Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On the Sovereignty of the People

Here is an excerpt from the full translation of Benjamin Constant's essay On the Sovereignty of the People. Laws are meant to secure people's rights, not to infringe upon them. Constant's writing elucidates this first principle, what it means to have a Constitution that is in sync with our Declaration. The Ninth Amendment is to ensure this at the federal level, the Fourteenth at the state level.

When you establish that the sovereignty of the people is unlimited, you create and leave to chance in human society a degree of power too large for itself and which is an evil no matter into which hands it is placed. Entrust it to one, to several, to all, you will equally find it an evil. You will lay the blame on the depositaries of this power, and depending on the circumstances, by turns you will accuse monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, mixed government, and the representative system. You will be wrong; it is the degree of force and not the depositaries of this force which must be charged. It is the weapon and not the arm you must deal with severely. There are maces too heavy for the hands of man.

The error of those who, in good faith with their love of liberty, have accorded to the sovereignty of the people a power without limits comes from the way in which their ideas in politics were formed. They have seen in history a small number of men, or even just one, in possession of an immense power which was doing much evil; but their wrath was directed against the possessors of the power and not the power itself. Instead of destroying it, they have thought but to move it. It was a scourge; they considered it a prize. They bestowed it upon the whole society. It inevitably passed from there to the majority, from the majority into the hands of a few men, and often into one hand alone; it has done just as much evil as before; and the examples, the objections, the arguments, and the facts against all political institutions have been repeated.

In a society founded upon the sovereignty of the people, it is certain that it becomes no one individual, no one class, to subject the rest to one's particular will; but it is false that the whole society possesses over its members a sovereignty without limits.

The universality of citizens is the sovereign, in this sense that no individual, no fraction, no partial association can arrogate to themselves sovereignty if it has not been delegated to them. But it does not follow from this that the universality of citizens, or those vested by them with sovereignty, may dispose sovereignly of the existence of individuals. To the contrary, there is a part of human existence which, of necessity, stays individual and independent, and which is of right outside of all social purview. Sovereignty exists only in a limited and relative way. Where individual independence and existence begin, the jurisdiction of this sovereignty stops. If society steps over this line, it becomes as guilty as the despot who has no qualification other than his exterminating blade; society may not go beyond its purview without proving to be a usurper, the majority, without proving to be a faction. The consent of the majority by no means suffices in all cases to legitimate acts; there exist some things which cannot be sanctioned; when any sort of authority commits such acts, it matters little from which source it emanates and it matters little whether it is called an individual or nation; it could be the entire nation minus the citizen it oppresses, and it would not be more legitimate for it. . . .

The citizens possess individual rights independent of all social or political authority, and every authority which violates these rights becomes illegitimate. The rights of the citizens are individual liberty, religious liberty, liberty of opinion, in which is included its publicity, the enjoyment of property, guarantee against all that is arbitrary. No authority may infringe upon these rights without tearing up its own title.

Benjamin Constant (1815)
On the Sovereignty of the People.
Translated by Casey Bowman (1996)
Solonian Reprints, No. 2, pp. 2-4.

Original French

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