by Diane Rufino, February 20, 2019
On September 3, 1783, representatives from the American states, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, and a representative of King George III signed the Treaty of Paris to officially end the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain. The first Article of that Treaty acknowledged:
“His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free SOVEREIGN and Independent States; that he treats with them as such, and for himself his Heirs & Successors, relinquishes all claims to the Government, Propriety, and Territorial Rights of the same and every Part thereof.”
In the Declaration of Independence, the document that preceded the Treaty, the document which “proclaimed to a candid world” that the States were separating themselves from the political bonds with Great Britain (seceding from the British Empire) and declaring themselves independent, our Founders articulated the government theory that justified their act of secession and their independence. It was premised on the doctrine of INDIVIDUAL SOVEREIGNTY. This doctrine was articled by these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness……… it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security….”
In other words, the individual was born to be free and meant to live free. He has rights so foundational, so fundamental, so integral to his humanity, that they can never ever be taken away from him, or violated or burdened by government. In fact, as the Declaration says, governments are instituted for the primary purpose of securing the rights of the individual (while also establishing a peaceful ordered society for individuals to so enjoy their freedom). The people would always be greater than government. Governments would always be subordinate to the will of the people. The rights of the individual would always be the priority in the American States. Governments would always be considered “temporary,” to exist at the will of the people and only to the extent that it protects their rights, keeps them safe, and extends their happiness. Government would never have any right or power to pursue or secure its own permanent existence. (Too bad Abraham Lincoln didn’t understand this founding principle; over 650.,000 lives could have been spared)
The first constitution of the “united States,” establishing the first union, was the Articles of Confederation. Article II of that document declared that “Each state retains its SOVEREIGHTY, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” This provision would be the historical precursor to our Tenth Amendment.
The Tenth Amendment essentially states the very same thing; it just doesn’t include the phrase “each state retains its sovereignty.” But that fact is certainly implied. Government powers reside with a sovereign state or entity.
This union, as we all know, was dissolved when each state convened a state convention to consider the ratification of the US Constitution of 1787 and therefore to form “a more perfect union.” In other words, each state, as the Declaration described for the course of action with respect to Great Britain, “dissolved the political bonds” holding it together with other states. Several states had issues with the new Constitution, skeptical of the new government so formed and the powers it was delegated, and so their ratifications were “conditioned” on several things: on amendments, on a Bill of Rights, and even on the fidelity of the government (its ability to remain limited). Four states that stand out in particular are New York, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. The first to ratify conditionally was Massachusetts. The state wanted a Bill of Rights to be included (it reserved the right to consider its ratification null and void should one not have been added). The first three states, however, took their conditioned stance more forcefully; they included “Resumption Clauses” in their ratification documents. That is, they reserved the right, as SOVEREIGN states, to resume all the powers they had delegated in the Constitution.
Virginia included this provision in its ratification: “Do in the name and in behalf of 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.”
New York included this provision: ““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……”
And Rhode Island included this provision: “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……..”
Why did these states reserve the right to resume the (limited) government powers that were delegated by the Constitution to the new common government? Because they were SOVEREIGNS with inherent rights to rule.
So what does this word “Sovereign” mean? What is “Sovereignty”? Many people don’t exactly know what the these terms mean and their significance.
Sovereignty is inextricably linked to the supreme right to govern and the supreme power to govern.
Government in the United States requires the understanding of three terms: Self-government, sovereignty, and social compact.
Sovereignty is the power to rule; to make laws and to govern; a sovereign is a country, government, or entity that has supreme power or authority. The individual is a sovereign. It is a self-evident truth that individuals are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “Unalienable” or “inalienable” means “incapable of being taken away.” Just as individuals, as sovereigns, have certain inalienable rights, other sovereigns (such as countries, governments, entities) have rights that can never be divested or taken away. That is what New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island articulated and re-asserted in their Resumption Clauses.
Individual Sovereignty is the inherent and independent right to do all that is necessary to govern oneself. In the United States, the People are sovereign. In fact, only the individual is truly sovereign, because only the people, and not government, have inherent rights to life, liberty, and property, along with the right to protect and preserve it.
Governments govern people, and without people, there would be no need for government. In other words, the sovereign individual precedes government. Government has to get its powers (its authority to make law and to enforce laws) from somewhere and it’s the people who assign it those powers. They delegate the rights they themselves originally were vested with to govern themselves and their property to the government; dominion (jurisdiction) and power originate from the individual.
In the United States, we enjoy self-government, or at least, we used to. Increasingly government has taken it upon itself (at the federal, state, and local level) to tell us what we can and can’t do. When our country was founded, the people were trusted with self-government; they were, for the most part, moral and upstanding people who valued family and decency. They worked, provided for themselves, raised their families right, and therefore required minimal laws to constrain their conduct. But we all know what happened to the fabric of society and the character of too many people in our country; and so, more and more laws were required.
But let’s get back to government and the government philosophy on which our country was founded. Government power originates from the people, for the people – “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The Declaration of Independence tells us this. Government arises out of social compact. John Locke tells us this, and being that our Declaration was written with Locke’s philosophy in mind, our Declaration also tells us this. The federal government was established by the social compact known as the US Constitution. The federal government is its “creation” – an agent to serve the states. State governments are established by the compacts that are the state governments.
John Locke’s philosophy of government is based on nature and natural law (Natural Law is referenced in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence). Each person is an individual, of course. God created each of us with rights in our personhood; he didn’t create us with “collective rights.” Those would be “civil rights.” Long ago, human beings migrated around, to find land to farm, to provide food for themselves, to herd their animals, to provide shelter, to be near a ready food source, etc. They existed, pretty much, as individuals. But then as they populated, more and more individuals came to occupy the same area. And that was OK because man is a social creature.
Because man is a social creature, he forms together into communities. And in order that communities run smoothly and common services be provided to protect everyone’s rights and property, governments are instituted. And so, individuals delegate some of their sovereign power of self-defense and self-preservation to a government. That is why the bulk of government is always supposed to be closest to the individual, where it is most responsible and most accountable. Our rights and liberties are most protected when people have the frequent opportunity to see their elected officials and look them in the eye, and when those officials see a personal story behind acts of legislation, etc.
This is exactly what our Declaration of Independence tells us about our individual sovereignty. In the first paragraph, we are told that our sovereignty is based on Natural Law and God’s Law – “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.” The only rightful power our government has is the power that the People – by the consent of the governed and according to the precise language and intent of our Constitution – have temporarily delegated to it. In that grant of power, in a system based on the Sovereignty of the Individual, there is always a mechanism to take that power back. That is why the Declaration explicitly states that the People have the right to “alter or abolish” their government (when it becomes destructive of its aims). In fact, that right is so important and so fundamental, it is listed with the other inherent rights that individuals possess. In other words, what the Declaration is saying is that the People of the “united States” have the right to reclaim the sovereign power that they temporarily delegated to that government to govern and protect their liberties.
Again, this is because our system was premised on the Sovereignty of the Individual.
When government exceeds its powers, it takes powers away from other sovereigns that hold those powers – which are the States and the People (recognized or re-stated in the Tenth and Ninth Amendments, respectively). Abuse of power is necessarily a usurpation of the rights of others. When government exceeds its powers, we are told that our only right is at the ballot box. This would indicate that the people are no longer recognized as sovereigns. When government exceeds its powers, states have been told they must comply or they are coerced into complying. This would indicate that states are no longer viewed as sovereigns. But nothing has changed constitutionally to warrant this change in outlook or in government philosophy. The Declaration tells us, and sovereignty dictates, that individuals always have the right to resume their inherent rights and powers to govern. This, in plain terms, means that individuals always have the inherent right to secede (or abolish their bonds with government, including abolishing government completely) or to refuse to comply with an illegitimate, immoral, or arbitrary law (as Rosa Parks did). Similarly, states have the inherent right to resume their powers to govern within their borders and over their jurisdiction. That resumption can take several forms, including secession (permanent, perhaps even violent), or nullification (peaceful; exercising the right not to recognize or enforce actions of the federal government that are in abuse of its powers).
Nullification and Secession are two rightful and reserved remedies reserved to the parties under compact theory.
If individuals or states no longer have a mechanism to take it back, then they are no longer sovereigns. If the government tells We the People that we don’t have the right, or the power, to “alter or abolish” our government for abuse or tyranny, then we have already lost our freedom and our system of government is no longer based on the sovereignty of the individual. If the States are told that they no longer have a recognized right of secession, then they are nothing more than geographical boundaries in one consolidated land, under the dominion and subjugation of the federal government.
Without the sovereignty that our country was founded on, the unique character of our government system – the premise that our rights come from God and that government is obligated to secure them, and that because we are such sovereigns, we can “alter and abolish” our government – becomes now merely a myth; it’s folklore…. “There once was a time……” The fact is that government has taken over; IT has become the supreme sovereign. It has become so powerful that it has extinguished the sovereignty of the People and the States, or at least has whittled the reserved powers of the State down to nothing (token sovereignty). We, in the United States, now enjoy our rights only to the extent that government allows us to. That’s the reality. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently threatened that Democrats will one day soon use the Emergency Powers Act to confiscate guns. And Senator Elizabeth Warren wants a near confiscatory income tax on the very wealthy. What the US Congress can’t, or won’t do, the federal courts will… and they do.
If sovereignty is stripped and if rights and powers are permitted only to the extent that government allows, how are we any different from any other country where government is supreme over the individual?
In 1868, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no right to secession. (Texas v. White). It concluded that when the Constitution was signed, a permanent, perpetual Union was created. (However, Justice Salmon Chase did acknowledge that secession might be permitted if ALL states decided together to dissolve the Constitution and the Union or if the people revolted… In other words, only if people are willing to lay down their lives might they be permitted to wrestle sovereign power from the government). In a letter he wrote in 2006, Justice Scalia also opined that there is no right of secession. And in 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that States have no right to try to remind the federal government of its constitutional limits and to prevent its encroachments upon the rights of the people through nullification efforts (Cooper v. Aaron).
So, next time you hear people profess the opinion that the Supreme Court has given the final word on efforts to reclaim sovereign power, ask yourself: “Does it have the authority to permanently deny sovereignty?” It does not. It doesn’t even have the authority to temporarily deny it. Sovereignty was not surrendered permanently in the creation of the US Constitution.
Nullification is an essential first step in reclaiming power that the federal government has unilaterally and inappropriately usurped from the states and from We the People. No one wants to exercise the right of secession. I’d like to think we would all prefer to remain in a harmonious relationship with our fellow states, if that can be possible.