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 not to obey ever arise.

Hume was, however, right to suggest, in the passage Morgan cites, that the tacit agreement of the subjects has always been necessary, even for the most authoritarian ruler. In the twentieth century some governments have the technological resources with which to command the obedience of vast populations by a monopoly of force, including an apparatus of terror, against which there can be no effective appeal; but they still need the willing cooperation of a sufficient number of people to staff their armies and bureaucracies. In the past, even the most aggressive military conqueror could not have more than an intermittent and spasmodic impact on a conquered country. To subdue a people and keep them subdued, a ruler needed his subjects’ acquiescence; and that acquiescence was usually secured not by a show of force but by propagating a theory, or fiction, that gave the ruler legitimacy.

Most of these fictions portrayed rule by the few as natural and normal. The authority of royal dynasties and governing elites was sanctioned by religion and justified by tradition. The rulers were portrayed as inherently superior persons, whether by virtue of their descent, their innate ability, their special training, or their semidivinity. In early modern Europe, for example, theorists like King James I and Sir Robert Filmer justified the authority of absolute monarchs over their subjects by reference to their right of conquest; their descent from the first ruler, Adam; and their direct commission from God. These were the ruling fictions by which the toiling masses were encouraged to accept their subordinate status.

Yet alongside the notion that the right to rule derived from the ruler’s intrinsic merit and his divine authority there has long existed in the West a quite different theory, which holds that the only true source of political authority is the will of those who are ruled, in short the doctrine that all power arises from the people. This is the ruling myth of the American system of government and has been so ever since the early colonial period. In his carefully argued study Morgan traces the origin of the myth back to the constitutional conflicts of early seventeenth-century England, and shows how it crossed the Atlantic with the first colonists. He follows the history of this idea to 1787, when the Convention at Philadelphia drew up the American Constitution.


There is no triumph of democracy in the story he tells. In the wake of the bicentennial of the Constitution, his ironic but irrefutable contention is that, in both Britain and America, the fiction of popular sovereignty served to legitimize the rule not of the people, but of a small and privileged elite. Against a background of populist rhetoric, the few continued to rule the many, just as they always had done.

To those familiar with the earlier history of Europe there will be nothing surprising about this paradox. Theories of popular sovereignty can be traced back to classical times and so can the ways in which they were used to shore up oligarchic or authoritarian regimes. The authority of the Roman Emperor, for example, rested on the fiction that his subjects granted him his authority; and the same was true of his Holy Roman successor. When the fourteenth-century political thinker Marsilius of Padua elaborated a theory of popular sovereignty, it served in practice to legitimate the claims of the Holy Roman Emperor against the Pope. Marsilius’s sovereign people were expected to delegate their authority to the ruling prince; and when Louis of Bavaria was crowned emperor at Rome in 1328 the ceremony included the formality of popular approval. In the late medieval Italian communes the rise of the lords or signori was usually supported by the fiction that all their power derived from the people.

Professor Morgan does not trace the theory of popular sovereignty any further back than the seventeenth century, in the way that, for example, Quentin Skinner has done.1 But he is able to show that neither of the two opposing political fictions accurately reflected political reality. The first, the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, was cunningly used by the Commons to weaken the monarch’s power rather than to strengthen it. By arguing that the king’s sacred power was inalienable, they urged that royal ministers like Laud and Strafford were encroaching upon his divinity; and since the king himself could do no wrong, it followed that the ministers were to blame for his policies and should be punished accordingly.

Conversely, the notion that power originated from the people did not first emerge in response to the aspirations of the population at large. On the contrary, it was conceived in the 1640s by propagandists like Henry Parker in order to legitimize the claims of a section of Parliament to embody the nation’s will against an erring king. Yet those who claimed to be the people’s representatives were mostly members of the gentry class, elected to Parliament on a limited franchise from which, as Royalists were quick to point out, not only women and children but many adult males were excluded. The few were attempting to enlist the many against the rest of the few. The parliamentary body that grandly resolved in January 1649 “that the people are, under God, the original of all just power” was even less representative, for it was a minority Rump, which had just been purged by military force. This did not prevent its members from claiming that “the Commons in England, in Parliament assembled, being chosen by, and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation.”

By this time the notion was understandably emerging among more radical groups that, since the people were the only true source of political authority, they ought somehow to continue as far as possible to exercise it. The Levellers attempted to secure the rights of the people by drawing up a set of “reserved” liberties which even the people’s representatives in Parliament would not be allowed to curtail; and in the 1650s such thinkers as George Lawson and Sir Henry Vane proposed that the entire people should elect a convention that would express the popular will in the form of a fundamental constitution superior to the government of the day.

