Which statement best describes the concept of popular sovereignty?

Popular sovereignty is government based on consent of the people. The government’s source of authority is the people, and its power is not legitimate if it disregards the will of the people. Government established by free choice of the people is expected to serve the people, who have sovereignty, or supreme power.

There are four ways that popular sovereignty is expressed in a democracy.

  • First, the people are involved either directly or through their representatives in the making of a constitution.
  • Second, the constitution made in the name of the people is ratified by a majority vote of the people or by representatives elected by the people.
  • Third, the people are involved directly or indirectly in proposing and ratifying amendments to their constitution.
  • Fourth, the people indicate support for their government when they vote in public elections, uphold the constitution and basic principles of their government, and work to influence public policy decisions and otherwise prompt their representatives in government to be accountable to them.

Popular sovereignty was asserted as a founding principle of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 asserts that legitimate governments are those ‘‘deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.’’ Later, in 1787, the framers of the U.S. Constitution proclaimed popular sovereignty in the document’s Preamble: ‘‘We the people of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’’ Popular sovereignty was also expressed in Article VII of the Constitution, which required that nine states approve the proposed framework of government before it could become the supreme law of the land.

The people of the several American states chose representatives to ratifying conventions who freely decided to approve the Constitution in the name of those who elected them. Popular sovereignty was also included in Article V of the Constitution, which provides the means to amend the Constitution through the elected representatives of the people. Finally, popular sovereignty is reflected in two different parts of the Constitution that require members of Congress to be elected directly by the people: Article I pertaining to the House of Representatives and the 17th Amendment concerning election of senators.

The founding of the United States and the framing of its Constitution heralded the idea of popular sovereignty as the standard by which popular government should be established and sustained. The American example, exceptional in the late 18th century, has become a world-class standard of legitimacy for governments in the 21st century. No country can realistically claim to be a democracy unless it proclaims constitutionally and implements functionally the principle of popular sovereignty.

This standard has been upheld in the constitutions of democratic nation-states today. For example, Article 2 of the 1993 constitution of the Czech Republic says ‘‘All state power derives from the people . . . The state power serves all citizens and can be exercised only in cases within the scope stipulated by law, and by means specified by law.’’

The 1988 constitution of Brazil asserts in Article 1: ‘‘All power emanates from the people, who exercise it by means of elected representatives or directly as provided by the constitution.’’ And Article 2 of the 1992 constitution of the Republic of Lithuania says: ‘‘The State of Lithuania shall be created by the people. Sovereignty shall be vested in the people.’’ Further, Article 4 says ‘‘The people shall exercise the supreme sovereign power vested in them either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.’’

Popular sovereignty as the legitimate source of authority in government has become so widely recognized among the democracies of our world that even non-democracies try to claim it in order to justify their exercise of power. For example, the constitution of the People’s Republic of China is, according to its preamble, established in the name of the people and ‘‘led by the working class and based on the alliance of the workers and peasants.’’

In reality, the Communist Party of China has appropriated power for itself, which it exercises dictatorially to suppress any organized opposition to its authority. Although economic freedom has increased dramatically in China in recent years, the party still tightly controls political life.

By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)

Popular sovereignty is the principle that the authority of a state and its government are created and sustained by the consent of its people, through their elected representatives (rule by the people), who are the source of all political power. It is closely associated with social contract philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Popular sovereignty expresses a concept, and does not necessarily reflect or describe a political reality.[a] Benjamin Franklin expressed the concept when he wrote, "In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns".[1]

The sovereignty of peoples, enabling self-government, as for example of indigenous peoples, is supported by the international right to self-determination, that said this right does in international law only guarantee a "remedial" right to secession,[2] leaving independence to claims of statehood and general rights of secession to the internal laws of sovereign states.

