Popular sovereignty

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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 is 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. [lower-alpha 1] The people have the final say in government decisions. Benjamin Franklin expressed the concept when he wrote, "In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns". [1]

State (polity) Organised community living under a system of government; either a sovereign state, constituent state, or federated state

A state is a political organization with a centralized government that exerts authority within a certain geographical territory. There is not a single, undisputed, definition of what constitutes a state. A widely-used definition is a state being a polity that, within a given territory, maintains a monopoly on the use of force.

A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, often a state.

Social contract concept in political philosophy

In moral and political philosophy, the social contract is a theory or model that originated during the Age of Enlightenment and usually concerns the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order. The relation between natural and legal rights is often a topic of social contract theory. The term takes its name from The Social Contract, a 1762 book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau that discussed this concept. Although the antecedents of social contract theory are found in antiquity, in Greek and Stoic philosophy and Roman and Canon Law, the heyday of the social contract was the mid-17th to early 19th centuries, when it emerged as the leading doctrine of political legitimacy.

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Americans founded their Revolution and government on popular sovereignty, but the term was also used in the 1850s to describe a highly controversial approach to slavery in the territories as propounded by senator Stephen A. Douglas. It meant that local residents of a territory would be the ones to decide if slavery would be permitted, and it led to bloody warfare in Bleeding Kansas as abolitionists and proponents of slavery flooded Kansas territory in order to decide the elections. An earlier development of popular sovereignty arose from philosopher Francisco Suárez and became the basis for Latin American independence. Popular sovereignty also can be described as the [voice of the people].

American Revolution Colonial revolt in which the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain

The American Revolution was a colonial revolt which occurred between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) with the assistance of France, winning independence from Great Britain and establishing the United States of America.

Popular sovereignty is a doctrine rooted in the belief that each citizen has sovereignty over themselves. Citizens may unite and offer to delegate a portion of their sovereign powers and duties to those who wish to serve as officers of the state, contingent on the officers agreeing to serve according to the will of the people. In the United States, the term has been used to express this concept in constitutional law. It was also used during the 19th century in reference to a proposed solution to the debate over the expansion of slavery. The proposal would have given the power to determine the legality of slavery to the inhabitants of the territory seeking statehood, rather than to Congress.

Stephen A. Douglas American politician

Stephen Arnold Douglas was an American politician and lawyer from Illinois. He was the Democratic Party nominee for president in the 1860 election, but he was defeated by Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Douglas had previously bested Lincoln in the 1858 Illinois election for the United States Senate, which is known for the Lincoln–Douglas debates. During the 1850s, Douglas was one of the foremost advocates of popular sovereignty, which held that each territory should be allowed to determine whether to permit slavery within its borders. Douglas was nicknamed the "Little Giant" because he was short in physical stature, but a forceful and dominant figure in politics.

Origins

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 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.

Thomas Hobbes 17th-century English philosopher

Thomas Hobbes, in some older texts Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which expounded an influential formulation of social contract theory. In addition to political philosophy, Hobbes also contributed to a diverse array of other fields, including history, jurisprudence, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, ethics, and general philosophy.

John Locke English philosopher and physician

John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism". Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Sir Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Genevan philosopher, writer and composer

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic and educational thought.

A parallel 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.

Francisco de Vitoria Spanish philosopher

Francisco de Vitoria was a Spanish Roman Catholic philosopher, theologian, and jurist of Renaissance Spain. He is the founder of the tradition in philosophy known as the School of Salamanca, noted especially for his contributions to the theory of just war and international law. He has in the past been described by some scholars as one of the "fathers of international law", along with Alberico Gentili and Hugo Grotius, though contemporary academics have suggested that such a description is anachronistic, since the concept of international law did not truly develop until much later. American jurist Arthur Nussbaum noted that Vitoria was "the first to set forth the notions of freedom of commerce and freedom of the seas."

Divine right of kings political and religious doctrine of the legitimacy of monarchs

The divine right of kings, divine right, or God's mandate is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm. It implies that only God can judge an unjust king and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act. It is often expressed in the phrase "by the Grace of God", attached to the titles of a reigning monarch.

God the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith in monotheism

In monotheistic thought, God is conceived of as the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith. God is usually conceived as being omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-present) and as having an eternal and necessary existence. These attributes are used either in way of analogy or are taken literally. God is most often held to be incorporeal (immaterial). Incorporeality and corporeality of God are related to conceptions of transcendence and immanence of God, with positions of synthesis such as the "immanent transcendence".

Republics and popular monarchies is 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.

A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a “public matter”, not the private concern or property of the rulers. The primary positions of power within a republic are not inherited, but are attained through democracy, oligarchy or autocracy. It is a form of government under which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch.

Democracy system of government in which citizens vote directly in or elect representatives to form a governing body, sometimes called "rule of the majority"

Democracy is a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting. In a direct democracy, the citizens as a whole form a governing body and vote directly on each issue. In a representative democracy the citizens elect representatives from among themselves. These representatives meet to form a governing body, such as a legislature. In a constitutional democracy the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a representative democracy, but the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority, usually through the enjoyment by all of certain individual rights, e.g. freedom of speech, or freedom of association.

Dictator An absolutist or autocratic ruler who assumes sole power over the state

A dictator is a political leader who possesses absolute power. A state which is ruled by a dictator is called a dictatorship. The word originated as the title of a magistrate in the Roman Republic appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency.

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. [2] 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 [3] [lower-alpha 2]

The American Revolution marked a departure in the concept of popular sovereignty as it had been discussed and employed in the European historical context. With their Revolution, Americans substituted the sovereignty in the person of King George III, with a collective sovereign—composed of the people. Thenceforth, American revolutionaries generally agreed and were committed to the principle that governments were legitimate only if they rested on popular sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of the people. [lower-alpha 3] This idea—often linked with the notion of the consent of the governed—was not invented by the American revolutionaries. Rather, the consent of the governed and the idea of the people as a sovereign had clear 17th and 18th-century intellectual roots in English history. [4]

1850s

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. Second, pro- and anti-slavery elements moved into Kansas with the intention of voting slavery up or down, leading to a raging 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. [5]

See also

Notes

  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).
    • 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.
  2. 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
  3. Lutz 1980, p. 38
  4. 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
  5. Childers 2011, pp. 48–70

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