Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Christian Fritz's "American Sovereigns"

Christian G. Fritz is Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, American Sovereigns: The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War, and reported the following:
While page 99 of American Sovereigns is important to the book’s narrative, it is not representative of the work’s central message. That page finds Fisher Ames, a crusty Boston lawyer, on the eve of the 1787 Federal Constitutional Convention, addressing the novel question that Americans struggled with after declaring independence: how could a collectivity – a people rather than a monarch – rule as the sovereign over a region larger and more diverse than Europe?

Ames lambasted those who believed that the people, after giving consent to a government, could by majority action speak clearly and with one voice on matters of state as well as national concerns, as might a monarch, the only other form of sovereignty familiar to Americans. For Ames, a written constitution bound the people to its provisions and limited their power to act. Ames’s words resonate with modern readers because his view is consistent with how American constitutionalism is understood today.

The “Traditional” Story

Based on page 99, a reader might fear another historical rehash drawing a straight line between early doubters of the people ruling as sovereign to our modern doctrine of rule by the constitution. And there’s the rub – the book finds no such straight line. Ames’ view was in the minority.

Page 99 is part of an examination of America’s early struggles to give life to the idea of a collective sovereign. It suggests that traditional accounts of American constitutional history, theory, and jurisprudence neglect how real the concept of the people ruling as the sovereign was for most Americans before the Civil War.

A Different Constitutional History

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars consider the sovereignty of the people a mere rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle.

The book demonstrates that most accounts of American history overlook the constitutional authority once imputed to the people as a collective sovereign. In disagreements after Independence involving taxes, court procedures, government reform, decisions to wage war, and the scope of dissent, Americans struggled to answer the question of how the people could act as the sovereign.

What’s Lost on Page 99

The book tells a forgotten story of how Americans and their leaders before the Civil War tried to plot a course between twin dangers of anarchy and tyranny as they struggled to answer how in America “the people” might rule.
Read an excerpt from American Sovereigns and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

Visit Christian G. Fritz's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue