The Declaration of Independence laid down several important principles about free government predicated upon all humans being created with an equality of natural rights. From that equality flowed the idea that all who made a political regime through a social contract equally gave their consent to that government. The American polity was a republican form of government rooted upon a continuing consent of the sovereign people.
The American colonists were drawn to the principle of consensual government in the decade of resistance before the Declaration of Independence. The main argument of the American Revolution was, of course, “no taxation without representation.” The colonists were willing to pay taxes as British subjects, but they demanded in countless pamphlets, newspapers, petitions, declarations of rights, and speeches that they could only be taxed by their consent. This consent would be given in their colonial legislatures since they were not and could not reasonably be represented in Parliament.
In 1774, George Washington said it well when he described it with a practical example: “I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more Right to put their hands into my Pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours, for money.” Washington thought it was violated constitutional and natural rights. Taxation without consent was “repugnant to every principle of natural justice…that it is not only repugnant to natural Right, but Subversive of the Laws & Constitution of Great Britain itself.”
In Federalist #39, James Madison described the principle of consent:
“We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society…It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people.”
Madison’s quote points us to important considerations about consensual republican government. First, it derives its power from the sovereign people. Second, it is governed by representatives of the people (from among the people) they have elected directly or indirectly in free elections.
The Constitution contained several provisions that institutionalized popular consent. “We the People” established the constitutional government divided into three branches of government with the Congress, and specifically the House of Representatives, representing the people most directly. As Madison wrote, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” The Constitution provided for free direct and indirect elections and limited terms of office. The document guaranteed “to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
Representative government was naturally and reasonably based fundamentally upon majority rule. The majority, however, was guided and limited by the principles of natural law and natural justice. Madison explained in Federalist #51: “It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” Thomas Jefferson agreed in his First Inaugural: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” According to the founders, majority tyranny was just as bad as tyranny of the few or one. Majority rule was only just if minority rights were protected.
During the mid-nineteenth century, the idea of popular consent and majority rule was challenged. John Calhoun’s “concurrent majority” created the idea that the means of preventing supposedly tyrannical majority rule was by allowing the minority to have a veto on what it believed unjust. Concurrence was virtually akin to unanimity and laid the basis for nullification. Stephen Douglas’ view of “popular sovereignty” advocated that the people of each state govern their affairs however they want including owning slaves. Douglas’ “don’t care” policy on slavery was a gross violation of natural rights and justice by an oppressive majority against a racial minority. His relativist stance on popular government did not accord with the ideas of Madison and Jefferson above about majority rule/minority rights.
In his First Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln reasserted the underlying principle of majority rule and consent. Lincoln focused attention on the need for a sense of restraint in popular government and the checks and balances and other devices that help provide limits. Moreover, he noted that republican governments based upon the consent of the governed are rooted in free and reasonable deliberation and persuasion are necessary in shaping just majorities. But, it also means that the minority must submit to just rule. It cannot reject majority rule because it disagrees with a chosen course of action or does not win the debate. Lincoln said:
“A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people, Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”
The twentieth century witnessed several challenges to consensual self-government. The executive agencies of the administrative state that were overseen by experts in the public interest were seen as a counter to the messy, slow, and deliberative lawmaking of Congress. The later rise of the “imperial presidency” subverted the other branches of government and popular consent. Many observers argued that an “imperial judiciary” allowed unelected judges to substitute their personal views for the will of the people. Today, many are concerned that big tech elites and their political allies attempt to control and limit popular will. The debate has continued and will endure because of the central importance of the constitutional principle of consent in the American regime and national character.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn