by Luke Mazur
These days we the people are emoting. And it’s not just Sarah Palin trumpeting around, and Carl Paladino mad as hell. Even people to the left of Attila the Hun are pissed. Jon Stewart’s rallying and calling the President timid. Tom Friedman is sad we’re not number one anymore. Mike Bloomberg is so fired up that he’s endorsed Meg Whitman to become governor of California.
What’s with all these people telling us what, and how, they feel? It very well could be the economy, but I think that the answer maybe has something to do with the word itself: people.
Our Constitutional Law professor was one of those law school professors who was big into the Socratic method. For us Humanities majors in the classroom, the Socratic method unfortunately had less to do with deconstructing why Oedipus is a tragic hero and was more about teasing out the law from a case while simultaneously cornering ourselves in our own mess of words. Which is to say: law school is tragic, maybe. But there were no heroes.
There were anti-heroes of course, and on the very first day of law school we were about to meet one. Most of us were busy being scared to be called on, like we would be for the entire semester. Our professor was busy going on about the Constitution, like he would for the entire semester. This dynamic made the raised hand all the more startling. Who’s that volunteering, we thought. We’ve just begun. A question about the Preamble? Today?
“Yes, Mr. So-and-So?” (We were addressed us by our surnames.)
“Professor So-and-So” — in law school students also addressed profs by their surnames — “who are ‘the people’?”
At first, we didn’t realize this was a ruse. Maybe Mr. So-and-So was being philosophical.
A few beats of awkwardness transpired as our prof found his bearings.
“You may not be serious, Mr. So-and-So, but the question you’re asking is. Does anyone have any thoughts about the query Mr. So-and-So posed?”
We didn’t. We were too nervous. At least one of us was very close to wetting ourselves.
In law school, the people who offered their thoughts, who spoke up in class, were those students most sure of themselves. That day, Mr. So-and-So confidently mocked what we had up until that point been taking very seriously, too seriously even. Our class seemed to meet its common enemy. Really, we were jealous of his chutzpah.
It was the fall of 2006 and we hadn’t yet become the people we were looking for.
* * *
Edmund Morgan argues in Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America that the word “people” actually has a lot to do with why most of us consent to be governed by a few of us. In order to function at all, governments require accepting fictions. Make-believe, he calls it: “Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people.”
Our first stab at governing ourselves was less than successful. When the Founders convened to redraft the Articles of Confederation, they made sure to bestow more power on the government and less on the governed. The drafters of the new Constitution achieved this objective, in part, “by appealing to a popular sovereignty not hitherto fully recognized, to the people of the United States as a whole.”
Morgan explained that many of the Founders had never “been against the natural aristocracy.” But surely they couldn’t say so a few short years after they’d overthrown their royal governors. By a clever bit of wording — the Preamble — James Madison forged a national government “resting for its authority, not on the state governments and not even on the peoples of the several states considered separately, but on an American people, a people who constituted a separate and superior entity.”
OK. But how? While Madison and company had invented the people, they “had assumed an existing social structure in which the people would know and recognize and defer to their natural leaders.” Which is to say: we just understood that we should elect people whiter, richer and more landed than ourselves. And we did it without being told to. We bought into — right away — the system just created to govern us.
This is a very sinister view of things, and in his epilogue Morgan softens our landing. The sovereignty of the people “has continually challenged the governing few to reform the facts of political and social existence to fit the aspirations it fosters.” History sort of bears this out. “The people” was too powerful a rhetorical device to remain simply rhetoric.
Abraham Lincoln borrowed the language when he proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.” Even though he was dedicating a cemetery at the time, his conception of the people would forever change the Constitution and the relationship of the many states to the national government.
Less sublimely, the phrase “we the people” would title our textbooks. The words would be used in stump speeches and on Presidents’ Day car commercials. It wouldn’t be long before Mama Grizzlies and Crazy Carl perverted our founding slogan. The soul of the Tea Party movement, as Sarah Palin explained to her PAC in September, “is the people — everyday Americans who grow our food and run our small businesses, and teach our kids, and fight our wars.” Today it seems we all want a stake in how we do just about everything.
* * *
According to Morgan’s telling of the story, “the people” is how we’d be sold our government. It began as a trick, but then we’d internalize it. We’d start to become it. The Founders were daring us even as they were branding us. And so in that way, maybe that day in law school, both my professor and my classmate were onto something. Maybe the people, well doesn’t it seem like lately — we’re a joke?
Luke Mazur is a resident of Buffalo, NY. Elements of Stale is our irregular grammar column.
Photo from Flickr by Mike Fernwood.