Nelson: State sovereignty and the Constitution

Nelson writes, 'Only the states have the authority, and thus the sovereignty, to change the Constitution just as they called that document into existence."

Ross Nelson.jpg
Ross Nelson is a resident of Casselton, N.D. and InForum opinion columnist.
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This is an era in which some alleged political (and medical) experts express the most wrongheaded opinions. David Adler of the Alturas Institute writes a “We the People” column on various constitutional aspects and court cases that's printed in some regional newspapers. He's worth reading for his references and also to realize just how gross errors are made and propagated.

In discussing the famed McCulloch v. Maryland Supreme Court case (1819), Adler asserts that the Constitutional Convention “rejected state sovereignty in favor of popular sovereignty.” This is extraordinary. James Madison in reply to Patrick Henry bluntly stated that the parties to the proposed government are “the people—but not the people as composing one great body—but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties.” The representatives the states sent to the Convention were chosen by and acted in behalf of their individual states, not as agents of the massed people of America. The people did indeed exercise ultimate sovereignty but through the states, not as a consolidated whole.

In fact, Chief Justice Marshall wrote in his McCulloch decision that “no political dreamer was wild enough to think of...compounding the American people into one common mass.” It's unclear how Adler missed this, other than a naked bias. Marshall surely took into account that Great Britain's King George at the end of the Revolutionary War acknowledged not America, but the 13 states one by one by name as “free, sovereign, and independent States” in the peace treaty.

Remember that constitutional amendments are not done by a general vote of Americans but by the agency of the states, one state at a time. Only the states have the authority, and thus the sovereignty, to change the Constitution just as they called that document into existence. You might have noticed as well that the electoral college is a state's function, not a national one. The people vote en masse for the president since it's the only national office, but it's the college's individual states that make the final determination. This was meant to be a check on democracy. (I know; this restriction on pure democracy gives leftists the vapors.)

We may cut Adler a little slack, I suppose. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Lincoln are some of the heavy hitters who apparently thought that the Constitution was miraculously dropped on the American people as a whole after which the states popped into being, contrary to all evidence. If the votes for the Constitution were merely a popular matter, then 51% of Americans everywhere would have made it the law over everyone, but in fact some states resisted all the way to 1790 (from 1787) before approving. They were under no obligation whatsoever to obey the Constitution just because other states voted for it. All the states were sovereign and still are. They called the national government into being, not vice versa.


This is the compact theory of the Constitution, and it matters. Or mattered. It means that the states, while having ultimate authority over the national government, have ceded vast authority to what we now call the federal government. The tyranny under which we now labor is not because the Constitution created a national, consolidated government, but because the states—the erstwhile bosses—grew subservient to their own agents.

Nelson lives in Casselton, N.D., and is a regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion page. Email him at .

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

Nelson writes, "As pundit Jim Treacher puts it, they say 'America is a shooting gallery. Nowhere is safe. You could be murdered at any quick, give us your guns!'"

Opinion by Ross Nelson
Nelson lives in Casselton, N.D., and is a regular contributor to The Forum's opinion pages.
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