Constituent Moments
Since the revolutionary period most Americans have agreed with John
Adams that “in theory . . . the only moral foundation of government
is the consent of the people.” Subsequent political history has returned
time and again to the question that followed: “But to what extent shall
we carry out this principle?”2 Adams asked this unsettling question in a
letter to James Sullivan on 26 May 1776, eleven days after the Continen-
tal Congress had decreed that new state governments should be estab-
lished “on the authority of the people,” and just over a month before in-
dependence was officially declared “in the name and by the authority of
the good people of these colonies.” The question resonates over the long
span of postrevolutionary American politics to the present day.
Sullivan, a prominent lawyer in Boston and a member of the provincial
congress of Massachusetts, had suggested in an earlier letter to Adams
Democracy inaugurates the experience of an ungraspable, uncontrollable society
in which the people will be said to be sovereign, of course, but whose identity will
constantly be open to question, whose identity will remain forever latent.
Cl AuDe
lefOrT, Democracy and Political Theory1
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