The phrase “the will of the people” has greater importance for Americans than it has for citizens of other states around the world. In large part, this stems from our deeply entrenched view of our system of government as a system which has developed entirely from the collective will of a free populace. The American public firmly believes that its governmental institutions are a direct extension of its collective will, a sort of living representation of its political voice. And to a good extent this view is accurate: our system has been informed by non-elite citizens to a considerably greater degree when compared with foreign systems across the globe. Though the history of these United States is much less egalitarian than most people care to appreciate, it is correct to say that the American project is more of a “popular” phenomenon than has been the case throughout most of history.
What most Americans do not realize, however, is that the will of the people can move society in any conceivable direction. Common perception tends to see the people’s collective will as an inherently benign force ceaselessly pushing our country in a way which maximizes our freedom and dispels injustice. But, as is often the case, common perception does not faithfully reflect reality. The will of the people is neither benign nor nefarious; it simply expresses whatever whims the people may have at a given moment. And if the people’s whims happen to push us toward less freedom or less justice – however that is defined – then that is precisely the direction we will be pushed in. Our constitution does not guarantee a certain quantum of freedom; as we learned in our prior installment, it provides that our lives may be encroached upon in any number of ways so long as the people’s will is expressed in the form of amendment.
This fact may come as a shock to many Americans. Our optimism tends to impart benevolent motives onto the public’s collective will in nearly every situation. What we have to understand, however, is that it makes little sense to ascribe any particular value to our collective will because our will can be shaped by just about any force imaginable – expediency, necessity, desire, passion. The sixteenth amendment did not simply address the practical difficulties associated with the apportionment requirement, it also expressed a public desire to ameliorate the widespread economic inequality which was present at the time of its passage. And it also enlarged the sovereignty of the federal government in relation to the states. It would be inaccurate to say that the results which followed the amendment were inherently just or proper; what is true is that these results were congruent with the collective sentiment of that era.
As we explore the sixteenth amendment in greater and greater detail, it is important for us to keep in mind that this amendment only represents the ability of our constitution to express the desires of the public, it is not an example of benevolent societal change.
In our next installment, we will discuss the case of Hylton v. United States (1796) and look at the impact that the ruling of this case had on the development of the sixteenth amendment.
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