Skip to main content
Select Source:




The concept of “sovereignty” implies a theory of politics which claims that in every system of government there must be some absolute power of final decision exercised by some person or body recognized both as competent to decide and as able to enforce the decision. This person or body is called the sovereign. The simplest form of the theory is the common assertion that “the state is sovereign,” which is usually a tautology, just as the expression “sovereign state” can be a pleonasm. For the concept of “the state” came into use at about the same time as the concept of sovereignty, and it served the same purpose and had substantially the same meaning. Both concepts provided secular symbols to replace the decayed religious basis for authority.

The theory of sovereignty purports to state an essential condition for political order. Political theory has perpetually oscillated between stressing one or the other of the two primal functions of government—survival and betterment. Sovereignty sees the world in the light of survival alone and is most appropriate as a theory when the world of settled expectations seems urgently threatened. The phenomenon and the concept of sovereignty are best understood historically since they originated as an expression of the search for a purely secular basis for authority amid the new state organizations in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Like all political theories, the theory of sovereignty has both a prescriptive and a descriptive element. It has been argued that different statesmen and philosophers just happened to emphasize one or the other of these elements; but one could also say that these are only differences of degree and that the theory necessarily claims both that sovereignty exists and that it is relevant to some favored purpose. For example, Blackstone asserted (1765-1769) that there is and must be in every state a supreme, irresistible, absolute, and uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summa imperil, or the right of sovereignty, resides. This supreme authority is by the constitution of Great Britain vested in King, Lords, and Commons. The claim has both an empirical and a logical character—“there is and must be in every. . . .” Plainly, Blackstone‘s claim was not an induction from widespread observation or the fruit of the application of comparative method; it was meant to be common sense, perhaps a “self-evident” truth, or rather something necessarily involved in the concept of the state. As an empirical proposition, it was obviously false. Jeremy Bentham devoted much of his Fragment on Government (1776) to exposing and ridiculing this claim. He asked whether Black-stone thought that the Swiss and the Germans had never known real government. Many states did not and do not possess such a unity, clarity, and effectiveness of command. Plainly, Blackstone thought that all governments ought to possess some clear sovereign power. The theory is much more plausible as a prescriptive proposition than as a descriptive one: States that lack sovereignty commonly find themselves in difficulties, both in defending themselves and in resolving internal conflicts.

By 1775 the former British colonists in North America had come not merely to regard the assertion of parliamentary sovereignty as tyranny but to equate the concept itself with tyranny. “Only the laws are sovereign,” said John Adams of the new Massachusetts constitution—a remark, which if taken literally, states an impossibility almost as obvious as the famous republican boast of “a government of laws and not of men” if rule by one sovereign was impossible or undesirable, so was rule by laws alone. Sovereignty to the American Whigs was not the minimum condition of any civilized order; it was the threat of intervention against an existing, traditional order. The theory of federalism was put forward to contradict that of sovereignty. For “federalism” was not just the name given to the peculiar arrangements by which 13 allegedly sovereign states associated themselves for certain specific or general purposes; it was also a theory of government (as the authors of Paper 39 in The Federalist argued at the time, and as Harold Laski did later in Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty [1917]). And even in Britain there were those who argued that Parliament itself was bound by the “fundamental laws of the constitution.” This might seem implausible, but Lord Chatham, the elder Pitt, could argue that the Stamp Act was, quite simply, unconstitutional. He said that Parliament held sovereign power only over those who were represented by it—giving rise to the most telling slogan of the so-called American Revolution: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

Yet, on the other hand, it could be argued that the basic truth of the theory of sovereignty was demonstrated even amid the federalism and pluralism of the United States constitution of 1787. For after doing nearly everything possible to ensure that the president was both checked and balanced, the founding fathers nevertheless made the president the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and specifically gave him unlimited power to en-force the existing laws. The granting of the military power might appear to be due to exceptional circumstances—although a certain simplicity was revealed in thinking that the fear of war was exceptional; but the power to enforce the laws was no more and no less than what Hobbes meant in his famous epigram: “Covenants without the sword are vain.”

