The Fiction of ‘The People’

We the People: Vol. I, Foundations

by Bruce Ackerman
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 369 pp., $24.95

Vox populi vox dei: the voice of the people is the voice of God. The slogan was useful for those who first attempted to substitute the people for God as the source of political authority. Their attempt was ultimately so successful that God no longer seems to be needed in government, except perhaps in invocations designed to bolster morale during particularly dubious activities. Most of the time the people alone can give government all the authority it needs. But the substitution has left those who govern with a continuing problem of authentication.

When the voice of God authorized government, at least in the Western world after Christ, it was generally through a blanket approval set down in the New Testament: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans: XIII,1). It was not necessary and might even have been disadvantageous for a government to claim a direct personal commission and communion of the kind God had given some rulers in the Old Testament. A working government might need the support of the Church but not of God Himself in a voice from on high. He no longer spoke that way, at least not to Protestants.

When the people replaced God, the problem became a little different, for the people had not recorded their voice in any testament. How then to authenticate a claim to their approval? How persuade the people to be governed that they themselves had authorized the government? At first sight the problem appeared to be no problem. The Long Parliament of England that replaced the God-given government of Charles I simply declared itself to be the people. But the claim was palpably false if the people included the rest of the country. The Long Parliament had only a tenuous connection with a tiny fraction of England’s population, and its claim did not stick.

The people, it turned out, were almost as hard to approach as God. Individual people or groups of people assembled together could be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and could act, do things, and cause a lot of trouble, but the people, in the sense of all those who were to be governed and who could authorize government, could not. And yet the people have always seemed to be a good deal more tangible than God; and a government that claimed to act in their name had to present a plausible claim to their approval, a claim plausible enough to persuade actual people to submit.

The men who claimed to be “We the People” at Philadelphia in 1787 were able to make their claim stick, so successfully that we still submit to the government they started, which is arguably the oldest one of a major power resting (as virtually all governments now purport to do) on the sovereignty of the people. How they did it and whether we ought still to accept what they did has been…

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