December 3, 2010
The United States is a sovereign nation. Sovereignty is a simple idea: the United States is an independent nation, governed by the American people, that controls its own affairs. The American people adopted the Constitution and created the government. They elect their representatives and make their own laws.
The Founding Fathers understood that if America does not have sovereignty, it does not have independence. If a foreign power can tell America “what we shall do, and what we shall not do,” George Washington once wrote to Alexander Hamilton, “we have Independence yet to seek, and have contended hitherto for very little.”
The Founders believed in sovereignty. In 1776, they fought for it. But why does sovereignty still matter to America?
The Declaration of Independence tells us why sovereignty mattered to America’s Founders.
When America declared its independence in 1776, the Declaration described Americans as “one people” who had the right “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.”
With these words, the United States declared its sovereignty. It became a separate nation, entitled to all the rights of existing nations. It therefore claimed the “full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
But the existing nations of the world were mostly monarchies. The Founding Fathers had a different vision for America. The United States is legitimately sovereign not because of a monarch’s decree, but because, in America, the people rule.
The purpose of government is to secure the people’s rights. Legitimately sovereign governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, American sovereignty is justified by the inherent, God-given right of self-government.
The Declaration cataloged the ways in which King George III had infringed upon American liberties and denied the right of Americans to consent to the laws by which they were governed. Through his “repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny,” the King had treated the American colonists as mere subjects to be ruled.
In the Declaration, King George III’s offenses included:
Library of CongressIt is universally acknowledged that the enlarged prospect of happiness, opened by the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, almost exceeds the power of description.– George Washington
November 2, 1783
These acts infringed on the colonists’ ability to govern themselves. A people subject to foreign taxation, or to being transported across the seas to face criminal charges in a foreign land, are not truly independent. In the Declaration, the Founding Fathers gave notice that these infringements on American sovereignty would not stand.
But today, our sovereignty faces new threats. International organizations and courts seek to reshape the international system. Nations are to give up their sovereignty and be governed by a “global consensus.” Independent, sovereign nations will be replaced by “transnational” organizations that reject national sovereignty.
The demand that the United States bow to this “global consensus” does not respect American sovereignty. The offenses the Founders complained of in the Declaration of Independence now have an international flavor. This new project is filled with examples of institutions, courts, and “taxes” that violate the spirit of the Declaration:
This transnationalist vision also carries profound implications for U.S. national security. Many international leaders, and even some American legal scholars, believe that the United Nations Security Council—and not the American people, the President, or Congress—should have the final say on the legitimacy of the use of American military force.
International organizations seek to dictate fundamental aspects of Americans’ personal and professional lives. Committees whose members include egregious human rights violators such as Cuba, China, and Syria regularly admonish the U.S. to implement racial and gender quotas, and lecture American families on how to raise and educate their own children.
No peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle ...that no right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property.–Woodrow Wilson
January 22, 1917
The proper exercise of diplomacy by the United States does not threaten our sovereignty. The Founding Fathers understood the value of diplomacy. They drafted the Constitution, in part, because they wanted the United States to be able to negotiate treaties with other nations. But they also understood that American foreign policy must ultimately be controlled by the American people.
That is why, for instance, the United States Senate must approve treaties that are negotiated by the President. That is how our diplomatic process works. But today, American sovereignty is threatened by the many treaties that seek to take power away from the nations that negotiate them. The solution is not to reject treaties or diplomacy: it is to return to the vision of the Founders, and to their belief that the American people have an inherent right of self-government, through their elected representatives, that cannot be extinguished by any treaty.
The drafters of the Declaration would be surprised to find Americans submitting themselves to these international organizations, and the constraints on independence that they have spawned. The United States may, of course, work with other nations in a principled way that advances its national interests. But the Founders would be amazed by the extent and depth of the threats to American sovereignty posed by this new transnationalist vision.
The Founders did not risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor casting off the rule of King George III so that, two hundred years later, the United States could subject itself to the whims of unelected foreign bureaucrats and international lawyers. Sovereignty was essential to the founding of America in 1776, and it is essential to America today.
By declaring its independence from King George III and the British Parliament, America declared its sovereignty. By dedicating itself to the principles of liberty, equality, and popular consent, it set the standard by which all sovereign nations are to be judged.
Steven Groves is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.
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