These two functions of government, the defense of the realm and the enforcement of law and order, show that there is at least a germ of truth in even the most extreme formulation of the theory of sovereignty. All the wiser opponents of the extreme view of sovereignty did, in fact, see the difficulty. Fortescue, for instance, described England in the mid-fifteenth century as regimen politicum et regale ([1714] 1885, p. 119)—politicum in that the king could only declare what the law was after consulting with his peers, but also regale in that he was absolute in the task of enforcing the laws, punishing offenders, and defending the realm. Bracton in his De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae (1569) had made a similar point almost two centuries before: There was a sphere of absolute royal prerogative, the gubernaculum, but there was also a sphere of absolute legal restraint, the jurisdictio—the king‘s duty was simply to declare and enforce the laws, and if he presumed to make new laws, the courts or Parliament could declare such acts illegal (see Mcllwain 1940). The great debate of the Renaissance and early modern period was between those who said that “the first business of a government is to govern” (and justified this by the theory of sovereignty) and those who said either that “all government rests on consent” (and tried to justify this by theories of pluralism or of individualism) or that all government is “under natural law” and man should not attempt to change it. Although it is clear that this debate is now exhausted, the theory of sovereignty in a full sense did fulfill a particular political need in the particular circumstances of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before Bodin the use of the concept of sovereignty is an anachronism, al-though a depressingly common one. It was unknown to the Roman tradition of politics. Even the most famous and extreme formulation of imperial authority, in the Institutes of Justinian, does not contain a conception of sovereignty as understood by Bodin, Hobbes, Austin, or Jellinek. Sed et quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem—“what pleases the Prince has the force of law”—is immediately qualified by cum populus ei et in eum omne suum imperium et potestatem concessit—“for the people make over to him their whole power and authority” (Institutions, book 1, tit. 2, sec. 6). As a descriptive theory, this is plainly false. The people of Rome never did any such thing, nor were they ever in a position to do so. But the prescriptive argument is more substantial; it reminded even the heirs of Augustus Caesar that it was politically necessary for them to govern according to at least a myth of popularity, because even their power rested upon the consent of subjects who potentially had the power to overthrow the government.

The concept of sovereignty was also unknown to medieval Christendom. Disputes between popes and emperors often can be restated in terms of sovereignty; but if the two sides had understood this term, they would have had no dispute over it. As Christians, both recognized that some things were Caesar‘s and others, God‘s. The emperor held sovereign power over those things secular and the pope was sovereign over those things deemed to be divine. But to admit divided sovereignty is to make the concept almost meaningless. The papal-imperial controversies were not about sovereignty but about political predominance. Medieval political thought was inherently both constitutional and hierarchical. The rights and duties of kings were proper matters of dispute, but all agreed that they were bound by law—indeed, by different types of law: eternal, divine, natural, and positive law. Kings might claim to have the sole right to declare what the positive law was, but they could not claim to create it. The idea of creating new law by statute was an idea new to the Renaissance. To claim that the king was above the law would previously have been a kind of blasphemy; and to claim that “law” meant only what the king or sovereign body in fact enforced would have appeared a trivial cynicism.

Bodin. The theory of sovereignty that emerged from Bodin‘s Six Bookes of a Commonweale (1576) was a practical response to tension between the claims of church and state. He wrote as France was tearing itself to pieces in wars of religion. His patron, Francois, due d‘Alencon, was the official leader of the party of the politiques, who held that the state was primarily concerned with the maintenance of order and not with the establishment of true religion; therefore they sought, like the supporters of the “new monarchies” elsewhere in Eu-rope, to strengthen the crown against both the nobility and the church. Like Hobbes, Bodin saw civil war as the worst of all evils; he defined sovereignty so as to leave no possible room for any right of resistance (in an age when both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians took turns, as circumstances varied, in producing learned justifications of tyrannicide). “It is clear that the principal mark of sovereign majesty .. . is the right to im-pose laws generally on all subjects regardless of their consent. .. . If he is to govern the state well, a sovereign prince must be above the law . . .” (1576, p. 32 in the 1955 edition). Thus, the essence of sovereignty was the power to command, and commands must proceed from a single will. Since law was simply the command of the sovereign, obligation could not be conditional upon the justice of the command, but followed simply from its authenticity. “Open, in the King‘s name!” was to be enough. Bodin thought he had found in the existence of this principle of sovereignty a universal recipe for political stability.

This formulation had obvious descriptive and prescriptive advantages over that of medieval political thought. But Bodin was careful to make reasonably clear that his sovereign is not absolute and that, like Aristotle‘s monarch, he is not to be confused with a tyrant. He is bound by the natural law and the laws declared by God. For instance, “God has declared explicitly in His Law that it is not just to take, or even to covet, the goods of another. Those who defend such opinions are even more dangerous than those who act on them. They show the lion his claws, and arm princes under a cover of just claims” (ibid., p. 35). He drew a curious distinction between law, which is a command by the sovereign, and right, which is a matter of equity and litigation, somehow apart from the sovereign. The founder of the theory of sovereignty was either too realistic descriptively or not ruthless enough prescriptively to make his sovereign completely secure. But he did make power the distinguishing mark of the ruler, rather than justice or the judicial function. He did not say, however, as did Hobbes, that there is no right or wrong until the sovereign makes laws creating such distinctions.