Popular sovereignty in its modern sense is an idea that dates to the social contracts school (mid-17th to mid-18th centuries), represented by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), author of The Social Contract, a prominent political work that clearly highlighted the ideals of "general will" and further matured the idea of popular sovereignty. The central tenet is that the legitimacy of rule or of law is based on the consent of the governed. Popular sovereignty is thus a basic tenet of most republics, and in some monarchies. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were the most influential thinkers of this school, all postulating that individuals choose to enter into a social contract with one another, thus voluntarily giving up some of their natural freedom in return for protection from dangers derived from the freedom of others. Whether men were seen as naturally more prone to violence and rapine (Hobbes) or cooperation and kindness (Rousseau), the idea that a legitimate social order emerges only when the liberties and duties are equal among citizens binds the social contract thinkers to the concept of popular sovereignty.

A prior development of a theory of popular sovereignty can be found among the School of Salamanca (see e.g. Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) or Francisco Suarez (1548–1617)), who (like the theorists of the divine right of kings and Locke) saw sovereignty as emanating originally from God, but (unlike divine right theorists, and in agreement with Locke) passing from God to all people equally, not only to monarchs.

Republics and popular monarchies are theoretically based on popular sovereignty. However, a legalistic notion of popular sovereignty does not necessarily imply an effective, functioning democracy: a party or even an individual dictator may claim to represent the will of the people, and rule in its name, pretending to detain auctoritas. That would be congruent with Hobbes's view on the subject, but not with most modern definitions that see democracy as a necessary condition of popular sovereignty.

The application of the doctrine of popular sovereignty receives particular emphasis in American history, notes historian Christian G. Fritz's American Sovereigns: The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War, a study of the early history of American constitutionalism.[3] In describing how Americans attempted to apply this doctrine prior to the territorial struggle over slavery that led to the Civil War, political scientist Donald S. Lutz noted the variety of American applications:

To speak of popular sovereignty is to place ultimate authority in the people. There are a variety of ways in which sovereignty may be expressed. It may be immediate in the sense that the people make the law themselves, or mediated through representatives who are subject to election and recall; it may be ultimate in the sense that the people have a negative or veto over legislation, or it may be something much less dramatic. In short, popular sovereignty covers a multitude of institutional possibilities. In each case, however, popular sovereignty assumes the existence of some form of popular consent, and it is for this reason that every definition of republican government implies a theory of consent.

— Donald S. Lutz[4][b]

The American Revolution marked a departure in the concept of popular sovereignty as it had been discussed and employed in the European historical context. American revolutionaries aimed to substitute the sovereignty in the person of King George III, with a collective sovereign—composed of the people. Thenceforth, American revolutionaries generally agreed with and were committed to the principle that governments were legitimate only if they rested on popular sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of the people.[c] This was often linked with the notion of the consent of the governed—the idea of the people as a sovereign—and had clear 17th- and 18th-century intellectual roots in English history.[5]


In the 1850s, in the run-up to the Civil War, Northern Democrats led by Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois promoted popular sovereignty as a middle position on the slavery issue. It said that actual residents of territories should be able to decide by voting whether or not slavery would be allowed in the territory. The federal government did not have to make the decision, and by appealing to democracy, Cass and Douglas hoped they could finesse the question of support for or opposition to slavery. Douglas applied popular sovereignty to Kansas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which passed Congress in 1854. The Act had two unexpected results. By dropping the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which said slavery would never be allowed in Kansas), it was a major boost for the expansion of slavery. Overnight, outrage united anti-slavery forces across the North into an "anti-Nebraska" movement that soon was institutionalized as the Republican Party, with its firm commitment to stop the expansion of slavery. Secondly, pro- and anti-slavery elements moved into Kansas with the intention of voting slavery up or down, leading to a raging state-level civil war, known as "Bleeding Kansas". Abraham Lincoln targeted popular sovereignty in the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858, leaving Douglas in a position that alienated Southern pro-slavery Democrats who thought he was too weak in his support of slavery. The Southern Democrats broke off and ran their own candidate against Lincoln and Douglas in 1860.[6]

