Sunday, February 07, 2010

The United States Has A Constitution That Has Served Us Well- Let's Keep It

We could be on the road to losing our sovereignty just as the Europeans have when the European Union was created. With Obama, an internationalist at heart, we should all educate ourselves about this critical issue and ask ourselves do we want to remain Americans? Or do we want to become one state in a supranational body? I know I want to remain an American living in the United States of America, a sovereign nation beholden and bowing to none. Read Jeremy Rabkin's "The Constitution and American Sovereignty" in Hillsdale College's IMPRIMIS published in the July/August 2009 issue.

“WOULD WE be far wrong,” President Lincoln asked in a special message to Congress in 1861, “if we defined [sovereignty] as a political community without a political superior?” Maybe that’s not exhaustive, but it comes on good authority. And notice that for Lincoln, sovereignty is a political or legal concept. It’s not about power. Lincoln didn’t say that the sovereign is the one with the most troops. He was making a point about rightful authority.

By contrast, sovereignty wasn’t an issue in the ancient world. Cicero notes that the ancient Romans had the same word for “stranger” as for “enemy.” In the ancient world, people didn’t interact with foreigners enough to think about their relation to them except insofar as it meant war. Nor was sovereignty an issue in medieval Europe, since the defining character of that period was overlapping authority and a lot of confusion about which authority had primary claims. No one had to think about defining national boundaries. This became an issue only in the modern era, when interaction between different peoples increased.

The first important writer to address sovereignty was Jean Bodin, a French jurist of the late 16th century. In his work, Six Books of the Republic, Bodin set out an understanding of sovereignty whereby the King of France represented an independent political authority rather than owing allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor or to the Pope. In the course of developing this argument, Bodin also advocated religious toleration and insisted that a monarch can neither seize property except by law nor raise taxes except by the consent of a representative body. He was in favor of free trade, and he insisted on the monarch’s general obligation to respect the law of nature and the law of God. His main practical point was that the government must be strong enough to protect the people’s rights, yet restrained enough not to do more than that. Subsequently, I might add, Bodin wrote a book about witchcraft—which he very much opposed. Witches are people who think they can make an end run around the laws of nature and of God using magical spells, and Bodin saw them as a menace.

It was not until the 17th century that the word “sovereignty” became common. This was also when people first came to think of representative assemblies as legislatures. Indeed, the word “legislature” is itself a 17th century term reflecting the modern emphasis on law as an act of governing will rather than impersonal custom. It is therefore related to the modern notion of government by consent. Significantly, it was also in this same era that professional armies came into being. Before the 17th century, for instance, there was no such thing as standard military uniforms. Uniforms indicate that soldiers have a distinct status and serve distinct governments. They reflect a kind of seriousness about defense.

The 17th century is also the period when people began thinking in a systematic way about what we now call international law or the law of nations—a law governing the relation of sovereign nations. The American Declaration of Independence refers to such a law in its first sentence: “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 . . . .” The Declaration assumes here that nations have rights, just as individuals do.

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