Hobbes . In Leviathan, Hobbes made the sovereign both morally and politically absolute. He at-tacked the whole Aristotelian tradition of moral philosophy and stated that “this private measure of good is a doctrine, not only vain, but also pernicious to the public state” (1651, p. 372 in 1914 edition). Only law creates the distinction of right and wrong, and law is the creation of the sovereign. The fundamental law of nature is self-preservation; only sovereign power can prevent men from destroying each other; and the only sovereign power to be obeyed is an effective one—obligation ceases at the moment when a sovereign power ceases to be able to protect the lives of his subjects. Here is a ruthlessly rational view of sovereignty. There is no room for loyalty in the world of Hobbes. Most theories of political obligation had pictured sacrifice for the true monarch as the height of glory, but for Hobbes such terms as “sacrifice,” “true monarch,” and “glory” (or “honor”) were metaphysical nonsense and, indeed, “baited hooks.” He is astonishingly modern. He even speaks up for tyranny, saying that “the name of Tyranny signifieth nothing more, nor less, than the name of Sovereignty. . . . I think the toleration of a professed hatred of Tyranny is a Toleration of hatred to Commonwealth in generall” (ibid., p. 388). Nothing is worse than the lack of sovereign power, that is, the state of nature; or the belief that power can be divided: “If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these Powers were divided between the King and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never been divided and fallen into this Civill Warre” (zM.,p. 95).

Both Hobbes and Bodin were preoccupied with the problem of civil war; their theories are appropriate to states of emergency. And in Hobbes‘s theory, too, although the sovereign is absolute, he is bound by the laws of nature. These are no longer moral matters: the law of self-preservation dictates that no one can be expected to take his own life. Therefore, although a man may be commanded as a soldier, he may properly purchase a substitute; and as for men who run away in battle, “when they do it not out of treachery, but fear, they are not esteemed to do it unjustly, but dishonorably!” (ibid., p. 115). Thus, the germ of the nineteenth-century bourgeois is planted in a work that other-wise might seem to be a throwback to Renaissance tyranny. Sovereignty is once again passionately advocated—and yet limited.

Machiavelli . A negative question may throw some light on this paradox: Why did not Machiavelli, of all men, develop a doctrine of sovereignty? In one sense he did, implicitly, throughout The Prince. Then in The Discourses he said: “Those republics that cannot against impending danger take refuge under a dictator or some such authority will in serious emergencies always be ruined” (Chief Works . . ., vol. 1, p. 269). But by “republic” he meant a type of government in which there is a citizen body representative at least of the main social forces. Clearly, he thought, as did Aristotle, that this type of government is both the best and in the long run the most stable. But he realized that it is not always possible. And he was concerned not with a legalistic question but with the realistic question of the different needs during emergencies and under normal conditions. States that are threatened by external aggression or by severe internal conflict or that are in the process of being founded need princely (or sovereign) rule; those that have solved these difficulties need to spread power to ensure their stability through time, that is, to politicize themselves.

Machiavelli is perhaps more realistic than either Bodin or Hobbes in recognizing two archetypal situations, with different needs: normal politics (peace), which is republican, and states of emergency (war), which are dictatorial. This can be seen in the doctrine of “constitutional dictatorship” in the Roman Republic (see Rossiter 1948) and in later times in the assumption of emergency powers by Lincoln in the American Civil War and by Churchill in World War n. “Is there, in all republics,” asked Lincoln in 1861, “this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” (Speeches . . ., p. 176). If sovereignty is taken as a potentiality to be realized in what are recognized as times of emergency, and not as a day-to-day activity, then there is no contradiction between the theory of sovereign power and the theory of representative consent. The same way of resolving the problem of sovereignty is implied in Rousseau‘s famous aphorism that however strong a man is, he is never strong enough to remain master always unless he transform his might into right and obedience into duty.

There is a long history of the intricate and largely futile attempts to reconcile the theory of sovereignty with that of consent (see Merriam 1900). The problem has seemed at once more urgent and intractable since the political consequences of the industrial revolution have made it clear that strong governments can thrive only with the active participation of the masses—whether in the manner of totalitarianism or of political democracy. The almost meaningless rhetoric of “sovereignty of the people” long held sway both in the United States and in France. In the United States it disguised the actual location of the exercise of central power; in France it long helped to prevent its exercise at all; and in both cases it strengthened what both Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion.”

The attempt to define a “sovereignty of Parliament” has nonetheless some considerable historical and philosophical interest. For it can be truly said that Britain lost any chance of conciliation with her North American colonies because of this dogma. To most men in Whitehall and Westminster, it seemed part of tradition, nature, and logic; to men in Boston, New York, and Williamsburg it seemed a specific threat. Even the promise not to exercise it for reasons of political prudence, such as Burke proposed, could not pacify the colonists when even Burke and the Rockingham Whigs, let alone the king‘s government, insisted on the retention of the theory as a necessary ultimate sanction. Burke himself had drafted the Declaratory Act of 1766, perhaps the high-water mark of the theory of sovereignty and certainly one of the strangest acts ever to appear in the statute book, for it added nothing to the law but only stated what was already clearly the case: that the power of Parliament was unlimited in law. But on both sides the question was, after all, not what could Parliament do but what was it likely to do, having in mind precedents and, still more, the traditions and habits of the people it had to govern. No wonder many so-called purely practical men appeared grossly doctrinaire on the point of sovereignty; and no wonder that many others felt torn between constitutional authority and sovereign power. A perplexed member of Parliament said during the debate on the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 that “two opinions, both equally true, (though carrying with them a seeming contradiction in this particular) were set before us. The one, that in all free countries no one can be taxed but by himself, or representative. The other, that there never was any country, since the Creation, where there was not somewhere lodged, for the superintendency of the whole, one supreme legislative authority, controlling, directing, and governing the whole” (Great Britain, Parliament 1813, vol. 16, cols. 108-109). “Seeming contradiction” was right. But for generations English lawyers stubbornly treated the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty as if it were a political doctrine and not simply a legal doctrine.

Austin. Closely following Jeremy Bentham, John Austin argued that if a determinate human superior not in habit of obedience to a like superior receive habitual obedience from the bulk of a given society, that determinate superior is sovereign in that society, and the society (including the superior) is a society political and independent (1863, vol. 1, p. 227 in 1873 edition). And to Austin that sovereign in Britain was, of course, Parliament as a whole. But Parliament as a whole is an extremely legalistic concept, as is immediately apparent when the question is asked: Who receives habitual obedience in Parliament? Can we now say that the prime minister is sovereign? Yes, but then we must add, more explicitly than Hobbes, “while the going is good.” In a word, such power is political and cannot be defined in legalistic terms. For political power to exist at all there must be the potentiality of sovereign power, but a sovereign power constantly exercised appears to be invariably self-defeating.

Austin assumed, like Blackstone before him and A. V. Dicey afterward, that in every government there is a clear place where such absolute power resides. This is plainly false. The example of federal constitutions alone refutes it.

It may be true that federal systems are prone to run into difficulties in times of emergency when they cannot, or cannot readily, summon and assert sovereign power; but it is equally true that the British system does not normally use it. What the concept of the “sovereignty of Parliament” does explain is that there are no possible legal limitations on the sovereignty of Parliament. But this is a very formal matter. What is interesting is not what could be done but what is likely to be done politically. It is not telling much to say that no court or other body can challenge an act of Parliament or a proceeding in Parliament. This led A. V. Dicey to distinguish between “legal” sovereignty, exercised by the Queen-in-Parliament, and “political” sovereignty, exercised by the electorate. The one is what is possible; the other, what is likely. But this distinction is not as helpful as it seems. For plainly Parliament as well as the electorate plays a role in political influence; and everybody (including members of Parliament) forms part of an electorate, which is itself only to be defined in legal terms. The real distinction is between what people may do in legal and in political capacities; but this does not correspond to any precise distinction between institutions like Parliament and the electorate. They are, in fact, linked indissolubly by the political processes of party.

