Just Say Yes

Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America

by Edmund S. Morgan
Norton, 318 pp., $18.95

Why is it that most people obey the government under which they find themselves? Why do the many submit willingly to be governed by the few? Edmund S. Morgan, the distinguished American colonial historian, begins his provocative new study by citing the famous answer given to this conundrum in the mid-eighteenth century by the philosopher David Hume:

As force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore on opinion only that government is founded.

Over the long run, Professor Morgan says, mere force “is not a sufficient basis for inducing consent. Human beings, if only to maintain a semblance of self-respect, have to be persuaded. Their consent must be sustained by opinion.”

In the early modern period, Morgan continues, two such opinions were particularly influential. According to the first, he writes, “Englishmen of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century affirmed that men were created unequal and that they owed obedience to government because the Creator had endowed their king with his own sacred authority.” Within a century, a very different opinion was widely held. On this view, the final source of all political authority was “the people, who are created equal and who confer authority on those who govern them.” Inventing the People seeks to show how the first view was displaced by the second and what the consequences of this displacement were.

Morgan’s emphasis upon the importance of opinion would have come as no surprise to the rulers of seventeenth-century England. Long before Hume, they recognized that without a police force or a standing army they could hope to maintain the allegiance of their subjects only by an appeal to a combination of conscience, duty, and self-interest. In the 1630s Archbishop Laud observed that “no laws can be binding if there be no conscience to obey them, penalty alone can never do it.” His master, King Charles I, agreed: in time of peace, he thought, “people are governed by pulpits more than [by] the sword.” When Thomas Hobbes came to formulate his political theory of the absolute authority of the sovereign a decade later he too recognized that such a system could not be shored up by military strength: all depended upon the effectiveness with which the ruler controlled the schools, the universities, and the pulpit. The rights of the sovereign, he declared, “cannot be maintained by any civil law or terror of legal punishment.” They could be upheld only by inculcating in the population a rational fear of the anarchy into which any untoward resistance would plunge them all.

Of course Hobbes, like most intellectuals, greatly exaggerated the extent that people consciously think about why they obey the government under which they find themselves. The sad truth is that most of us submit neither out of fear nor out of conscience, but rather through unreflective habit, what Edmund Burke called “heavy, lumpish acquiescence.” Only at moments of unusual crisis does the issue of whether or …

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