Randy Barnett: 'We the People' Doesn't Mean What You Think it Means

How a reading of the Declaration of Independence informs our understanding of the Constitution.


At first glance, the central question of Randy Barnett's book, Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People is so fundamental to American politics, it hardly seems worth asking. What did the founding fathers mean when they wrote, 'We the People'?

As it's usually taught in grade school, 'We the People' means governing through majority rule. The Constitution provides for popular sovereignty through democratically chosen representatives who themselves represent the majority will of the electorate.

But on closer examination, Barnett looks at The Declaration of Independence to arrive at a different interpretation of the first three words of the Constitution's preamble. Of the Declaration, Barnett tells Reason TV, 

[I]t's not so much that We the People govern. That's not what popular sovereignty means. Popular sovereignty means that it's the rights of the individual person that needs to be protected by government and then the people control or they limit government, but government is not the same as us. They're a small subset of us. They're the governors and the reason we have a Constitution is to provide the law that governs them.

Watch the video for a detailed discussion of the first principles behind the libertarian legal movement, of which Georgetown University law professor Barnett is a leading theorist.