Popular sovereignty refers to government by the consent of the people. Examples of popular sovereignty uprisings include the US revolutionary war, the French revolution, and the revolutions of 1848. Each of these cases represent the beginnings of self-governing democratic republics built on the principle of popular sovereignty rather than rule by decree.
The central tenet of popular sovereignty is that the legitimacy of a government’s authority and its laws are based on the consent of the governed. It can lead to forms of government that involve democracy, parliaments, and limited government powers.
The idea of popular sovereignty dates back to the theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Traces of this concept are also found in the works of Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez, the philosophers of the School of Salamanca.
Popular Sovereignty Definitions
Popular sovereignty has two distinct meanings.
- The consent of the people: Popular sovereignty is most commonly used to refer to the principle that the authority of a state and its government is created and sustained by the consent of the people (Roth & Garber, 1997, p. 365). The people are the source of all political power. So Article 21(3) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights demands that the “will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” (United Nations, 1948) and thereby affirms this doctrine.
- Principle of non-interventionism: It may refer to the sovereign quality of a population espoused in the UN Charter. This quality entails a principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of foreign states and a rejection of any imposition of foreign views as to what constitutes legitimate government. In Thomas Jefferson’s terms, the recognition of a foreign government turns on the will of the people.
Popular Sovereignty in the US Constitution
The US Constitution affirms popular sovereignty from the very beginning:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (U.S. Const. Preamble).
So, the constitution begins with the acknowledgement of the idea that the people are the ones who established the Constitution. The American system of government, therefore, rests on a theory of popular sovereignty.
The existence of true popular sovereignty is a subject of debate, and any example can be met with counterarguments.
Popular Sovereignty Examples
- American Revolutionary War: The revolutionary war involved the 13 US colonies fighting for popular sovereignty and the right to rule themselves, rather than having a British authority ruling them.
- US Constitution: The 1787 Constitution of the United States of America begins with the acknowledgment that the people are the founders of the constitution, thus affirming the doctrine of popular sovereignty (U.S. Const. Preamble).
- British Parliament: In the 1640s, the role of the people concerning the government of England was a subject of debate. For the opponents of the Crown, the Parliament was seen as the embodiment of popular sovereignty.
- French Revolution: The French Revolution did not reduce state power, but popular sovereignty was nevertheless the goal of many Jacobins who spoke in the name of the people.
- Abbé Sieyès: Abbé Sieyès, one of the most important thinkers of the French Revolution, had a conception of popular sovereignty which placed many limits on the authority of the people.
- Revolutions of 1848 (France, Germany, Italy, Austria): According to Leopold von Ranke, the defining tendency of the second half of the nineteenth century was the conflict between monarchy and popular sovereignty (von Ranke, 1854/1906, p. 141). The Revolutions of 1848 were intended to strengthen the second principle.
- Haitian Revolution: The Haitian Revolution, a successful insurrection by self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, is often cited as a triumph of popular sovereignty against colonialism.
- Portugal’s Liberal Revolution: The Liberal Revolution of 1820 in Portugal, which led to the return of the Portuguese court to Lisbon, also led to the founding of the Republic of Brazil. This can be seen as an instance of popular sovereignty being established after decolonization.
- Referenda: Referenda are the primary way in which popular sovereignty is secured. It involves a popular vote, where the findings of the vote are binding.
- Direct democracy: Like referenda, direct democracy involves the people directly being involved in their own government. This can take the form of a referendum, but also an online vote, a plebiscite, or a popular recall trigger.
- Decolonization: Throughout the 20th Century, various nations including India asserted their own rule, and kicked out colonizing empires such as Britain and France.
Popular Sovereignty Case Studies
1. The Parliament in 1640s England
In the 1640s, the role of the people concerning the government of England was a subject of debate. Advocates of the Parliament could use traditions of common law thinking to vindicate its role in securing the rights of the people (Bourke & Skinner, 2016, p. 8).