The concept of sovereignty is thus best reserved for the conditional assertion that all governments may face conditions of emergency in which normal constitutional rules have to be set aside if the state is to survive. The theory of sovereignty according to Bodin, Hobbes, and the English positivist lawyers can be given a meaning only as a contradiction to those normal political conditions in which it is recognized—and acted upon—that power is divided and that the business of government is creative conciliation. But this contradiction is at times necessary: it lies in events and not in theory. It has appeared more relevant to some epochs than to others—which accounts for the time of its emergence and its peculiar setting in civil wars. Sovereignty is relevant to emergency situations, as the potentiality of maintaining order in face of clear and present danger, and the justification of emergency powers by which all regimes must find a capacity for decisive, centralized, and, for a time, unquestioned action if a state is to survive. Politics, as Voltaire said of liberty, has no relevance to a city in a state of siege. The practical difficulties of deciding when a state of emergency exists are always great and open to abuse—but they are practical and procedural difficulties; they do not destroy the real distinction between the time of sovereignty and the time of politics.

Bernard Crick

[See alsoAuthority; Constitutions and Constitutionalism; Crisis Government; General Will; GOVERNMENT; International Politics; MONARCHY; Political Theory; RESPONSIBILITY; STATE; and the biographies ofAustin; BODIN; DICEY; HOBBES; MACHIAVELLI; ROUSSEAU.]


Austin, John (1832-1863)1954 The Province of Juris-prudence Determined and The Uses of the Study of Jurisprudence. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; New York: Noonday. → Two books reprinted in one volume.

Austin, John (1863) 1911 Lectures on Jurisprudence: Or the Philosophy of Positive Law. 5th ed. 2 vols. London: Murray.

Bentham, Jeremy (1776) 1951 A Fragment on Government. Edited by F. C. Montague. Oxford: Clarendon.

Blackstone, William (1765-1769) 1922 Commentaries on the Laws of England. 4 books in 2 vols. Edited by William Draper Lewis. Philadelphia: Bisel.

Bodin, Jean (1576) 1962 The Six Bookes of a Commonweale. Edited by Kenneth D. McRae. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A facsimile reprint of the English translation of 1606, corrected and supplemented in the light of a new comparison with the French and Latin texts.

Bracton, Henri De (1569)1915-1942 Bracton De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → Published posthumously.

Dicey, Albert V. (1885) 1961 Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution. 10th ed. With an Introduction by E. C. S. Wade. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins. → First published as Lectures Introductory to the Study of the Law of the Constitution.

Emerson, Rupert 1928 State and Sovereignty in Modern Germany. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Fortescue, John (1714) 1885 The Governance of Eng-land: Otherwise Called the Difference Between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon. → Published posthumously. First published as The Difference Between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy.

Great Britain, Parliament 1813 The Parliamentary Debates. Volume 16: A.D. 1765-1771. London: Hansard.

Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; and Jay, John (1787-1788) 1961 The Federalist. Edited with introduction and notes by Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press.

Hobbes, Thomas (1651) 1958 Leviathan. With an Introduction by Herbert W. Schneider. New York: Liberal Arts.

Jouvenel, Bertrand De (1955) 1957 Sovereignty: An Inquiry Into the Political Good. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as De la souverainete: A la recherche du bien politique.

Laski, Harold J. 1917 Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Lincoln, AbrahamSpeeches and Letters of Abraham Lincoln, 1832-1865. Edited by Merwin Roe. London: Dent, 1919.

Machiavelli, NiccolÒChief Works and Others. 3 vols. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1965.

Mcilwain, Charles H. (1940) 1947 Constitutionalism: Ancient and Modern. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1958.

Marshall, Geoffrey 1957 Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Commonwealth. Oxford: Clarendon.

Meinecke, Friedrich (1924) 1962 Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d‘État and Its Place in Modern History. New York: Praeger. → First published as Die Idee der Staatsrdson in der neueren Geschichte. A paperback edition was published in 1965.

Merriam, Charles E. 1900 History of the Theory of Sovereignty Since Rousseau. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Rees, W. J. 1956 The Theory of Sovereignty Restated. Pages 56-82 in Peter Laslett (editor), Philosophy, Politics and Society: A Collection. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rossiter, Clinton L. 1948 Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies. Princeton Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harcourt.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sovereignty." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Sovereignty." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Sovereignty." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



Sovereignty refers to the supreme and ultimate source of authority that exists within any political unit or association. A sovereign power is deemed independent of all other authorities and it possesses no rivals within its jurisdiction. Thus, sovereignty has internal and external dimensions. Internally, it connotes the superior and final power to determine who shall rule and how rule shall occur. Externally, it involves an exclusive right to exercise power within fixed geographical boundaries without interference from or intervention by other authorities. Although the terminology of sovereignty is sometimes employed metaphorically, it is fundamentally a concept related to matters of governance. For instance, when the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin (15091564) referred to "God's sovereignty," he was seeking to explain the relationship between the divine and His worldly creation in a way that characterized the governmental dimension of heavenly rule over the earth and its inhabitants.

