True Source of Political Authority
“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This statement encapsulates the heart of the “American Experiment,” which was whether a people could govern themselves — even if it was through elected officials. It should be obvious that the success of this experiment depended on the moral character of the people. The more people exercise self–government, the less external civil government is needed. Without a self-governing people abiding by the Creator’s laws of nature, the experiment would fail. One founder, John Adams, summarized this view when he stated in 1798, “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The American republic’s philosophy of government was that the Creator, the source of all authority, gave people the authority to establish their own governments by which they would be governed for the purpose of securing their unalienable rights from the Creator. Our founders held the view that as the giver of human life, the Creator was the ultimate source of authority, but He gave people the liberty to govern themselves individually and corporately as they deemed best to maintain order and protect their right to fulfill their individual duties to the Creator.
No doubt this was a unprecedented approach to civil government, but because of the widespread moral and religious convictions of the people, it was the only acceptable way. Many settlers came to the “new world” for the purpose of having religious freedom and their understanding of true liberty (under law) gave rise to their quest for political freedom to govern themselves. Yet, this required faith in the ability of individuals to govern themselves and trust in their elected officials to abide by the parameters of government established by a covenant or constitution of the people being governed.
Without going into detail, the first colonial example of a self-governing compact or constitution was the Mayflower Compact (1620) when a group of English settlers, including religious Separatists, after being blown off course, found themselves in a region not yet settled and where there was no civil government. They were forced to decide how they would govern themselves as a civil body, including standards of conduct with consequences to maintain order. They covenanted “together into a civil body politic … to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws … as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” While modified as experience and circumstances dictated, this first self-governing constitution was a precedent for the actions taken later by the colonial representatives who signed Declaration of Independence, those who instituted state constitutions, and eventually the signers of the Constitution and its ratification by the people.
Thus, because a people have the liberty to choose the form of civil government that best secures their unalienable rights, the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.