For example, Henry Parker defended popular rights and claimed that the Parliament encapsulated the larger population. It was therefore seen as an approximation of the people and entitled to political authority (Parker, 1644, pp. 18-19). The problem was that any initiative by the Parliament was then seen as a justifiable act of authority, even if it was opposed by the bulk of the British population (Sabbadini, 2016, pp. 164-186).
2. The French Revolution
In concrete terms, the French Revolution did not reduce the power of the state, but that was the original intention of many Jacobins.
As Tocqueville pointed out, the Revolution, instead of strengthening the people, continued the state-building program initiated by the eighteenth-century monarchy (Tocqueville, 1955).
According to Garsten (2016, p. 236), The timing and nature of the French Revolution, coupled with the immediate military threat from outside forces, posed a direct question about popular sovereignty and centralized state authority.
3. Abbé Sieyès
During Year III of the French Revolution, Abbé Sieyès claimed that the sovereignty of the people has its practical limits (Sieyès, 1998, pp. 177-180). Direct democracy was seen as impossible to administer.
Thanks on part to Abbé Sieyèsduring, the common conception of popular sovereignty changed in the 19th Century from meaning something analogous to radical democracy to the idea of indirect sovereignty of the people under a modern national state (Kelly, 2016, p. 272).
Thus, popular sovereignty was re-imagined into what we know today, in the forms of representative democracies.
4. The Constitution of the United States of America
Historians recognize that the idea of popular sovereignty stood at the center of the ideological sphere that produced the American Revolution and the 1787 Constitution (Nelson, 2016, p. 187).
According to James Wilson of Pennsylvania, the supreme and absolute authority rests with the people” (Elliot, 1836, p. 455). According to him, Locke was the one who conceived this principle, but its practical realization first happened in the US.
The American Revolution, on this account, had been waged for the attainment of popular sovereignty.
The Constitution of the United States of America affirms popular sovereignty from the very beginning:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (U.S. Const. Preamble).
The Constitution begins with the acknowledgment of the idea that the people are the ones who established it.
The American system of government, therefore, rests on a theory of popular sovereignty.
Whether the American system is truly based on popular consent continues to be a subject of debate.
The twentieth century is the time of expansion of popular sovereignty as rule of 18th Century colonizers recedes.
The political process of decolonization played a crucial role in all of this.
Most places in the world, monarchy is no longer the dominant principle of legitimacy.
The spread of popular sovereignty is an example of stimulus diffusion rather than direct diffusion: the concept changed as it spread to different territories (Mantena, 2016, p. 297).
Popular sovereignty is an essential element of contemporary political theory. The term refers to the principle that the authority of a state and its government is created and sustained by the consent of the people (Roth & Garber, 1997, p. 365). The people are, according to this doctrine, the source of all political power. The specific instances where the term correctly applies remains a subject of debate among scholars.
Bourke, R., & Skinner, Q. (2016). Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Elliot, J. (1836). The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 5 vols. Volume II. Washington. n.p.
Garsten, B. (2016). From popular sovereignty to civil society in post-revolutionary France. In Bourke, R., & Skinner, Q. Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Kelly, D. (2016). Popular sovereignty as state theory in the nineteenth century. In Bourke, R., & Skinner, Q. Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Mantena, M. (2016). Popular sovereignty and anti-colonialism. In Bourke, R., & Skinner, Q. Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Nelson, E. (2016). Prerogative, popular sovereignty, and the American founding. In Bourke, R., & Skinner, Q. Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Parker, H. (1644). Jus Populi. Robert Bostock.
Roth, B. R., & Garber, L. A. (1997). Popular Sovereignty: The Elusive Norm. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), 91, 363–372.
Sabbadini, L. (2016). Popular sovereignty and representation in the English Civil War. In Bourke, R., & Skinner, Q. Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Sieyès, E. J. (1998). Limites de la souveraineté. In P. Pasquino, Sieyès et l’invention de la constitution française. Odile Jacob.
Tocqueville, A. (1955).
United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
U.S. Const. Preamble.
von Ranke, L. (1906). Über die Epochen der neueren Geschichte. Duncker & Humblot. (Original work published 1854)