What IS Right With America? Consent of the Governed
October 2 marks the anniversary of President George Washington forwarding the proposed Amendments, we now know as the Bill of Rights, to the States for ratification in 1789.
But what of the other proposed rights which were offered for consideration to the Congress by James Madison? Several of those rights were not included. Let’s consider another one of them today. His first proposal, which he felt should be prefixed to the Constitution in the form of a declaration was as follows:
“That all power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from the people.”
What did Madison’s statement intimate? The term “vested” can be defined as: assigned to, held by, in possession of, or owned. “Derived” can be defined as obtained or secured from. Madison statement, therefore, meant that the power held by a government was given to it by its people.
Madison’s proposal for the Bill of Rights was not the first time this concept was incorporated into the writings of the Founders. That same type of statement was included in the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” The words of the Declaration echoed those found in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government: “For no government can have a right to obedience from a people who have not freely consented to it.” Such sentiments were later echoed in several state constitutions including:
Georgia: “We, therefore, the representatives of the people, from whom all power originates, and for whose benefit all government is intended.”
Massachusetts: “All power residing originally in the people, and being derived from them.”
Virginia: “That all power is naturally vested in and consequently derived from the people.”
It is safe to say that the concept of power being derived from the people was not a novel notion when Madison offered it for consideration. Each of the above listed statements is a different shade of a principle which serves as cornerstone upon which our nation was built: consent of the governed.
The idea of consent of the governed also continued to carry on long after the Founding period. Abraham Lincoln definitely faced a nation in which “consent” was once again an issue. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he referenced his belief about the practice of slavery when he opined: “[N]o man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” The attached image is a photograph of crowds forming prior to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. Note that the dome of the Capitol Building had not yet been completed
So if the power of government is obtained through the consent of the people, can that consent be revoked? Unlike many other philosophers, such as Hobbs, Locke believed that consent could indeed be withdrawn: “such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniencies being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.”
From time to time I read statements by those who actually declare the revocation of their consent to be governed. They state they will no longer vote, pay taxes, or otherwise participate in our glorious experiment. I have to say that I disagree with those sentiments completely. When I return to those words that Madison proposed should begin the Bill of Rights: “that all power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from the people,” I come to a much different conclusion. If the government’s power is derived from the people, then the people have the power to restore the government to institution which was originally created by the Founders. As you consider the proposal offered by our fourth President, also consider the many ways in which you can peacefully exercise your power as an engaged citizen. Here are just a few of my favorite ideas:
– Be Informed. Don’t rely on the evening news, or even one of the more reliable sources of information. The more you read, learn, and think about issues, the more educated opinion you can develop. The more educated opinion you develop, the more power you have to influence others.
– Write: Your elected officials need to hear from you as frequently as possible. We must re-educate many elected officials that their constituents will not remain loyal if they do not abide by their promises. They do, after all, obtain their power to govern us with our consent.
– Connect. Social media is a wonderful thing. Whether it is Facebook, Google plus, Twitter, Linkedin, or one of hundreds of other connecting points, social media is a wonderful way to get involved. Not only will you learn about happenings more quickly, you will gain information to strengthen your opinions. If social media, is not for you then connect with others in a more traditional manner. Join groups and organizations of like-minded individuals. Take part in organized meetings and activities. Let everyone know your opinions and work to make changes you feel are important.
– Contribute. Contribute not only your money, but your time as well. Remember: it is not just boots on the ground anymore. Many organizations are looking for people to speak out by phone or email.
– Stand up: Maybe running for office is not your cup of tea, but how about speaking out at a meeting or other organized gathering. Organizations are always looking for well-informed, well-spoken, individuals to passionately deliver their message to others.
– Vote: Not only should you vote, but encourage all like-minded individuals to register and visit the polls. Every vote counts as we saw what happened when people elected not to visit the polls in 2012.
Please take a moment to remember the powerful words of James Madison. Decide to become an active, engaged, and powerful citizen, of these great United States. An engaged citizenry, who is well aware that the government’s power is derived from the people, is definitely What IS Right With America!
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.