popular sovereignty

WE THE PEOPLE" Popular sovereignty or the authority of the people referenced in the Preamble of the Constitution - This principle states that government power comes from the consent of the governed (the citizens). Popular sovereignty is contained in Article One of the United States Constitution, which states that “the people” are the source of political power and legitimacy. Practically popular sovereignty is the election of representatives and senators in which the citizens hold the vote to elect the legislatures the citizens favor.

Popular sovereignty is the principle that the authority of a state and its government are created and sustained by the consent of its people, who are the source of all political power. Popular sovereignty, being a principle, does not imply any particular political implementation. Benjamin Franklin expressed the concept when he wrote that "In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns"

Popular sovereignty in its modern sense is an idea that dates to the social contract school represented by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Rousseau authored a book titled The Social Contract, a prominent political work that highlighted the idea of the "general will". The central tenet of popular sovereignty is that the legitimacy of a government's authority and of its laws is based on the consent of the governed. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all held that individuals enter into a social contract, voluntarily giving up some of their natural freedom, so as to secure protection from the dangers inherent in the freedom of others. Whether men are seen as naturally more prone to violence and rapine (Hobbes) or to cooperation and kindness (Rousseau), the idea that a legitimate social order emerges only when liberties and duties are equal among citizens binds the social contract thinkers to the concept 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. 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

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.[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.

The best short definition, penned by Abraham Lincoln at the end of his Gettysburg Address of 1863: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democracy requires more than that some ruling elite govern for the people. Democratic government must also emerge out of the people and be exercised by the people. This is the principle of popular sovereignty: that all political power derives from the people. The United States was the first modern nation to embrace it. As the Declaration of Independence states, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” And, as the Preamble to the Constitution announced in 1787, “We, the people of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Popular Sovereignty in the Constitution

Free Elections and Democratic Accountability

In a liberal democracy, the people can form political parties to advance their goals, try to persuade their fellow citizens through a free press and media, and vote for candidates of their choice without fear or intimidation. No government that denies these freedoms is a liberal democracy, even if it carries out elections of some sort. The US Constitution of 1787 had regular democratic elections, with a choice of candidates, a means by which citizens could (indirectly) amend the constitution. However, while the US Constitution of 1787 is highly democratic by the standards of the 18th Century, if it had not evolved we would now consider democracy to be very limited. The president and Senators were not directly elected, only male property holders had the vote and the millions of slaves were held in servitude. Since then slavery has been abolished, the franchise has been extended to all adult citizens, Senators directly elected and the Electoral College votes are mandated by popular elections. Also many states have adopted direct democracy in the use of initiatives and referendums.

However popular democracy is still limited by:

  • The First Past the Post voting system which favours established parties with broad national support.

  • An Electoral college which distorts the result

  • Gerrymandering a system for manipulating the results

  • A Senate which disproportionately over represents low population states.

  • The influence of money, lobbyists, special interests. which undermines the principle of equal representation.

  • An unelected Supreme Court appointed for life, which undermines the principle of democratic accountability.

  • States have no right to leave the union.- This might be contrasted with the UK where referendum could result in Scotland leaving the UK or the EU and Brexit.