This was in some ways a curious notion, since it implied that the people’s representatives who drafted the constitution somehow possessed greater authority than did those later representatives who would serve as MPs. The same fiction was acted out at Philadelphia in 1787. Meanwhile, though, Oliver Cromwell’s government made no concession to these populist claims; and, after the Restoration of Charles II, the only beneficiary of such theories of popular sovereignty as were in circulation remained an unreformed Parliament. In Morgan’s words, “The sovereignty of the people in England began and ended in the sovereignty of their representatives.”


For a brief period during the Revolution of 1688, it seemed as if the theory’s more radical implications might at last assert themselves. With the flight of James II it could be said that the country had reverted to the state of nature and that all rights of property had been dissolved, leaving men, women, and children in the condition of original equality. Against this anarchic view John Locke maintained that only the government had been dissolved: the people still remained a people and the bonds of society still held (though, as Morgan points out, Locke was not consistent on this point). According to Locke’s interpretation, the Convention Parliament of 1689, which confirmed the succession of William III, was a genuinely constituent body representing the whole people, with the authority, if need be, to change the form of government.2 But the very idea that power might revert to the people at large was far too radical for most of the grandees who made the 1688 revolution. The official Whig position was that, though the throne had become vacant, the constitution was still valid and so was the authority of members of Parliament. The Convention Parliament accordingly accepted the fiction that James II had abdicated and been succeeded by William and Mary, thus avoiding the uncomfortably radical notion that the people at large might sometimes intervene to choose their rulers and limit their powers. As the conservative lawyer Sir William Blackstone put it long afterward:

The Convention…avoided with great wisdom the wild extremes into which the visionary theories of some zealous republicans would have led them. They held that this misconduct of King James amounted to an endeavour to subvert the constitution; and not to an actual subversion, or total dissolution, of the government, according to the principles of Mr. Locke: which would have reduced the society almost to a state of nature; would have levelled all distinctions of honour, rank, offices, and property; would have annihilated the sovereign power, and in consequence have repealed all positive laws; and would have left the people at liberty to have erected a new system of state upon a new foundation of polity. They therefore very prudently voted it to amount to no more than an abdication of the government and a consequent vacancy of the throne; whereby the government was allowed to subsist, though the executive magistrate was gone, and the kingly office to remain, though James was no longer king. And thus the constitution was kept entire; which upon every sound principle of government must otherwise have fallen to pieces.

(Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765–1769, I.iii)

When the French Revolution encouraged a new wave of radical sentiment in England, it became even more vital to conservatives like Edmund Burke to maintain the Old Whig interpretation of what had happened in 1688. It could not be conceded that the people had the right to alter the form of government under which they lived. Indeed it is doubtful whether the fiction of popular sovereignty had been so widely accepted in eighteenth-century England as Professor Morgan implies. Deference to church and family elders and passive obedience were widely taught by the clergy and, even after the disappearance of Jacobitism in the 1750s, the theory that power originated from the people remained, in the words of Dr. J.C.D. Clark, “a revered but only distantly relevant orthodoxy.”3 For most of the eighteenth century the more radical implications of the doctrine of popular sovereignty were kept firmly under control.

The same was largely true in America, although there was, of course, a great deal of political participation in the colonies. A larger proportion of the population voted than in England, and elections were more frequent. By the eighteenth century, Morgan writes, the sovereignty of the people was taken for granted. But what did this slogan mean in practice? Here Professor Morgan, whose handling of the English background betrays an obvious dependence upon the writings of other historians, not all of them wholly up to date, puts forward original arguments of his own. In a series of brilliant chapters he probes the myths that sustained eighteenth-century American notions of liberty, and he reveals in each case the huge gulf between high-sounding platitudes and the brutal realities of political life.

First, there was the cult of the invincible yeoman, sturdy, independent, and the bulwark of national defense. The yeomen, serving in the colonial militias, were a necessary alternative to mercenary troops, who were supposedly both inefficient and a threat to popular liberties. In fact, as Morgan points out, the yeomen were far from proof against a corrupt electoral system; they seldom elected representatives of their own class but deferred to their social superiors. Their greater military effectiveness was a fiction: a professional army defended the colonists against the French, while the successful forces that Washington commanded at Yorktown contained more French peasants than American yeomen. Service in the militia did not nurture a sense of liberty, but was a schooling in subordination. It left the controlling power of the gentry intact, for high military rank was reserved for those of superior social status. In short, Morgan writes, the glorification of the yeoman was “the central ideological tenet of deferential politics.”