Early Concepts

As an intellectual construct, sovereignty has often been assimilated to the rise of the nation-state in Europe during the early modern period. It is true that sovereignty as a theoretical or a practical precept is incompatible with tribal or feudal societies, where power is decentralized or parceled out into the hands of numerous lordlings, all of whom exercise governmental functions in overlapping and semi-autonomous forms. Yet societies that deified their supreme rulers, such as ancient Egypt or Japan, thereby sought at least implicitly to capture a salient element of sovereignty: that a unitary source existed from which flowed the validity of all lesser forms of command and rule.

Perhaps the political and legal system that most cogently expressed the aspiration to sovereign authority before the rise of the modern state system was the Roman Empire. (Of course, Roman ideas, especially those contained in its civil law, in turn exercised considerable influence on early modern thought.) The Roman doctrine of imperium, meaning the concentration of powers over the territories of the Empire in the hands of its Emperor, conveyed the unrivaled and unchallengeable supremacy invested in the ruler. To affront this imperium by word or deed constituted a grave crime against the Roman majesty, punishable by execution. When imperium is coupled with the legal doctrine that the Emperor is legibus solutus a law unto himself answerable to no oneone arrives at a concept very nearly identical to that of sovereignty.

Although Roman law was widely disseminated in Europe during the postclassical period, and concepts such as imperium and legibus solutus were widely discussed, the conjunction of a feudal social structure with religious and ecclesiastical constraints on power rendered sovereignty functionally inapplicable to temporal government. The ecclesiological doctrine of the pope's "plenitude of power" (plenitudo potestatis ), according to which the papacy possesses final authority over the determination of matters of orthodox, however, does involve elements of a theory of sovereignty. Yet not even extreme papalists would claim that the pope is beyond error or "infallible" (in the meaning of that term as, in effect, spiritually sovereign, which was eventually proclaimed by the First Vatican Council in the nineteenth century).

Only near the end of the Middle Ages does the word sovereignty appear in the major vernacular languages of Europe, and its meaning during this time remains ambiguous. A particularly clear example of this ambiguity is afforded by the French law book Coutumes de Beauvaisis, compiled by Philippe de Beaumanoir (c. 12501296) during the later thirteenth century. Beaumanoir declared that "the king is sovereign (souverains ) above all others and by his rights has the general protection of the whole realm, because he can make all statutes for the common benefit and what he decrees must be followed." The assertion of binding legal authority sounds very familiar to modern ears. Yet Beaumanoir also blunts some of the impact of this sovereignty by insisting that "every baron is sovereign (souverains ) in his barony," meaning that each noble prince can do for his immediate territorial subjects precisely what the king does for the entire realm. Hence, an exclusive franchise is lacking from Beaumanoir's doctrine, which remains consonant with the multiple and overlapping jurisdictions typical of European feudalism. The key idea of "complete" sovereignty stemming from a unitary wellspring is absent.

The Western world was not alone in struggling with the meaning behind sovereignty. In the Persian-language treatise of political advice Mau'izah-i Jahangiri (16121613), written in Muslim-controlled India by Muhammad Baqir Najm-i Sani (d. 1637), the ruler is counseled to exercise his "sovereignty [ dawlat ] according to the injunctions of Islamic law." The word dawlat has a general meaning of "bliss" or "felicity" in Persian, as well as the more concrete connotation of supreme political authority. Given the intertwined personal, religious, and political overtones, it becomes difficult to specify with precision whether Baqir intended to conceive of the Emperor as fully sovereign or whether instead the ruler must subject himself to religious precepts that constrain his authority.

Early Modern Views: Absolutism

The real crystallization of the doctrine of sovereignty occurred in sixteenth-century Europe and, like so much else, in the context of the religious turmoil that accompanied the Reformation. In France, Germany, England, and the Low Countries, the salient issue driving affairs of state in external relations with their neighbors and internal dealings with their populations concerned the determination of religious confession. Regardless of whether toleration or establishmentarianism prevailed, it came to be recognizedtheoretically as well as practicallythat a single authority must be ceded the right to determine how inhabitants might worship. And this ultimate and supreme authority enjoyed sovereignty.

