The Social Compact & Our Constitutional Republic

CONSTITUTION - at the Philadalphia Convention

by Diane Rufino, Jan. 21, 2018 (first section only; other sections attributed to other authors)


A Social Compact is an agreement, entered into by individuals, that creates some form of self-government and results in the formation of an organized society, the prime motive being the desire for protection and the performance of common functions to serve the community of individuals. To form an organized community, a surrender of some personal liberties is the trade-off.

Perhaps you may remember the Mayflower Compact from your days in grade school. You may remember that it was a document – you probably don’t remember what kind of document it was – that was drafted aboard the Mayflower, as it brought the Pilgrims to the shores of what would one day become Massachusetts. Well, the Mayflower Compact is actually quite significant. It was the first American document to establish a framework of self-government. It was perhaps the first the American Social Compact. The Compact was drafted by the Pilgrims as they sailed across the Atlantic and was signed on November 11, 1620 and became the governing document of Plymouth Colony.

I know that most people have never heard of the term “Social Compact” but I make the case here that this term is probably one of the most important terms to know and understand. The next American Revolution will be to wrestle power away from the federal government and to transfer it back to its rightful depositories, which are the States and the People themselves. The only way this will be possible is if the American people understand that the US Constitution is a social compact, was intended as such, was promoted as such, and was commonly referred to as such up until the end of the Civil War. All of the primary documents that explain the Constitution, refer to it, document its drafting, its adoption, and ratification characterize it as a “social compact.” Early Supreme Court decisions refer to it as a “social compact.” (See Chisholm v. Georgia, 1793; Calder v. Bull, 1798), and dozens of lower federal courts, as well as state courts, have done the same. When the colonies sought their independence from Great Britain, they articulated in the Declaration of Independence they believed that governments are products of social compacts (constitutions establish government authority, and set appropriate limits, all by the consent of the governed) and due to the “compact” or “contract” nature of that agreement, they had the right, under the Laws of Nature and God’s Law, to establish a new government, of their own design and suited to serve them accordingly (“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….”)

Compact Theory, as will be discussed below, follows the same legal theories as contract law, which is one of the oldest areas of law. There are parties to a compact, there are assigned obligations and benefits, there are consequences for a breach, and there are remedies. In the case of the Constitution, the parties are the individual States. The government is NOT a party but is the creature – it being created by the Constitution. The federal government was “created” to serve the States – to perform those common functions that each state would have to perform alone but could be more efficient, more effective, and uniform, when performed for all. The federal government was created as an Agent for the States – against, to serve their interests, thus making it easy to form and remain together in the form of a Union (a “confederation” of sovereign states). Being the rightful parties to the compact (ie, the “contract”), the obligations and benefits are reserved to them only. The obligations are that each State delegate some their sovereign powers (listed in Article I) to the federal government for the good of the Union and respect that the federal government will govern supremely on those objects. And the benefits are those mentioned – the federal government would serve as the Agent, mainly providing safety and defense, dealing with foreign nations, ensuring regular commerce, and providing a common currency. A compact is a formal, and stable embodiment of the terms on which a group of people decide to live together in a community. It creates their government and represents the “consent of the governed.” The compact retains the same meaning and terms until the people agree to change it.

So, one benefit of a Social Compact is that the parties have a right and an expectation that the terms will remain the same. In the case of the Constitution, the government created is one of limited powers, with those powers expressly listed for each branch. All remaining government power is reserved to the States (both implied by the limited nature of the delegation of power and expressly by the Tenth Amendment). So when the federal government exceeds its powers under the Constitution and passes an unconstitutional law, establishes an unconstitutional policy, or renders an unconstitutional court “opinion,” the States, as the parties to the compact, have a RIGHT to ensure that the government exercises only those powers given it and to PREVENT such unconstitutional law, policy, or court opinion from being enforced on We the People. After all, when the government assumes powers not delegated to it, it naturally usurps them from their natural possessor, which is either the States or the People themselves.

James Madison explained this concept best, when he articulated the doctrines of Nullification and Interposition in his Virginia Resolves of 1798, which were written for the Virginia legislature in order to nullify the Alien & Sedition Acts, which were clearly unconstitutional, and prevent the residents of the state from being subject to them. The Virginia Resolves read: “That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties; as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact; as no further valid that they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.” In his term “interpose,” he encompasses “nullification’ as well, which is the doctrine that says any law made without the proper authority (ie, an unconstitutional law) is automatically null and void and therefore unenforceable. Of course the federal government will never admit on its own that any of its actions are unconstitutional. It is up to the sovereign States to do that. In this manner, government can be kept in check.

It is Compact Theory that provides this level of protection against government tyranny for We the People.

Besides keeping the federal in check with regard to its rightful powers, States like South Carolina also believed it had the right to intervene when the government violated the basic nature and purpose of its being – to govern for the individual States equally; that is, not to operate government primarily for the benefit of certain States or certain regions over others.

When South Carolina, at the end of 1832, took strong action to oppose the high protective tariffs supported by Andrew Jackson’s administration, the Tariffs of Abomination (of 1828 and then 1832), which were exceedingly burdensome and crushing on the economy of the state, it looked to the compact nature of the Constitution for justification: On January 22, 1833, Senator John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, submitted the following resolutions:—

Resolved, That the people of the several States composing these United States are united as parties to a constitutional compact, to which the people of each State acceded as a separate sovereign community, each binding itself by its own particular ratification; and that the union, of which the said compact is the bond, is a union between the States ratifying the same.

Resolved, That the people of the several States thus united by the constitutional compact, in forming that instrument, and in creating a general government to carry into effect the objects for which they were formed, delegated to that government, for that purpose, certain definite powers, to be exercised jointly, reserving, at the same time, each State to itself, the residuary mass of powers, to be exercised by its own separate government; and that whenever the general government assumes the exercise of powers not delegated by the compact, its acts are unauthorized, and are of no effect; and that the same government is not made the final judge of the powers delegated to it, since that would make its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among sovereign parties, without any common judge, each has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of the infraction as of the mode and measure of redress.

Resolved, That the assertions, that the people of these United States, taken collectively as individuals, are now, or ever have been, united on the principle of the social compact, and, as such, are now formed into one nation or people, or that they have ever been so united in any one stage of their political existence; that the people of the several States composing the Union have not, as members thereof, retained their sovereignty; that the allegiance of their citizens has been transferred to the general government; that they have parted with the right of punishing treason through their respective State governments; and that they have not the right of judging in the last resort as to the extent of the powers reserved, and of consequence of those delegated,—are not only without foundation in truth, but are contrary to the most certain and plain historical facts, and the clearest deductions of reason; and that all exercise of power on the part of the general government, or any of its departments, claiming authority from such erroneous assumptions, must of necessity be unconstitutional,—must tend, directly and inevitably, to subvert the sovereignty of the States, to destroy the federal character of the Union, and to rear on its ruins a consolidated government, without constitutional check or limitation, and which must necessarily terminate in the loss of liberty itself.”

South Carolina, in convention on November 24, 1832, adopted an Ordinance of Nullification which protested the constitutionality of the tariffs and stated that it would not provide the federal government with said tariff revenue. This would become the so-called Nullification Crisis of 1832. President Jackson threatened to invade South Carolina with federal troops and collect the revenue by force, but a compromise tariff bill was quickly reached in Congress which averted the crisis and which eventually lowered the tariff to pre-1828 levels. Nullification worked !! It prevented government abuse on the people and businesses of Virginia. (The tariff was discriminatory on southern states, particularly South Carolina and the Gulf States; the North did not pay tariffs because of the items that had duties attached; the North manufactured those items – that’s why the tariff was a “protective” tariff… it protected the industries and products of the North !!!!)

Another benefit of characterizing the Constitution as a Social Compact is that if the compact is violated, the State, as a party, has the option to resume its powers. Actually, it has the option of resuming those powers even if there is no violation, but merely because the compact is frustrating its “happiness.” We know the States viewed the Constitution as a compact when they debated it in their ratifying conventions, because all used that term. And we know they believed they had the inherent right to resume the powers delegated because three states, Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island, explicitly included Resumption Clauses in their ratification decisions. They reserved the right to withdraw from the compact. Other states had less strongly-worded reservations, but no state would have ratified the Constitution if they believed that in doing so they would be surrendering their newly-won independence.

When New York delegates met on July 26, 1788, their ratification document read, “That the Powers of Government may be resumed by the People, whensoever it shall become necessary to their Happiness; that every Power, Jurisdiction and right which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the government thereof, remains to the People of the several States, or to their respective State Governments to whom they may have granted the same.”

On May 29, 1790, the Rhode Island delegates made a similar claim in their ratification document. “That the powers of government may be resumed by the people, whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness: That the rights of the States respectively to nominate and appoint all State Officers, and every other power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by the said constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States or to the departments of government thereof, remain to the people of the several states, or their respective State Governments to whom they may have granted the same.”

On June 26, 1788, Virginia’s elected delegates met to ratify the Constitution. In their ratification document, they said, “The People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will.”

The most extreme benefit of a Social Compact is the right of a State, as a party, to secede from the compact.

In adopting her “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” on December 24, 1860, the Palmetto State explained her right to do so based on the compact nature of the Constitution.

“The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act…….

The parties to whom this Constitution was submitted, were the several sovereign States; they were to agree or disagree, and when nine of them agreed the compact was to take effect among those concurring; and the General Government, as the common agent, was then invested with their authority.

If only nine of the thirteen States had concurred, the other four would have remained as they then were– separate, sovereign States, independent of any of the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, two of the States did not accede to the Constitution until long after it had gone into operation among the other eleven; and during that interval, they each exercised the functions of an independent nation.

By this Constitution, certain duties were imposed upon the several States, and the exercise of certain of their powers was restrained, which necessarily implied their continued existence as sovereign States. But to remove all doubt, an amendment was added, which declared that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people. On the 23d May , 1788, South Carolina, by a Convention of her People, passed an Ordinance assenting to this Constitution, and afterwards altered her own Constitution, to conform herself to the obligations she had undertaken.

Thus was established, by compact between the States, a Government with definite objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people, and rendered unnecessary any specification of reserved rights.

We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: ‘No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.’

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”    [For the full Declaration, go to: ]

Note that South Carolina’s real issue with the federal government was the tariff issue; it was the immediate issue. Lincoln promised to support a new protective tariff (which Buchanan has just signed it in his waning days) which would elevate the tariff to its highest levels ever. But legally, the federal government has the authority under the Constitution to erect such tariffs. South Carolina agreed to that authority in adopting the document and joining the Union. It very well could not try to make a legal argument for secession based on its opposition to the high discriminatory tariff. But the slavery issue is a constitutional issue. And it represented an actual, palpable breach of the compact which would justify its withdrawal from the union.

In adopting the Constitution, the states understood that they would be free to leave the Union, as situations dictated. After all, they left the Union established by the Articles of Confederation to establish a new Union under the Constitution. But that Union was different and only those states that adopted would be members of that new Union and bound by the Constitution. Article VII states that 9 states needed to ratify the Constitution in order for it to go into effect.

So, to recap, the particular benefits of a Social Compact lie in the remedies it provides the parties should the compact be violated, or breached. The consequences for a breach of the compact are simple: If a State breaches, the others, acting alone, can decide whether to consider the compact broken which then would allow it to be relieved of its obligations (ie, the State would no longer be bound by the Constitution). If the federal government attempts to assume powers not delegated to it, the States have a right, even an obligation, to identify that unconstitutional act and prevent its enforcement.

And an extreme remedy is always available – the right of rescission. Rescission is the right of one of the parties to rescind or cancel the contract for cause. It is the right of a party, if there are many parties, to withdraw from the agreement. This is the remedy of secession. The abrogation, or cancellation of a contract, or withdrawal or secession from a compact, is a remedy designed to restore the parties to the positions they would have been in if no contract or compact had ever been formed. As explained above, once a State decides to secede, it resumes all the powers it had delegated away and resumes its natural station under the Laws of Nature. It is then free to establish a new form of government that suits is purposes. As to the remaining States, they are free to remain in the compact, which at that point would be a new Union. That Union is free to remain on the same terms and under the same conditions.

The Constitution was roundly understood and recognized as a Social Compact up until the years leading to the Civil War. Again, all our founding documents and primary documents explaining the Constitution and referring to it characterize it as a Social Compact. But something happened in the years when South Carolina started to become contentious with regards to the high protective tariffs. The protective tariffs had became a hallmark of the Whig Party platform and then the Republican Party platform. Leading Whig (House Speaker, then Senator) Henry Clay initiated a new government plan to help businesses. It was called the “American System” and included protective tariffs and internal improvements. The money raised by high protective tariffs would be used not only to fund the government (about 1/3 of the revenue), but it would also go to the North, for internal improvements to further industrialize those states. In other words, the protective tariffs, according to the South (and particularly South Carolina, led by Senator John C. Calhoun), were nothing more than a government scheme to plunder the wealth of the South and transfer it to the North for its benefit. When the government realized that South Carolina was not playing along smoothly, was bucking the system, and was threatening to even leave the Union over the tariff situation (perhaps other Southern States would follow suit), and they had just causes under compact theory, suddenly the notion of the Constitution as a Social Compact became a liability. All of a sudden, political leaders began asserting that the Constitution was not a Social Compact, including Senator Daniel Webster and then Abraham Lincoln himself. Lincoln came up with a new theory of the Constitution – based on a treatise on the Constitution, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, written in 1833 by then Supreme Court associate Justice Joseph Story. He would classify the Constitution as establishing a “perpetual Union” that the States had fully intended to create. [It should be noted that Story’s treatise was highly criticized by leading constitutional experts of the day – including Henry St. George Tucker, Sr., John Randolph Tucker, Abel Parker Upshur, James Kent, and John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was revered as an expert on the Constitution and perhaps even more “Jeffersonian” than Jefferson himself.] In 1833, after spending almost all of his life referring to the Constitution as a compact, leading politician and powerful orator (a “thundering” orator), Senator Webster took to the Senate floor and delivered a speech expressly denouncing the Constitution as a compact. [That speech, by the way, was given in response to the Resolutions introduced on Jan. 22 by Senator John Calhoun (shared earlier) to explain why South Carolina nullified the federal tariff].

It should be noted that years earlier, Senator Webster’s position was quite different: “But, sir, there is a compact, and no man pretends that the generation of today is not bound by the compacts of the fathers. A bargain broken on one side is a bargain broken on all; and the compact is binding upon the generation of today only if the other parties to the compact have kept their faith.” Works of Daniel Webster

If the Constitution is not characterized as a Social Compact, in total disregard of history and ignoring all of our historic documents, then we do not have the relationship between the government and the States, and the government and the People, as the States and our Founders intended. Liberty would not be safe. If is not a Social Compact, then the government is just one more group of people living in this broad general geographical territory. If we reject the status of the Constitution as a Social Compact, as liberals and progressives would like (because they favor a strong central government with plenary powers), then we must get used to the permanent notion that the federal government as the creature is more powerful than its creators. The powers “reserved to the States” would be usurped whenever the government deems it beneficial to do so. The powers surrendered to it by the States and by the People could not be resumed by them and the government would have total control over any object and over any individual or group it wishes. It would effectively mean the end to federalism – the only option left to limit the federal government. It would leave the States at the mercy of the intentions of DC politicians. The government would have a total monopoly over the meaning and scope of its powers (sorta like the monopoly it has now!) and our rights and the States’ rights would be exercised only at the good graces and designs of the federal government.

Lastly, if the Constitution is not characterized as a Social Compact, then the States do not have the remedies articulated earlier. Then the States truly have no option to secede and Lincoln’s Union will have become a reality – one that is perpetual. It will be perpetual because the government now has the right to seek its own longevity; under Compact theory, government only exists as long as it rightfully protects the rights of the individuals and serves them well.

II. DEFINITION & ORIGIN of the SOCIAL COMPACT (This section comes from: Martin Kelly, “The Social Compact,” ThoughtCo.)

The term “social contract” refers to the belief that the state exists only to serve the will of the people, who are the source of all political power enjoyed by the state. The people can choose to give or withhold this power. The idea of the social contract is one of the foundations of the American political system.

The term “social contract” can be found as far back as the writings of Plato. However, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes expanded on the idea when he wrote his classic, Leviathan, which was his philosophical response to the English Civil War. In the book, he wrote that in the earliest days there was no government. Instead, those who were the strongest could take control and use their power over others at any time. Hobbes’ theory was that the people mutually agreed to create a state, giving it only enough power to provide protection of their well-being. However, in Hobbes’ theory, once the power was given to the state, the people then relinquished any right to that power. In effect, that would be the price of the protection they sought.

Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke each took the social contract theory one step further. Rousseau wrote The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, in which he explained that the government is based on the idea of popular sovereignty. The essence of this idea is that the will of the people as a whole gives power and direction to the state. John Locke also based his political writings on the idea of the social contract. He stressed the role of the individual and the idea that in the ‘State of Nature,’ people are essentially free. However, they might decide to form a government to punish other individuals who go against the laws of nature and harm others.

It follows that if this government no longer protected each individual’s right to life, liberty, and property, then revolution was not just a right but an obligation.

The idea of the social contract had a huge impact on the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The U.S. Constitution itself starts with the three words, “We the people…” embodying this idea of popular sovereignty in the very beginning of this key document. Thus, government that is established by the free choice of its people is required to serve the people, who in the end have sovereignty, or supreme power to keep or get rid of that government.

III. THE SOCIAL COMPACT and CONSTITUTION REPUBLICS (This section comes entirely from the Constitution Society, 2007)

Between 1787 and 1791 the Framers of the U.S. Constitution established a system of government upon principles that had been discussed and partially implemented in many countries over the course of several centuries, but never before in such a pure and complete design, which we call a constitutional republic. Since then, the design has often been imitated, but important principles have often been ignored in those imitations, with the result that their governments fall short of being true republics or truly constitutional. Although these principles are discussed in civics books, the treatment of them there is often less than satisfactory. This section will attempt to remedy some of the deficiencies of those treatments.

The Social Contract and Government –

The fundamental basis for government and law in this system is the concept of the social contract, according to which human beings begin as individuals in a state of nature, and create a society by establishing a contract whereby they agree to live together in harmony for their mutual benefit, after which they are said to live in a state of society. This contract involves the retaining of certain natural rights, an acceptance of restrictions of certain liberties, the assumption of certain duties, and the pooling of certain powers to be exercised collectively.

The social contract is very simple. It has only two basic terms: (1) mutual defense of rights; and (2) mutual decision by deliberative assembly. There are no agents, no officials, that persist from one deliberative assembly to another. The duties of the social contract are militia. There may be customs that persist from assembly to assembly, such as customs for due notice, parliamentary procedure, judicial due process, and enforcement of court orders by militia. This second term could be called the constitution of society, but it precedes a constitution of government and should not be confused with it.

There is also a constitution of nature that precedes both the constitution of society and the constitution of government. It is also convenient to speak of a constitution of the dominion that follows the constitution of society and precedes the constitution of government. It arises after a society is created (by adopting the social contract), and after it acquires exclusive dominion over a well-defined territory. That is when we get things like a right to remain at and to return to one’s birthplace, which makes no sense for a society with no territory (such as nomads).

A constitution of government, such as the Constitution of 1787, is the next step in the development. It is to establish institutions, offices, procedures, duties, and structures that persist from one assembly to another that are not just customs. It is at that point that we begin to get things like laws, and paid agents and officials, whose jobs continue beyond transient assemblies. We also get taxes, standing armies, and professional law enforcers. Such pooled powers are generally exercised by delegating them to some members of the society to act as agents for the members of the society as a whole, and to do so within a framework of structure and procedures that is a government. No such government may exercise any powers not thus delegated to it, or do so in a way that is not consistent with established structures or procedures defined by a basic law which is called the constitution.

While it is possible in principle for such a constitution to consist entirely of a body of unwritten practices, traditions, court decisions, and long-established statutes, in practice no such basic order can be considered secure against confusion or corruption if it is not primarily based on a written document, which prescribes the structure, procedures, and delegated powers of government, and the retained rights of the people, and which is strictly interpreted according to the original intent of the framers.

Although in principle the procedures may allow for the direct adoption of legislation by vote of the people, this is both impractical and potentially dangerous, especially to the rights of minorities, so that it is generally best that most legislation require approval at some point in the legislative process by a deliberative assembly, a body of elected representatives rather than by direct popular vote, and that any such legislation be subject to judicial review, whereby legislation not consistent with the constitution can be voided. Such a form of government is called a republic, as distinct from a democracy, in which all legislation is adopted solely by direct popular vote. And if it operates under a well-designed constitution, it is a constitutional republic.

It is important that the deliberative assembly fairly represent all the competing interests of the people, so that the concerns of minorities can be weighed and not ignored. But fair representation is insufficient if deliberation is not effective in analyzing and anticipating all the consequences of any decisions that might be made. The consent of the majority should be necessary for action, but that consent should never be sufficient for action.

Origins of the Social Contract –

Critics of social contract theory argue that almost all persons grow up within an existing society, and therefore never have the choice of whether to enter into a social contract. Not having a choice, they say, makes any such contract void.

The original proponents of the social contract theory, John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, answered these critics, but not in a way that is entirely satisfactory. To understand how the social contract comes about, we need to look at the kinds of contract that prevail during each stage in the development of a human being in society.

Each of us begins life under the terms of a special kind of social contract called a filial contract, between a child and his parents, and by extension to his siblings. That contract is established at the moment of bonding between parents and child following birth, and the terms of the contract are that the child will provide the parents certain pleasures that come with parenthood, particularly the satisfaction of helping to form a happy and admirable adult, and support for the parents in their later years, and in turn receives their love, support, guidance, and protection during childhood.

Although a filial contract can exist in a family that is isolated from any larger society, when the parents join a society, they pool their rights and duties as parents with other members of that society, and thereby become agents of the larger society in the raising of their own children, and accountable to that larger society for doing so properly.

As a child grows, it encounters other members of the larger society, usually beginning with other children. Whenever any two or more individuals meet with the understanding and expectation that they will live together in harmony and not fight with one another using any available means, they are establishing a social contract among themselves. In most cases they will be contracting with persons who have already established such a contract with still other persons, so that the terms of the contract are not only to live in harmony with those in direct contact, but also with all those with whom each of the parties is already engaged in a social contract, and by extension, to all others that those are in a social contract with, and so on. In other words, the social contract is transitive: if a is in a social contract with b, and b with c, then a is in a social contract with c. In this way each of us is bound under a social contract with all the other members of the society, most of whom we have never met.

As a person makes the transition from childhood to adulthood, his obligations change to match his abilities, and the filial contract gives way to the larger social contract and obligations to larger communities at the local, provincial, national, and global levels.

Of course, the social contracts of several societies may not extend to one another, giving rise to tribes or nations, whose members are bound by social contract within their membership, but are in a state of nature with respect to one another. If that state of nature involves active conflict, whether at the individual, tribal, or national level, it is said to be a state of war.

Breaches of the Social Contract —

Although the situation of there never having been a social contract is a fairly simple one, the situation of either deceiving another into thinking there is a social contract between them, or of entering into a social contract and then violating its terms, can be much more complicated, and much of law and government is concerned with dealing with such situations.

In his treatment of the subject, Locke tended to emphasize those violations of the social contract that are so serious that the social contract is entirely broken and the parties enter a state of war in which anything is permitted, including killing the violator. Today we would tend to place violations on a scale of seriousness, only the most extreme of which would permit killing. Some would even go so far as to exclude killing for any transgression, no matter how serious, but that extreme view is both unacceptable to most normal persons and subversive of the social contract itself, which ultimately depends not on mutual understanding and good will, but on a balanced distribution of physical power and the willingness to use it. Sustaining the social contract therefore depends in large part on so ordering the constitution and laws as to avoid unbalanced or excessive concentrations of power, whether in the public or the private sector.

Checks and Balances –

The framers of the U.S. Constitution addressed the problem of avoiding unbalanced or excessive concentrations of power in government by adopting a constitution in which legislative, executive, and judicial powers are largely divided among separate branches, with each having some power to check the abuses of the others. Legislative powers were further divided between two legislative bodies. Some powers were delegated to the central national government, which others were reserved to the component states or the people.

Around the end of the 19th century, however, it became increasingly apparent that excessive and unbalanced concentrations of power in the private sector could subvert the system of checks and balances in government, and the first anti-trust laws were passed to try to provide a check on those undue influences. Unfortunately, such legislation has not been entirely effective, and we now face a situation in which to an intolerable degree the real powers of government are being exercised not by constitutional bodies but by secret cabals based in the private sector but extending throughout government, cabals which are increasingly coherent and increasingly abusive of the rights of the people, including the right to have government be accountable to them and not to a power elite. The continued constitutional development of this society will therefore require the development of a new, more sophisticated system of checks and balances that extends throughout the private sector as well as the public and does not entirely rely on market forces.

