Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.
The Declaration of Independence
Meet Darla. She just graduated from college. She's moving out on her own and will be responsible for making her own rules, paying her own bills and otherwise fulfilling her responsibilities. Darla is declaring her independence!
In 1776, our Declaration of Independence formally announced the American colonies to be independent and sovereign states. This meant that the colonies were no longer under the authority of Great Britain. Instead, the colonies each claimed all rights that other independent nations enjoyed, such as declaring war and establishing their own system of commerce.
Specifically, the colonists sought independence because they objected to various rules put upon them by Great Britain. This included foreign taxation. The colonists felt they shouldn't be taxed by Great Britain. Also, they didn't want to be transported back to Great Britain to appear in court if they were involved in a dispute or charged with a crime. They wanted to have their own taxes and their own court systems. As a truly independent entity, the colonists no longer had to answer to any other nation's government. They could develop their own government.
The independent colonies eventually became the United States of America. The states agreed to work together and be united, though each state also remained independent from the other states and independent from the federal government. The country was formed, and continues to operate, as a sovereign nation. In other words, the United States is a free and independent country. No other country or entity has control over the U.S.
Remember that the United States is established under the U.S. Constitution, which was enacted in 1788. The Framers of our Constitution created our government to be exclusively controlled by the people of the U.S. It's important to note that we are self-governed. We elect our government representatives and make our own laws. So many legal scholars prefer to think of the citizens as being sovereign rather than the states or the federal government.
This political principle is known as popular sovereignty. This principle maintains that the source of governmental power comes from the will of the people. Popular sovereignty is based on the concept that government exists in order to benefit the citizens. If the government isn't operating to benefit the citizens, then the government should cease to exist.
The U.S. wasn't the first to use popular sovereignty. The idea was around and in use for thousands of years before the creation of the Constitution. In fact, both the Romans and Greeks used popular sovereignty. Both systems used elected or appointed representatives to administrate government, much like the U.S.
In the U.S., we actually have several sovereign governments. Remember that the Constitution created federalism. Federalism is a separation of powers between the federal government and the individual state governments. Certain powers are given to the federal government through the Constitution, and all other matters are reserved to the states through the Tenth Amendment.
This means that each state government is also a sovereign entity. We therefore have two levels of sovereignty: the federal government and the state governments. For example, Nebraska can't tell Nevada what they can and cannot do. The states are independent from one another. Additionally, the federal government is independent from each of the states.
These levels give rise to a legal principle known as nullification. Nullification was championed by Thomas Jefferson and maintains that the states can and should refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws. Because the states are independent from the federal government, nullification poses that the states have no outright responsibility to uphold another entities' laws. It's meant to be a check on federal powers because if the federal government is allowed to determine the extent of its own powers, it could continue to expand those powers. Note, however, that no federal court has ever upheld the use of nullification.
Though the states are so far unable to reject federal laws, note that state government powers and federal government powers do sometimes overlap. This concept is known as the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine. This doctrine states that more than one entity may prosecute an individual if that individual is accused of violating the law of each entity. The Dual Sovereignty Doctrine means that the Fifth Amendment's double jeopardy clause doesn't apply to these situations.
For example, let's say Carl commits a bank robbery in California. When he's running out of the bank, he steals a car. Carl uses the stolen car as a getaway vehicle. The federal government can prosecute Carl for bank robbery because stealing money from a bank is a federal crime. The state of California can prosecute Carl for stealing the car. Carl can be prosecuted separately in each court, even though his crimes were part of a single transaction. This is because dual sovereignty allows each governmental entity to make and enforce its own laws.
Let's review. The Declaration of Independence formally announced the American colonies to be independent and sovereign states. The colonies were no longer under the authority of Great Britain. Twelve years later, the U.S. Constitution was enacted and established the U.S. as a sovereign nation.
Sovereignty means that the United States is a free and independent country. The U.S. is based on popular sovereignty, which means that the source of governmental power comes from the will of the people. We are self-governed.
Because each of the states remained independent from each other and from the federal government, we actually have two levels of sovereignty. This is known as the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine and allows prosecution at both the state and federal level without violating double jeopardy. However, dual sovereignty led to a legal principle promoted by Thomas Jefferson called nullification. It says that the states can and should refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws, though no federal court has so far allowed nullification.
After completing this video lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall the formal declaration of the United States by the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution
- Explain the meaning of sovereignty and popular sovereignty
- Describe the 'Dual Sovereignty Doctrine' and the legal principle of 'nullification'
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