Popular Sovereignty: A Case Study from the Antebellum Era

56 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2009 Last revised: 11 Jul 2009

Date Written: March 16, 2009


In this article I unpack a murder trial from Pennsylvania in 1843, using it to explore how people in the first half of the nineteenth century could and did lay claim to the right to be sovereign by asserting the right to take the law into their own hands. The possibility that the people asserted sovereign power in the first half of the nineteenth century runs counter to the standard constitutional history of the United States. According to that narrative, the people, having delegated their sovereign power to their governments with the ratification of the Constitution, became observers, not participants in the constitutional order. They would not return to active participation in that order until the rights talk revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave them a means of challenging and limiting the power of the state. And even then, their sovereignty only gave them a check, a right of reaction that fell short of taking actual control of the law. But this study follows a handful of recent works that have begun to reclaim the peoples constitutional role in that earlier period. To do so this article looks at both social practices and ideas, and considers the specific problem of how people exercised their constitutional power over the common law.

Keywords: popular sovereignty, popular constitutionalism, the people, the state, constitutional theory, legal history, constitutional history, extralegal justice, jury nullification

Suggested Citation

Dale, Elizabeth, Popular Sovereignty: A Case Study from the Antebellum Era (March 16, 2009). University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper No. 2009-17, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1361322 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1361322

Elizabeth Dale (Contact Author)

Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

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