Sovereignty is a concept about governance that was deeply rooted within revolutionary philosophy. By its most concise definition, sovereignty is supreme authority within a territory. During the Age of EnlightenmentThe Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) is the era from the 1650s or earlier to around the 1776s in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. It was a major force for political and philosophical change in the American Revolution., English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (pictured left)1 improved the understanding of the sovereign state and other supporting concepts, such as social contract theory.

For a body to be considered sovereign, its authority over its domaindomain n. an area of territory owned or controlled by a ruler or government must be both supreme and legitimate. Supremacy means that the sovereign body’s power is superior to the power of any other body within its domain. Legitimacy means that the sovereign body has a right to rule that is mutually understood by both the sovereigns and its subjects.2

Popular Sovereignty

Popular Sovereignty is a variation of the concept, where power is derived squarely from the people. Put simply, a government that adheres to popular sovereignty is a government that is a product of the people, for the people, and by the people.3 This concept was a grassroots ideology of the American Revolution.

Additionally, during the Constitutional Convention and debates over ratification, a major contentioncontention n. heated disagreement was whether the state governments or the federal government would be more powerful. Popular sovereignty was the intuitive response to this problem; both the state and the federal governments would be servants of the people, who vested them with their power.


“He wished for vigorvigor n. effort, energy, and enthusiasm in the government, but he wished that vigorous authority to flow immediately from the legitimate source of all authority. The government ought to possess not only, first the force, but, second, the mind or sense of the people at large.”James Madison referring to the comments of Pennsylvanian James Wilson (pictured right)4 at the Constitutional Convention5

Social Contract Theory

The people are the legitimate and ultimate source of authority under popular sovereignty, but they cede some of their power to the government in order to maintain a functioning and productive society. During the Age of Enlightenment, philosophers described this exchange between the governing and the governed as a social contract. This is social contract theory.

More explicitly, the people receive the benefits of governmental rule in exchange for relinquishing some of their rights. The government receives power from the people but only if it acts in favor of the people. When the people feel as though the government has not upheld its end of the contract, they are justified in abandoning the current government and forming something else.6 In this way, the people still retain their sovereignty. This concept was an ideological cornerstone for the American Revolution.

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