constitution, as a legislature can sit and deliberate under the power of a constitution in order to alter or amend a law.” Id. at 318, 340. Ultimately, the supreme power was one where “the fee simple continues, resides and remains with the body of the people.” Id. at 340.

These principles, largely Federalist in nature, were defining the character of the American system, as the ratifying conventions took place in the United States. As Pendleton’s expression captures, Americans were confident that their new system of government was superior to others around the world. One perceived reason for that confidence was the extent of power vested in ordinary people.

Wilson’s marveling at the beauty of the Constitution, and its empowerment of the people, both inspire and remind Americans of the roots of the Constitution. It was never contemplated that the people of the United States would be passive in the governing of their affairs. Rather, it was an obligation for Americans to assemble, debate, and decide what the Constitution should be, which of course is law supreme over any other law that any legislature could enact.

Americans should remember this spirit. The Constitution created a novel system of government, and its empowering of all Americans provides a unique opportunity for every person to be informed, participate, and tailor their government for the betterment of the people.

Leave a Reply