When the People Rule: The Principle of Popular Sovereignty in the U.S. Declaration and Constitution

Posted at the American Heritage Education Foundation:

When founding the United States, the American founders adhered to the philosophical governing principle of popular sovereignty, or the people’s rule. Popular sovereignty is the idea that political power resides with the whole people of a community or state—not with any particular person, group, or ancestral line.

The modern, Western conception of this idea was shaped not only by the ancient models of democracy in Greece and Rome but also, in part, by the Bible and a Bible-oriented worldview. In the Bible-oriented worldview, the Creator God gives all mankind, as equal and free, dominion over the earth and, therefore, earthly political power. The people thus have rightful authority within the bounds of God’s moral law to choose how and who to govern for themselves, and their government and governors derive legitimate authority by the people’s consent.

In his 1980 essay, From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought, Donald S. Lutz explains how the people’s consent is the basis of legitimate authority: “Consent becomes the instrument for establishing authority in the community and for expressing the sovereignty of God. … The people’s consent is the instrument for linking God with the rulers, whose authority then is viewed as sanctioned by Him, but because this authority comes through the people, the rulers are beholding to God through them.” [1]

The people may define and limit the powers of their government and governors, and they may remove governors who do not fulfill their duties or abide by just civil law. It is important to note that the people and their governors are still fallible and accountable to God and His moral law, just civil law, and one another. Ideally, God’s moral order may potentially be maintained through the people’s just civil law and governance.

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