The classic statement of this position is ordinarily ascribed to the Six livres de la république (1576) by the French lawyer and humanist Jean Bodin (15301596). Bodin proposed a definition of sovereignty as absolute and indivisible, so that the ruling power possessed sole final authority over the legislative, judicial, administrative, and military functions associated with the state. In formulating this conception of sovereignty, Bodin explicitly challenged many of the central tenets of Aristotle's political science, such as the distinction between the governance of the family and the rulership of the state. Moreover, Bodin ridiculed as incoherent the idea that sovereignty could be shared between or mixed among different groups or institutions. The sovereign is answerable to no earthly authority and, while he is cautioned by Bodin to subject himself to divine and natural law, there is no temporal compulsion that he do so. Hence, Bodin's doctrine is generally described as "absolutism," since it posits the absolute and unchecked sovereignty of the monarch.

Another important advocate of absolutism was Thomas Hobbes (15881679), especially in his masterpiece, the Leviathan (1651). Like Bodin, Hobbes insisted that the only justifiable form of sovereign authority is absolute and indivisible. Hobbes ascribed to human beings natural liberty and equality, which licenses them to undertake any actions necessary in order to preserve themselves and to avoid pain. He believed that the pursuit of self-preservation by free and equal creatures left to their own devices (the "state of nature") logically leads to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear. Frustrated in their realization of their basic desires, human beings voluntarily exchange their chaotic natural freedom for peace and order by means of a social contract, the terms of which call upon the parties to renounce all liberties and rights they possess by nature (with the exception of self-preservation itself). Any contract that permits the retention of some rights, and thus a limitation on the sovereign's absolute authority, will fail to achieve the peace sought and will eventually slip its members back into the state of nature. In contrast with Bodin, Hobbes did not insist that the constitutional form of sovereign rule must be monarchy, although it is evident that he preferred royal government. Rather, Hobbes held that any type of regimearistocracy (rule of the few) and democracy (the rule of the many) as well as kingship (the rule of one)might meet the standard for sovereign authority so long as it commanded with an undivided and single voice.

Hobbes recognized that religion constituted an especially fertile source of political conflict and thus a particular threat to the maintenance of sovereign authority. To remedy the divisive consequences of religion, he offered a rather extreme solution in the second half of Leviathan, of strictly limiting the autonomy of ecclesiastical officials and offices and reinterpreting Christian theology in a manner consonant with his conceptions of human nature and sovereignty. While Hobbes's Erastian proposals were highly unusual, his comments about religion and public order demonstrate clearly how the emergence of the idea of sovereignty reflected deep concern about the corrosive effects of confessional dispute.

A further strand of absolutism may be associated with "patriarchal" ideas, such as were proposed by Sir Robert Filmer (c. 15861653). In his Patriarcha, Filmer drew a direct analogy between Adam, to whom God had entrusted the whole of the earth, and the kings who followed after him. Since Adam enjoyed unchecked sovereignty over both natural resources and over his family, so should his heir, the king, possess fatherly authority to dispose of his subjects and their goods as he saw fit, without the approval of a superior authority.

Early Modern Views: Popular Sovereignty

Alongside the view that absolute power was vested in a single governor (or group of governors) emerged the competing doctrine that the sole legitimate source of authority sprang from the people as a collectivity or joint body. Intimations of this idea can be discovered in medieval authors such as Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280c. 1343), for whom all forms of legislative and executive power pertained in the first instance to the whole body of citizens. But Marsilius's theory possessed the same deference to the fragmented condition of authority in the Middle Ages that characterized Beaumanoir. Instead, the modern principle of popular sovereignty arose in response to the perceived excesses of absolutistic theories.

Writing in explicit opposition to Filmer (and perhaps also indirectly against Hobbes), John Locke (17321804) insisted that sovereignty is the creation of the people who contract with one another to form civil society and who only entrust executive authority to a government conditionally. In contrast with Filmer, Locke held that the natural condition of mankind was individual freedom, and no personnot even a man's own offspringwas entirely subject to arbitrary rule. Against Hobbes, Locke maintained the impossibility of renouncing one's natural rights of subjects to life, liberty, and estate in the process of creating sovereign power. Instead, a ruler who systematically violates human rights breeches the bond of trust that authorizes his office. Locke thus insists that no one is obligated to obey the commands of an illegitimate government. If the magistrate attempts to coerce their obedience, members of civil society may legitimately use force against him, just as they would in the case of robbery or assault, since they retain control of their rights individually and together.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) extended the idea of popular sovereignty by means of an innovative marriage between Lockean and Hobbesian insights. Sovereignty for Rousseau cannot be exercised legitimately by any authority external to the body of citizens. The citizens alone are competent to renounce their natural liberty and bind themselves jointly and individually to laws and rulers. Hence, no matter what constitutional form of government is appointedand Rousseau contends that kingship, aristocracy, and democracy may each be appropriate, depending on the scale of the territory to be governedit remains only the executive of the general will of the community. Freedom reposes strictly and exclusively in the communal order in which the moral liberty of each person assumes the equal moral liberty of every person, guaranteed under the terms of the law and protected by the magistrates. Hence, Rousseau's free state is guided by the collective determinations of the people about how they wish to livea clear statement of a system of popular sovereignty. Nor can the general will be judged errant or mistaken. Whatever the people decide is right and must be treated as obligatory.

