Monday, November 28, 2016

Constitutions and Majorities

In my theory of government, the constitution is itself ultimate: for it is not the written instrument, but is the actual constitution or organization of the state. It is the sovereign, and, when wisely adapted to the real character of the country, the genius and pursuits of the people, it is always self-sufficing. But my Democratic friends who oppose me seem to me to regard the constitution merely as a written instrument drawn up by the people, and alterable at their pleasure, and, as some of them have contended in the case of Rhode Island, alterable at the pleasure of a bare majority ; and this bare majority coming together informally, and acting with out any regard to its provisions. If this be so, what restraint can the constitution impose on the will of the majority? A constitution that cannot govern the people as well as the individual, the city as well as the citizen, obviously is no restraint on the sovereign power; but, whatever its provisions, does in reality leave the sovereign power absolute, and therefore is, as I have said, as good as no constitution at all. The will of the people, not the constitution, nor the will of the people expressed only through the constitution, but the will of the people unorganized, independent of the constitution, is in this case the true sovereign, and therefore may at any time rightfully override the constitution itself. This is to bring us under absolute government, from which nothing but a constitution in the other sense, a constitution or organization of the body politic, can relieve us.

Orestes Brownson, "Popular Government", Democratic Review, May 1843.

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