Meet Charles Brooks: Charles E. Brooks is an associate professor in the Department of History and has been at Texas A&M since 1989. He received a Ph.D. from State University of New York at Buffalo. He specializes in popular constitutional history during the antebellum era (1789-1865) and is currently at work finishing a book about citizen soldiering in the American Civil War.
September 17 marks the beginning of Constitution Week. Every year on that day, we acknowledge the importance of the U.S. Constitution and comply with a law of Congress that requires any educational institution receiving federal funds to provide informational programs and activities related to the operation of constitutional government.
In our own time, as throughout American history, the Constitution is an object of contention between political parties which fight about progressive and original interpretations of it.
Today many ordinary Americans have lost faith in our major institutions, especially in government; they continue to admire the Constitution, however, even as they remain ignorant about its specifics and general principles. Just a few years ago a survey by the National Constitution Center showed that more Americans could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.
This sort of ignorance has subverted constitutional government in contemporary America, engendering distrust, apathy and a sense of powerlessness that has made the idea of popular sovereignty an empty fiction. The preamble of the Constitution reads: “We the people . . .” and the American system of constitutionalism holds that government is not sovereign, the people are.
James Madison once noted that “the authority of constitutions over governments, and of the authority of the sovereignty of the people over constitutions, are truths which are at all times necessary to be kept in mind.”
Past generations of Americans have possessed a more distinct understanding and appreciation of what popular sovereignty means and the civic responsibility it entails. Throughout the nineteenth century the word sovereign was routinely used to identify voters, citizens and other constituent members of the people, including women and African Americans, who could not cast a ballot on election day but could attend public meetings, sign petitions and send strongly worded protests to legislators.
Sam Houston referred to his constituents as “the sovereigns,” and Mark Twain used the phrase “a free-born sovereign” to describe what being “an American,” the good and the ugly of it, was all about.
A sense of the people as active sovereigns, a capacity that conferred the right to alter and abolish governments and made clear that the relation of citizen and public official was one of principal and agent animated the early American system of self-rule. The sovereign people were the bosses and elected officials the employees.
When aroused by an act of government that seemed contrary to the public interest, “the people” could turn out of office in a single election almost two thirds of the incumbent members of Congress, as they did in 1816.
Such a people were empowered to interpret and enforce the Constitution against selfish and arrogant leaders. In fact, a sense of the people as active sovereigns made possible the major achievements of early American history: the War of Independence, the creation of the American republic and ending the scourge of slavery.
I believe that the “citizen efficacy” of the early American republic has been lost due in part to ignorance of the fundamental principles of our constitutional system. Last year Harvard University Law School hosted a conference to consider the feasibility and wisdom of holding an Article V convention.
How many Americans are even aware that if two thirds of the state legislatures agree the sovereign people could assemble in the sort of convention that replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution in 1787-1788?
As we think about the Constitution this week, let us remember that if we the people are ever again to function as the active sovereigns the founding generations imagined we must think about the Constitution more than just one week out of every year.