When the founding fathers set up that government which derived its powers “from the consent of the governed,” they knew exactly what they’d been missing. As colonists they’d had their taxes and their foreign and domestic policies determined for them by a distant government in which they’d had no representation whatsoever. People who lived thousands of miles away made decisions for them without their input and without recourse to anything but eventual revolution and separation.
When the founding fathers conceived of the “consent of the governed,” they thought of the people as a whole, realizing that not every individual would or could approve of every act of government. Indeed, it is inconceivable to think of a government acting in such a way that each person in the nation agrees with each decision arrived at by their government. The reality is that even in a government wonderfully representative of its people, some decisions are made that some people will disagree with.
Was “consent of the governed” created with this problem in mind? Must government keep every citizen completely happy and in agreement with each law and regulation it promulgates?
Not according to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson envisioned the “consent of the governed” he wrote about not as individual consent, but as the consent of the people coming together to make their political decisions. Jefferson wrote “It must be acknowledged that the term ‘republic’ is of vague application in every language…Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens.” (To J. Taylor, 1816)
In another letter to F. von Humboldt in 1817, Jefferson called the first principle of republicanism the “majority law,” and considered a majority of one to be as binding upon the whole as an unanimous vote. “This law disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism.”
For Jefferson this was a simple equation. A government of minority interests supports its own self-interest and inevitably oppresses the majority. No government at all–anarchy–leads inevitably to evil forces organizing oppressive regimes. Only a government by and of the majority has the capability of preserving the individual’s rights.
The sacredness of a one-vote majority for Jefferson was based on his understanding of the contentious nature of humanity. “An association of men who will not quarrel with one another is a thing that never yet existed, from the greatest confederacy of nations down to a town meeting or a vestry.” (Letter to J. Taylor, 1798)
What then, of the rights of the minority? Jefferson was well aware that a majority rule could be oppressive if the equal rights of minorities were violated. In his first inaugural address, he said, “Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” (1801)
But Jefferson relied on a polticially active, fair-minded majority to insist that individual rights of those they disagreed with be respected, if for nothing else, through their own self-interest. No other mechanism, no government or piece of paper can protect those rights. Power inevitably leads to corruption, so the power to protect the people’s rights must be invested in the people themselves. It thus becomes each citizen’s responsibility to look after his or her own rights and the rights of his neighbors.
But what about an apathetic or ignorant citizenry? How do we overcome the people not acting in their interests, or acting in a way we think foolish? Jefferson had an answer to this, too: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” (Letter to W. Jarvis, 1820)
Perhaps nothing is more important to an understanding of individual self-determination than the phrase, “consent of the governed.” Individuals continually confront others with different experiences or prejudices at odd with their own. In such an environment, a community must make its political decisions according to the will of the majority. It is that majority which, fairly instituted, constitutes the guarantor of individuals rights and the consent of the governed.