Much of the abuse that has developed arises from the assumption by the national or central government of powers not delegated to it under the Constitution, and the erosion of the powers of the States with respect to that central government. Some of those powers are arguably best exercised by the central government, but without constitutional authority even the exercise of reasonable powers becomes an abuse and leads to an escalating cycle of abuses as more and more people resist such intrusions, creating a crisis of legitimacy not only for those unconstitutional activities but for the constitutional ones as well. If government is to be brought into compliance with the Constitution, then there will have to be a carefully planned program of repealing or overturning unconstitutional legislation and official acts, combined with a number of amendments that will provide the needed authority for legislation and acts which are best exercised by the central government, and the re- enactment of legislation based on such amendments. That will leave a difficult problem of dealing with all those actions conducted without constitutional authority before the amendments are adopted. Making the amendments retroactive is not permissible under constitutional principles, which exclude not only ex post facto laws but ex post facto amendments as well.

Of Rights Natural and Constitutional –

Under the theory of the social contract, those rights which the individual brings with him upon entering the social contract are natural, and those which arise out of the social contract are contractual. Those contractual rights arising out of the constitution are constitutional rights. However, natural rights are also constitutional rights.

The fundamental natural rights are life, liberty, and property. However, it is necessary to be somewhat more specific as to what these rights include. Therefore, constitution framers usually expand them into such rights as the right of speech and publication, the right to assemble peaceably, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to travel over public roadways, and so forth. The exercise of such natural rights may be restricted to the extent that they come into conflict with the exercise of the natural rights of other members of society, but only to the minimum degree needed to resolve such conflict.

Such natural rights are inalienable, meaning that a person cannot delegate them or give them away, even if he wants to do so. That means that no constitutional provision which delegated to government at any level the power to take away such rights would be valid, even if adopted as an amendment through a proper amendment process. Such rights apply to all levels of government, federal, state, or local. Their enumeration in the constitution does not establish them, it only recognizes them. Although they are restrictions on the power of government, the repeal of the provisions recognizing them would not remove the restrictions or allow the delegation of any power to deny them. The people do not have that power, and therefore cannot delegate it to government.

Yet constitutions recognize the power to deprive persons of their rights under due process of law. Strictly speaking, a person may not be deprived of such rights in the sense of taking them away. Natural rights are never lost. Their exercise can, however, be restricted or, to use the proper legal term, disabled. While some might question the practical distinction between losing a right and having it disabled, that distinction is important. A right which is disabled under due process may also be re- enabled by the removal of that disability, and the disability is removed if the social contract is broken and persons return to the state of nature.

Due process is not defined in the written U.S. Constitution, which points out the fact that the constitution consists not only of the written document itself, but the body of court precedents, legal definitions and traditions, and prevailing civic processes as of the date the written document was ratified, which is called pre-ratification Common Law. It also includes the commentaries and records of the debates of the framers and ratifiers insofar as they provide guidance on how to interpret the provisions of the written document. The constitution is further expanded to include the body of court precedents since ratification which interpret its provisions, called post-ratification common law, but only insofar as those court precedents are consistent with the written document, pre-ratification Common Law, and the original intent of its framers and ratifiers.

Certain rights, therefore, such as the rights of due process and the right to vote, are contractual. They have no meaning in a state of nature, only within the context of a civil society. And they are defined within Common Law rather than in the written Constitution.

Due process requires, among other things, that any disablement of a right be done only by a court of competent jurisdiction in response to a petition to do so, and after arguments and evidence are heard from all sides to support or refute the granting of such petition. The only rights which may be disabled by statute and without a specific court proceeding are the rights of majority, or adulthood. Common Law recognizes that persons are born with disabilities of minority, and constitutions and laws typically define some age at which those disabilities are removed, such as age 18 in the United States for purposes of voting, although it may allow for such disabilities to be removed earlier, or retained past the usual age of majority, upon petition to do so. Due process therefore requires that each and every right which is to be disabled be argued separately on its merits, and the ruling or sentence of the court explicitly disable each such right.

This requirement therefore comes into conflict with legislation which prescribes the disablement of certain rights for persons convicted of certain types of crimes, such as the right to vote or to keep and bear arms, without that disablement being made an explicit part of the sentence or the sentencing hearing. Such legislation must be considered unconstitutional, for even though there may be due process in the case which results in the explicit disablement of the rights to certain liberties or properties, those disablements are openly stated and argued, and the statutory inclusion of other disablements that are not made explicit or separately argued is a denial of due process.

Duties under the Social Contract –

While a constitution prescribes the legal rights of individuals and the powers of government, the social contract also includes certain duties which members assume upon entry. Those duties include the duty to avoid infringing on the rights of other members, to obey just laws, to comply with and help enforce just contracts, to serve on juries, and to defend the community.

It is important to recognize that although individuals have a right of self-defense in the state of nature, when they enter into society under the social contract, the pooling of that right transforms it into a duty to defend the community, and therefore to risk or sacrifice one’s life, liberty, or property if such defense should require it. The right of self-defense is no longer supreme, although it survives the transition to society as a duty to defend oneself as part of the community. Pacifism in the face of mortal danger to oneself or others is therefore not consistent with the social contract, and persons who insist on that position must be considered not to be members of society or entitled to its benefits, and if they live in the same country, have the status of resident aliens.

This duty implies not only individual action to defend the community, but the duty to do so in concert with others as an organized and trained militia. Since public officials may themselves pose a threat to the community, such militias may be subject to call-up by officials, but may not be subject to their control except insofar as they are acting in accordance with the constitution and laws pursuant thereto, and in defense of the community. Since any official designated to call up the militia may be an enemy of the constitution and laws, and may fail to issue a call-up when appropriate, militias must remain able to be called up by any credible person and independent of official control.

Another important duty is jury duty. Since officials may be corrupt or abusive or their power, grand jurors have the duty not only to bring an indictment upon evidence presented to it by a prosecutor, but to conduct their own investigations and if necessary, to appoint their own prosecutors to conduct a trial on the evidence. Petit jurors have the duty to not only follow the instructions of the judge to bring a verdict on the “facts” in a case, but to rule on all issues before the court, overriding the judge if necessary. No matter how despicable an accused defendant might be or how heinous his acts, they have the duty to find that accused not guilty if the court lacks jurisdiction, if the rights of the accused were seriously violated in the course of the investigation or trial, or if the law under which the accused is charged is misapplied to the case or is unconstitutional; and to find the law unconstitutional if it is in violation of the constitutional rights of the accused, if it is not based on any power delegated to the government, if it is unequally enforced, or if it is so vague that honest persons could disagree on how to obey or enforce it. Since most jury instructions now discourage petit juries from exercising that duty, almost all convictions brought by such juries in which there was an issue in law must be considered invalid, due to jury tampering by the court.

Governmental Powers and Duties –

Some critics of social contract theory argue that there are some powers of government that are not derived from powers of the people or delegated to the government by them. However, a careful analysis will show that all powers exercised by government derive either from the people as a whole, or from some subset of the people, or from one person, and that only the first are legitimate. The power to tax? Persons in the state of nature have the power to tax themselves, although they would not ordinarily think of it that way.

Most written constitutions prescribe the powers delegated to government, but are not always explicit about the duties. It is implied that the government has the duty to exercise its powers wisely and pursuant to the purposes of the social contract. But some persons argue that the power to act is also the power not to act. Could the government choose not to exercise its power to conduct elections, or to defend the country, or to maintain a sound currency, or to organize and train the militias of each state? No. Except in case of emergency, and only for the duration of the emergency, government must exercise the powers delegated to it according to their purposes to the best of its ability. That is its duty. Just as it is the duty of every member of society to exercise his or her powers in service of the community.

References: Ernest Barker, ed., Social Contract, Oxford U. Press, London, 1960. Contains the essays: John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government; David Hume, Of the Original Contract; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract.

James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention. The definitive record of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, The Federalist.

Bernard Schwartz, The Roots of the Bill of Rights, Chelsea House, New York, 1980.

Leonard W. Levy, Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution, 1988, Macmillan, New York. Scholar examines “original intent” doctrine and its alternatives.

Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed, 1984, Independent Institute, 134 98th Av, Oakland, CA 94603.

Clarence Streit, Atlantic Union Now, 1962, Freedom & Union Press, Washington, DC.

**** The Constitution Society gives its permission for this last section (“The Social Compact & Constitutional Republics”) to be copied with attribution for noncommercial purposes.

This post includes a compilation of two previous works:
I. My original composition

II. The Intro about Social Compact: Martin Kelly, “The Social Compact,” ThoughtCo., June 26, 2017. Referenced at:

III. “The Social Compact & Constitutional Republics,” 2007 Constitution Society.

Other Resource: “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” (The Avalon Project; Yale Law School) —


About forloveofgodandcountry

I'm originally from New Jersey where I spent most of my life. I now live in North Carolina with my husband and 4 children. I'm an attorney
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