Frequent elections also prove on Morgan’s closer scrutiny to have been a means by which the populace could be reconciled to a system in which it had little direct share. Elections, he suggests, were important because they were exciting, carnival-like events in which ordinary men found themselves the center of attraction and were permitted to engage in drunkenness, violence, and other forms of outrageous behavior. People participated vigorously in the contests while paying less attention to their outcomes:

The choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes.

The irony was that there was a higher turnout of voters in the deferential and aristocratic South than in egalitarian New England. The South, where the democratic Republicans were led by slave-holders, first experienced the kind of politicking that was to prevail in American national politics; and it was there that the art of persuading the many to submit to the few was most fully developed.

Morgan gives other examples of practices that looked like popular sovereignty in action but were in reality subject to manipulation from above. It became common in the colonies for constituents to issue instructions to representatives at or between elections, especially in the 1760s. But such instructions were never made binding; and in America, as in England, they often originated from the representatives themselves as a device to demonstrate that public opinion was on their side. Petitions could similarly be organized from above. They appeared to suggest that the assemblies were subordinate to the people who elected them, but too often they were what Morgan calls “acts of ventriloquism.” The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, for example, was only enacted in 1786 after a wave of petitions in its favor; no fewer than thirteen petitions, bearing 1,552 signatures, “came to the legislature at the solicitation (and in the words) of one of its members, James Madison.” Even extra-Parliamentary associations could be encouraged by the oligarchy, as in England, where the “Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers” was formed with government backing in the 1790s to support the government. Elections, instructions, petitions, and associations all served to draw an increasing number of people into the political process, but they offered no real challenge to oligarchic rule. As Morgan concludes, “The fiction that frightened English conservatives in the seventeenth century had proved in the eighteenth to be adaptable to the needs of the governing few.”

In the years immediately after Independence the notion of popular sovereignty underwent a striking change. The Continental Congresses had begun as a confederation of individual colonies, whose legislatures sent representatives to act as their ambassadors. Such bodies could never claim the authority to tax or legislate for the entire nation. But in 1787 James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, got the constitutional convention to agree that in the future members of the House of Representatives (though not the Executive or the Senate) should be directly elected by the population rather than nominated by the state governments. To overcome the local preoccupations of the sovereign states he thus invented a sovereign people, just as the English House of Commons had done in the 1640s when they sought to overcome a sovereign king. In response, the anti-Federalists, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, were suspicious of the manner in which these new, nationally elected representatives might exercise their powers and they called for a Bill of Rights of the kind that the English Levellers had demanded long ago. Madison met this demand by drafting the first ten amendments to the Constitution, though they were, theoretically, an anomaly, since they imposed limits upon what future representatives of the supposedly sovereign people might do. The Constitution was thus deemed to be a more fundamental expression of the popular will than anything the people’s representatives could subsequently enact.

Direct election to the House of Representatives gave the new national government a popular basis that had been missing from the old Continental Congress. But the new House was deliberately kept small, with only sixty-five members, fewer than in most state assemblies and drawn from correspondingly large constituencies. The intention behind this arrangement was that it would force the people to elect as their representatives a natural aristocracy whose outlook would transcend narrow, local interests. Madison expected them to be superior persons to whom the people at large would defer as their natural leaders.

But something different happened. In the new republic, wealth, education, and social status no longer guaranteed political influence. Just as religious leaders were coming to depend for their influence upon personal charisma rather than erudition, and just as the military leaders of the Revolutionary period rose through ability rather than inherited status, so there now emerged a new type of political leader, the “politician,” who had the talent required to organize and capture the support of the voters. The rule of the “better sort,” superior by dint of wealth and status, gave way to that of the “leader,” who knew how to manipulate the political process, and to that of nationally based political parties. Edmund Morgan suggests that, insofar as the new-style leadership implied the social equality of those who were led, this was an advance on the older kind of deferential politics. But it still revealed a gap between the fiction of popular sovereignty and the reality.

Professor Morgan does not take the story beyond 1787, thus leaving us to guess whether or not he thinks that that gap has closed in modern times. He suggests that in the eighteenth century representation was always “a fiction designed to secure popular consent to a governing aristocracy”; and it is a fair supposition that he thinks that still to be the case, even if the composition of that aristocracy has changed. “The future endures,” he writes, “the challenge persists.” As Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out long ago, the government of any large state is impossible without a system of representation. We still subscribe to the fiction of popular sovereignty, but the governors do not coincide with the governed. It is hard to see how they ever could.

This Issue

November 24, 1988