A Tale of Two Conventions

tags: Hillary Clinton, election 2016, Trump, GOP Convention, DNC convention

Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book.


... Every tyrant from Mao to Perón rules in the name of the people; his claim does not lessen their suffering. Every leader of every democracy rules in the name of the people, too, but their suffering, if they suffer, leads to his downfall, by way of their votes (which used to be called their “voices”). Still, “the voice of the People” is a figure of speech. “Government requires make-believe,” the historian Edmund S. Morgan once gently explained. “Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people.”

Cast back to a time long past. In the thirteenth century, the King of England summoned noblemen to court and demanded that they pledge to obey his laws and pay his taxes, and this they did. But then they, along with other men, sent by counties and towns, began pretending that they weren’t making these pledges for themselves alone but that they represented the interests of other people, that they parleyed, that they spoke for them; in 1377, they elected their first “Speaker.” In the sixteen-forties, many of those men, a Parliament, wished to challenge the King, who claimed that he was divine and that his sovereignty came from God. No one really believed that; they only pretended to believe it. To counter that claim, men in Parliament began to argue that they represented the People, that the People were sovereign, and that the People had granted them authority to represent them, in some time immemorial. Royalists pointed out that this was absurd. How can “the People” rule when “they which are the people this minute, are not the people the next minute”? Who even are they? Also, when, exactly, did they grant Parliament their authority? 

In 1647, the Levellers, hoping to remedy this small defect, drafted “An Agreement of the People,” with the idea that every freeman would assent to it, granting to his representatives the power to represent him. That never quite came to pass, but when, between 1649 and 1660, England had no king, and became a commonwealth, it got a little easier to pretend that there existed such a thing as the People, and that they were the sovereign rulers of . . . themselves. This seed, planted in American soil, under an American sun, sprouted and flourished, fields of wheat, milled to grain, the daily bread. (“The fiction that replaced the divine right of kings is our fiction,” Morgan wrote, “and it accordingly seems less fictional to us.”) When Parliament then said, “We, the People, have decided to tax you,” the colonists, meeting in their own assemblies, answered, “No, we’re the People.” By 1776, what began as make-believe had become self-evident; by 1787, it had become the American creed. ...

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