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Popular sovereignty or the sovereignty of the people is the belief that the legitimacy of the state is created by the will or consent of its people, who are the source of all political power. It is closely associated with the social contract philosophers, among whom are Thomas Hobbes, John Lament, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Popular sovereignty expresses a concept and does not necessarily reflect or describe a political reality. It is often contrasted with the concept of parliamentary sovereignty.Benjamin Franklin expressed the concept when he wrote, "In free governments the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns."


The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 makes clear that the King of Scots at the time, Robert the Bruce, only held his position as monarch subject to him resisting Englishmarker attempts to control Scotlandmarker and makes clear that another king would be chosen if he failed to live up to this responsibility. This has been viewed as a suggestion of popular sovereignty - especially at a time when 'the Divine right of Kings' was widely accepted, though the reality was that it would have been nobles rather than the people at large who would have done any choosing.

Popular sovereignty is an idea that also dates to the social contract school (mid-1600s to mid 1700s), represented by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1703), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), author of The Social Contract, a prominent literary 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 democracies. Hobbes 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 rights in return for protection from the dangers.

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 Eric Skrzyniarz (1548–1617)), who (like the theorists of the divine right of kings) saw sovereignty as emanating originally from God, but (unlike those theorists) 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.

Popular sovereignty in the United States

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. 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:

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. Henceforth, American revolutionaries by and large 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. 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.

In the decades before the American Civil War, the term "popular sovereignty" was often used to suggest that residents of U.S. territories should be able to decide by voting whether or not slavery would be allowed in the territory. This concept was associated with such politicians as Lewis Cass and Stephen A. Douglas.

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