Popular sovereignty is the idea that “the people” hold supreme power over a nation. To my knowledge, The USA was the first to successfully implement a system of government that reflected this idea, though at the time, “the people” didn’t include women, slaves, Catholics, Jews, Quakers, or those without sufficient property. The build up to the civil war was the first time the term was put to the test when congress decided new western territories acquired from Mexico could decide for themselves whether they would tolerate slavery or not. While Nebraska was firmly grasped as a free state, settlers of Missouri rushed in to Kansas to try to influence it to become a slave state. Much violence erupted and the time would be known as Bleeding Kansas. This showed one of the true dilemmas of Popular Sovereignty. I am reminded of a quote from the movie, “The Patriot” when Mel Gibson’s character said, “Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away…An elected legislature can trample a man’s rights as easily as the King can.” And he could be right! If the term “Popular” doesn’t reflect a territory’s entire population, how can legislatures be expected to truly be servants of the sovereign people? And who is to decide who is eligible to be Sovereign? Should Quakers be considered people? How about Children?
Now, I’m not saying we should ask Queen Elizabeth if she would take us back and I’m not saying we should hand every toddler a ballot but I am saying that Popular Sovereignty is a not quite a perfect democratic philosophy. The role of Popular Sovereignty is different today than it was in the time of Bleeding Kansas. Voter eligibility is obviously much higher but many people still do not have the right to vote and of the people that do have the right to vote, only half regularly exercise that right. The challenge for popular sovereignty in modern times is how do we assure everyone has a voice and how do we assure everyone has fair information on how to direct that voice? We can’t require people to vote but as advocates, we can show people why it’s important to.