The Problem of Sovereignty

Regarding the location of sovereignty in the American system of government, Jefferson Davis, in his postwar “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” stated: “If any lingering doubt could have existed as to the reservation of their entire sovereignty by the people of the respective States when they organized the federal Union, it would have been removed by the adoption of the tenth amendment to the Constitution, which was not only one of the amendments proposed by various States when ratifying that instrument, but the particular one in which they substantially agreed, and upon which they most urgently insisted.”

Bernhard Thuersam,


The Problem of Sovereignty

“The fundamental issue in the writing of the Articles of Confederation was the location of the ultimate political authority, the problem of sovereignty. Should it reside in Congress or the States?

Many conservatives in 1776-1777, as in 1787, believed that Congress should have a “superintending” power over both the States and their individual citizens. They had definite reasons for such a desire.

They feared mob action and democratic rule.

The radicals, on the other hand, were fighting centralization in their attack upon the British Empire and upon the colonial governing classes, whose interests were so closely interwoven with the imperial relationship. Furthermore, the interests of the radicals were essentially local.

To them union was merely a means to their end, the independence of the several States. Hence centralization was to be opposed. Finally, the democratic theory of the time was antagonistic to any government with pretensions toward widespread dominion. Theorists believed that democratic government was impossible except within very limited areas.

Thus the conflict between those who were essentially “nationalists” and those who were forerunners of the “States rights” school.

The real significance of this controversy was obscured during the nineteenth century by historians and politicians who sought to justify the demands of rising industrialism on the central government and the Northern attitude toward the South’s secession in 1860-61.

The Southern contention that the Union was a compact between sovereign States was opposed by the contention that the Union was older than the States. North historians insisted that the first Continental Congress was a sovereign body, and that it represented the people of the United States as a whole, not the people of the several States as represented in their State governments.

To prove their contentions the Northerners cited such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution of 1787 . . . [and italicizing] to place undue emphasis on the portions of the documents which seemed to prove their arguments.

This is essentially the technique of argument used by small boys and would be unworthy of consideration had it not been so effective in shaping certain ideas which have profoundly influenced the interpretation of American history.”

(The Articles of Confederation, an Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781, Merrill Jensen, University of Wisconsin Press, 1940, excerpts pp. 161-163)


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