Popular Sovereignty

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The popular sovereignty principle is one of the underlying ideas of the United States Constitution, and it argues that the source of governmental power (sovereignty) lies with the people (popular). This tenet is based on the concept of the social contract, the idea that government should be for the benefit of its citizens. If the government is not protecting the people, says the Declaration of Independence, it should be dissolved. That idea evolved through the writings of Enlightenment philosophers from England—Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704)—and from Switzerland—Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778).

Hobbes: Human Life in a State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes wrote The Leviathan in 1651, during the English Civil War, and in it, he laid out the first basis of popular sovereignty. According to his theory, human beings were selfish and if left alone, in what he called a "state of nature," human life would be "nasty, brutish, and short." Therefore, to survive people give over their rights to a ruler who provides them with protection. In Hobbes' opinion, an absolute monarchy provided the best form of security.

Locke: The Social Contract Limiting Ruler's Powers

John Locke wrote Two Treatises on Government in 1689, in response to another paper (Robert Filmer's Patriarcha) which argued that kings have a "divine right" to rule. Locke said that the power of a king or government doesn't come from God, but comes from the people. People make a "social contract" with their government, trading away some of their rights to the ruler in exchange for security and laws.

In addition, Locke said, 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"—by taking away rights or taking away property without an individual's consent—it is the right of the people to offer resistance and, if necessary, depose him. 

Rousseau: Who Makes the Laws?

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract in 1762. In this, he proposes that "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains." These chains are not natural, says Rousseau, but they come about through the "right of the strongest," the unequal nature of power and control.

According to Rousseau, people must willingly give legitimate authority to the government through a "social contract" for mutual preservation. The collective group of citizens who have come together must make the laws, while their chosen government ensures their daily implementation. In this way, the people as a sovereign group look out for the common welfare as opposed to the selfish needs of each individual. 

Popular Sovereignty and the US Government

The idea of popular sovereignty was still evolving when the founding fathers were writing the US Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In fact, popular sovereignty is one of six foundational principles on which the convention built the US Constitution. The other five principles are a limited government, the separation of powers, a system of checks and balances, the need for judicial review, and federalism, the need for a strong central government. Each tenet gives the Constitution a basis for authority and legitimacy that it uses even today.

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 the practice of enslavement should be allowed. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was based on the idea—that people have a right to "property" in the form of enslaved people. It set the stage for a situation that became known as Bleeding Kansas, and it is a painful irony because certainly Locke and Rousseau would not agree that people are ever considered property.

As Rousseau wrote in "The Social Contract":

"From whatever aspect we regard the question, the right of slavery is null and void, not only as being illegitimate, but also because it is absurd and meaningless. The words slave and right contradict each other, and are mutually exclusive."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Deneys-Tunney, Anne. "Rousseau shows us that there is a way to break the chains—from within." The Guardian, July 15, 2012. 
  • Douglass, Robin. "Fugitive Rousseau: Slavery, Primitivism, and Political Freedom." Contemporary Political Theory 14.2 (2015): e220–e23.
  • Habermas, Jurgen. "Popular sovereignty as procedure." Eds., Bohman, James, and William Rehg. Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997. 35–66.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. "The Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill." London: Andrew Crooke, 1651. McMaster University Archive of the History of Economic Thought. Hamilton, ON: McMaster University. 
  • Locke, John. "Two Treastises of Government." London: Thomas Tegg, 1823. McMaster University Archive of the History of Economic Thought. Hamilton, ON: McMaster University. 
  • Morgan, Edmund S. "Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America." New York, W.W. Norton, 1988. 
  • Reisman, W. Michael. "Sovereignty and Human Rights in Contemporary International Law." American Journal of International Law 84.4 (1990): 866–76. Print.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Trans. Bennett, Jonathan. Early Modern Texts, 2017.
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Kelly, Martin. "Popular Sovereignty." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/popular-sovereignty-105422. Kelly, Martin. (2021, July 29). Popular Sovereignty. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/popular-sovereignty-105422 Kelly, Martin. "Popular Sovereignty." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/popular-sovereignty-105422 (accessed May 30, 2023).