Sloganeers of the 1960s took up the cry of "power to the people" as if it represented something new and different in American history. Black nationalists, Chicano militants, Indian rights spokesmen, Poor People's marchers, and radical Weathermen chanted it in unison with great numbers of plain Americans. Undoubtedly the new "populism" bespoke a pervasive consciousness of malaise in American life. A general yearning for the transfer of power to the hands of those most affected by its exercise stimulated diverse political movements broadly inclusive of discrete groups within the society. Most who sympathized with or joined the movements accepted the claims of originality and acted with conviction. Few realized how traditional their demands sounded when placed in perspective.
Far from being novel, the demands for "power to the people" had characterized American constitutional and political history during the first three-quarters of a century after independence. For Americans of the early national period, as for the new "populists" of the 1960s, these demands symbolized a deep-seated attitude toward relationships between government and people, institutions and individuals, practice and theory. The ideal forms of these relationships were subsumed under the rubrics of popular government, self-government, or republicanism. But the concept of popular government -- or self-government or republicanism -- was not monolithic. Many variants of it appeared during the years between the adoption of the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War. To explore the historical career of one of those ideas is my major purpose here.