Consent is central to the American experiment in governance. For many of the original immigrants to America, consent was an essential element in their history as British citizens as well as in their experience as colonists. The colonials viewed Magna Carta ( 1215 ) and the English Bill of Rights ( 1688 ) as contracts between the government and the people, who consented to be governed under basic principles limiting government power. As a consequence, in their founding compacts and covenants many early colonial settlers articulated the idea of consent in terms similar to those documents' provisions. In the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut ( 1638 ), the signers pledge to “associate and conjoin ourselves to be as one Public State or Commonwealth … for ourselves and our successors and … shall be adjoined to us at any time hereafter, enter into Combination and Confederation together.” Consent is most often associated with the English philosopher John Locke, who in his Two Treatises of Government ( 1690 ) proposed that legitimate governments were to be established by the consent of the governed—in stark contrast to the notion that monarchs ruled by divine right.
During Britain's crisis of empire during the 1760s, the American colonists began to suggest that, because they were not literally represented in Parliament, parliamentary policies were illegitimate. On the eve of the American Revolution, the link was established between the idea of consent and representation. In 1776 Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Also in 1776 the Virginia Declaration of Rights stated that “all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people … and instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people.” Many early state constitutions made similar declarations.
The idea of consent is not without its critics or complications. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume in his essay titled “Of the Original Contract,” challenged the notion that governments were created by consent, noting that “governments which exist at present … have been founded originally either on usurpation or conquest … without any pretense of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people” ( Hume  1985, 471 ). Other critics have suggested that there are difficulties in Locke's differentiation between original and tacit consent: he deemed the former to be the moment that the social contract is created and the latter to be the basis for future generations' (silent) acknowledgment of the original contract's legitimacy. Locke's critics have observed that subsequent generations' compliance with the original contract is in fact a decision based on weighing the substantial inconveniences of opting out of the system. The American political theorist John Rawls ( 1921–2002 ) proposed that the assumed original equality among the individuals initially consenting to a system does not exist subsequent to the original contract. Given these inequities, it is unlikely that individuals would tacitly consent to a system that created or perpetuated them. Other theorists have focused on the difficulties presented by linking the idea of original constitutional consent to policy making by a government after it has been established; for these theorists, democratic inputs (i.e., voting) are forms of ongoing consent.
American commitments to the idea of consent are evident in several forms. Original consent is seen in the Declaration of Independence, in which Americans pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Article VII of the Constitution, which sets out the process for ratification by the states, is evidence of constitutional consent. Political consent can be seen in the Fourteenth Amendment, which expands the definition of citizenry to include “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” ; the Fifteenth Amendment, which grants African American men the right to vote; the Nineteenth Amendment, which grants suffrage to women; the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which prohibits the use of poll taxes; and the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. By enfranchising formerly excluded groups who had no direct input into governmental policies, these amendments broaden political consent and in turn ensure greater legitimacy of governmental decision making.
Throughout American history, representation has been a central concern connected to the idea of political consent. In rejecting the British notion of virtual representation, American practices have largely centered on the idea of literal representation. Thus many American reform efforts have focused on maximizing the democratic process itself by concentrating on issues related to voting, voter turnout, election frequency, the size and populations of electoral districts, and the use of initiatives, referenda, and recalls.
SEE ALSO Autonomy ; Compact and Covenant ; Constitution ; Contract ; Governance ; Liberalism ; Popular Sovereignty ; Representation: Idea of ; Republicanism ; Social Contract .
Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary.(1777.) Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985.
Karst, Kenneth L. Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government.(1690.) Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Timothy D. Moore
Center for the Study of
the American Constitution
University of Wisconsin–Madison