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The Rise of Popular Sovereignty

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989
Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. By Edmund S. Morgan. Norton. $18.95.

It is Edmund Morgan’s purpose in this often provocative book to assess how the divine right of kings gave way to the sovereignty of the people during the period from the reign of James I to the American Revolution. He begins with Hume’s famous observation that it is “on opinion only that government is founded,” a maxim that extends to the “most despotic and most military governments, as well as the most free and most popular,” (“Of the First Principles of Government,” 1758 ed.). This observation, with all the attendant applications, informs his entire analysis. Morgan asks how could English subjects, who “had more rights than the subjects of other kings” endow with divine right powers such an unlikely candidate as James I. The author’s answer is that divine right kingship, like popular sovereignty after it, was a “necessary fiction,” crafted by political elites fearing threats from above, below, and abroad. During the 1620’s, with the Counter-Reformation in full swing, the divine right of kings became a declaration of independence from foreign potentates such as the pope. It was at the same time fashioned into a weapon by the House of Commons for beating back quests for power by unsavory courtiers like Buckingham. Divine right kingship ultimately became a means to check the king’s own authority. As Morgan asserts, “by placing the king’s rectitude, wisdom, and authority on the plane of divinity the Commons denied the possibility of any other mortal sharing in those royal attributes.” Divine authority “must be inalienable authority, and the Commons made themselves the guardians of it against any subject who might arrogate a part of it.” Moreover, by insisting—however unrealistically—that they were “mere subjects,” the gentry expanded the rights of all Englishmen.

It is Morgan’s main contention that by elevating the king, Commons prepared for his destruction. By accepting the monarch’s divine right, by proclaiming its indivisible nature, they had arrogated for themselves the terms upon which the nation would be governed. They also helped usher in an age of human equality. By humbling mighty subjects, the Commons “made way for the rise of the humble, made way, indeed, for the new fictions of a world where all men are created equal and governments derive their powers from those they govern.”

Confronted in the 1640’s with a more obdurate monarch, the Commons “invented” a sovereign people to overcome a sovereign king. But arbitrary government by the New Model Army and the Rump Parliament brought a reaction against the new doctrine, and it was not until the Glorious Revolution that popular sovereignty was reinstated as the reigning fiction, with the unreformed Parliament as its embodiment.

After the Glorious Revolution, Morgan tells us, the torch of popular sovereignty passed to America, where the prevailing social realities made it much less of a fiction. Contrary to most scholars, who date the triumph of popular sovereignty at the American Revolution, Morgan finds it fully accepted by the early 18th century. He offers as his main evidence the widespread popularity of the English champions of popular sovereignty, Harrington, Locke, Sidney, Trenchard, and Gordon.

In a discussion of “useful ambiguities”—which some scholars will find provocative, others simply provoking— Morgan shows how the elevation of the people cut both ways. The fiction of popular sovereignty allowed the few to restrain the political aspirations of the many, but it also forced these same few to go well beyond token concessions to the many. Fiction shapes fact, Morgan tells us, and his discussion of the myths of the invincible yeoman, genuinely contested elections, and binding instructions shows how even as the fiction of popular sovereignty propped up a deferential society, it paved the way for its ultimate destruction.

This destruction came in 1776, in what Morgan describes as the “Incautious Revolution.” The representatives that ran the new state governments, declares Morgan, were “representatives of the American kind, representatives who knew their places as agents of the people who chose them.” With a long tradition of representative government, a widely distributed franchise, and a standard of living that made them the envy of the world, free Americans believed themselves to be natural republicans. For the first time, the sovereignty of the people—in the actions of the lower houses—began to approximate reality.

Indeed, it was the overly representative nature of the state governments during the Confederation period that drove troubled nationalists like Madison, Hamilton, and James Wilson to “invent a sovereign American people” to overcome the sovereign states. A more centralized and elitist national government was justified on the basis of the “primal power” of the people. But in the final irony chronicled by Morgan’s remarkable book, the conservatives’ triumph was a brief one. Within a generation, a government crafted by republicans was taken over by democrats as a deferential society was replaced by one based on political partisanship.

Morgan’s often impish argument will not be pleasing to all. Some will balk at the use of such a trendy term as “fiction” to describe the animating principles of English constitutionalism. Others will object that the author’s analysis tends throughout to trivialize the Anglo-American traditions of representative government and common law. Still others will want firmer assurances than are offered regarding when Professor Morgan is writing with tongue stuck firmly in cheek. But, these considerations aside, most will depart this book with a greater reverence for both the author and his topic.


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