  • Claim of Right 1989
  • Consent of the governed
  • Self-determination
  • Self-governance
  • Declaration of Arbroath
  • Legitimacy (political)
  • Man-made law
  • Parliamentary sovereignty
  • Philosophical anarchism
  • Retroversion of the sovereignty to the people
  • Scottish Constitutional Commission
  • Sovereign Citizen Movement

  1. ^ Leonard Levy notes the "doctrine" of popular sovereignty that it "relates primarily not to the Constitution's [actual] operation but to its source of authority and supremacy, ratification, amendment, and possible abolition" (Tarcov 1986, v. 3, p. 1426, 1426).
  2. ^
    • Paul K. Conkin describes "the almost unanimous acceptance of popular sovereignty at the level of abstract principle" (Conkin 1974, p. 52);
    • Edmund S. Morgan, concludes that the American Revolution "confirmed and completed the subordination of government to the will of the people" (Morgan 1977, p. 101);
    • Willi Paul Adams asserts that statements of the "principle" of the people's sovereignty "expressed the very heart of the consensus among the victors of 1776" (Adams 1980, p. 137).

  1. ^ Benjamin Franklin (2003). The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Ralph Ketchum; Hackett Publishing. p. 398. ISBN 0872206831.
  2. ^ Shrinkhal, Rashwet (2021). ""Indigenous sovereignty" and right to self-determination in international law: a critical appraisal". AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples. SAGE Publications. 17 (1): 71–82. doi:10.1177/1177180121994681. ISSN 1177-1801. S2CID 232264306.
  3. ^ Christian G. Fritz, American Sovereigns: The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2008) at p. 290, 400. ISBN 978-0-521-88188-3
  4. ^ Lutz 1980, p. 38
  5. ^ On the English origins of the sovereignty of the people and consent as the basis of government, see: Reid 1986–1993, v. III, pp. 97–101, 107–110; Morgan 1988, passim
  6. ^ Childers 2011, pp. 48–70

  • Adams, Willi Paul (1980), The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era, University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 978-0-7425-2069-1
  • Childers, Christopher (March 2011), "Interpreting Popular Sovereignty: A Historiographical Essay", Civil War History 57 (1): 48–70
  • Conkin, Paul K. (1974), Self-Evident Truths: Being a Discourse on the Origins & Development of the First Principles of American Government—Popular Sovereignty, Natural Rights, and Balance & Separation of Powers, Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0-253-20198-0
  • Lutz, Donald S. (1980), Popular Consent and Popular Control: Whig Political Theory in the Early State Constitutions, Louisiana State Univ. Press, ISBN 978-0-8071-0596-2
  • Lutz, Donald S. (1988), The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Louisiana State University Press, ISBN 978-0-8071-1506-0
  • Morgan, Edmund S. (1977), "The Problem of Popular Sovereignty", Aspects of American Liberty: Philosophical, Historical and Political (The American Philosophical Society)
  • Morgan, Edmund S. (1988), Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, W.W. Norton and Company, ISBN 0-393-30623-2
  • Peters, Jr., Ronald M. (1978) The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact, University of Massachusetts Press, ISBN 978-0-8071-1506-0
  • Reid, John Phillip (1986–1993), American Revolution III (4 volumes ed.), University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 0-299-13070-3
  • Silbey, Joel H., ed. (1994), "Constitutional Conventions", Encyclopedia of the American Legislative System (3 volumes ed.) (Charles Scribner's Sons) I, ISBN 978-0-684-19243-7
  • Tarcov, Nathan (1986), "Popular Sovereignty (in Democratic Political Theory)", in Levy, Leonard, Encyclopedia of the American Constitution 3, ISBN 978-0-02-864880-4
  • Childers, Christopher (2012), The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics, University of Kansas Press, p. 334
  • Etcheson, Nicole (Spring–Summer 2004), "The Great Principle of Self-Government: Popular Sovereignty and Bleeding Kansas", Kansas History, 27: 14–29 links it to Jacksonian Democracy
  • Johannsen, Robert W. (1973), Stephen A. Douglas, Oxford University Press, pp. 576–613.

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