National Constitution CenterCenturies of Citizenship: A Constitutional Timeline Exhibit
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1787-1790: We adopt a Constitution for our new Republic

December 4, 1787
Who rules? The people...and only the people

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

“Supreme power...resides in the PEOPLE, as the fountain of government.”
— James Wilson

Opponents of the Constitution say that every government has some final—“sovereign”—authority. Since the new national government will be sovereign, they charge, it will “annihilate” the states.

Not so! said James Wilson today in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. The states are safe, he said, because the Constitution breaks the old rules.

The people may temporarily give some of their power to governments, Wilson explained — part to the states, and part to the nation. But no government, or arm of government, is sovereign.

This, Wilson stressed, is the extraordinary new idea behind the Constitution. The people are sovereign. Final power belongs only to them.

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