Popular Sovereignty

Close up of the Washington DC Capitol Building

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This principle states that the source of governmental power lies with the people. This belief stems from the concept of the social contract and the idea that government should be for the benefit of its citizens. If the government is not protecting the people, it should be dissolved. The theory evolved from the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Human Life in a State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in 1651. According to his theory, human beings were selfish and if left alone, in a 'state of nature', human life would be "nasty, brutish, and short." Therefore, to survive they give over their rights to a ruler who provides them with protection. In his opinion, an absolute monarchy was the best form of government to protect them. 

The Social Contract

John Locke wrote the Two Treatises on Government in 1689. According to his theory, the power of a king or government comes from the people. They make a 'social contract', giving away rights to the ruler in exchange for security and laws. In addition, individuals have natural rights including the right to hold property. The government does not have the right to take this away without their consent. Significantly, if a king or ruler breaks the terms of the 'contract'—taking away rights or taking away property without an individual's consist—it is the right of the people to offer resistance and, if necessary, depose him. 

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract in 1762. In this, he discusses the fact that "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains." These chains are not natural, but they come about through power and control. According to Rousseau, people must give legitimate authority to the government through a 'social contract' for mutual preservation. In his book, he calls the collective group of citizens who have come together, "sovereign." The sovereign makes the laws and the government ensures their daily implementation. In the end, the people as sovereign are always looking out for the common good as opposed to the selfish needs of each individual. 

Popular Sovereignty and the US Government

The idea of popular sovereignty gradually evolved until the founding fathers included it during the creation of the US Constitution. In fact, popular sovereignty is one of the six foundational principles upon which the US Constitution is built. The other five principles are a limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, judicial review, and federalism. Each of gives the Constitution a basis for authority and legitimacy.

Popular sovereignty was often cited before the US Civil War as a reason why individuals in a newly organized territory should have the right to decide whether or not slavery should be allowed. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was based on this idea. It set the stage for a situation that became known as Bleeding Kansas.