Later Developments

The dispute between absolutistic and popular conceptions of sovereignty might seem highly polarized and irresolvable. Certainly, the violent upheavals of the French Revolution between the ancien régime and the advocates of popular rule seemed to presage a cataclysmic clash between two profoundly opposed visions of the location of supreme authority. But at times, efforts were made to find a common ground or bridge between the apparently incommensurable points of view.

The framers of the United States federal Constitution, ratified in 1789, afforded one strategy for resolving the conflict. The Constitution proclaimed in its preamble the sovereignty of the people as the source of the authorization of government and the execution of public duties. Toward this end, some officials were to be directly elected on the democratic principle of one vote assigned to each citizen. At the same time, other magistrates such as the President and Vice-President and senators were to be selected by intermediary bodies (the Electoral College and state legislatures, respectively, although the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 provided for senators to be directly elected), while still others (such as the judiciary) were appointed by essentially non-democratic means. The result was to create a system of checks and balances to diffuse the potential domination of any portion of the populaceespecially, the poor and least educated (but numerically greater) segment of the people. The supporters of this vision articulated a set of theoretical principles supporting the constitutional design in the collection of occasional essays collected together under the title of The Federalist Papers (1788).

From a more philosophical perspective, the German thinker Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel (17701831) in his Philosophy of Right (1821) endorsed a conception of the state that also sought to redress the divide between absolutism and populism. Hegel evinced considerable skepticism concerning the viabilitylet alone coherenceof unmitigated popular sovereignty such as that endorsed by Rousseau. Hegel instead posited a realm of civil society the members of which concerned themselves with their own narrow and partial interests. In order to ensure that these interests did not come into conflict, they received representation at the level of a legislative body and enforcement by a professionalized and disinterested civil service. But Hegel also insisted that an independent hereditary monarchy, unencumbered by any external constraints, was necessary to ensure that the laws governing the nation arose from an undivided and unimpeachable act of will. Hence, Hegel's king lacks constitutional restraints, in the sense that he is not obligated to defer to the popular determinations of the legislature, but his absolute power is limited to the ability to affirm or deny the statutes with which he is presented.

Obsolescence of Sovereignty?

Given the condition of the political map in the aftermath of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), with its checkerboard of nation-states, sovereignty might seem to be a doctrine with global purchase, taken as universally efficacious and valid. Yet in many places the idea of sovereignty never really took hold, and in many contexts there may be good reason to declare its erosion or increasing irrelevance.

In certain cases, the spread of European political and legal values in the wake of colonialism often was received with indifference, if not hostility. New Zealand's early colonial history is instructive. When the British arrived to settle Aotearoa in the mid-nineteenth century, they entered into an agreement, the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), with some of the tribal elders of the Polynesian (Maori) population that cededor so the colonizers thought"absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty" to the English Crown. The Treaty, set down in both English and Maori languages (of which the latter is the official version), takes as the equivalent for sovereignty the word kwanatanga, a term that means something like "trusteeship" in Maori. Indeed, it remains unclear whether the Maori had any vocabulary at the time that could plausibly be translated as "sovereignty," simply because their worldview, not to mention political and legal language, was so differently constituted than that of the Pakeha (Europeans). The consequences of this crucial failure on the part of the British to recognize the cultural specificity of "sovereignty" resonate into the twenty-first century, as the Maori and Pakeha populations of the country struggle to accommodate the tribal social, economic, and legal system that was never actually surrendered in the context of a representative democracy that claims the status of a sovereign state.

Another illustration of the breakdown of sovereignty derives from the appearance, especially since World War II, of transnational regimes in both the public and private spheres. Economic globalization, free trade zones, and the easy flow of capital across national borders obviously threaten the ability of sovereign states to make crucial decisions about the welfare of their citizens. Moreover, quasi-governmental and nongovernmental agencies and institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union have been granted (some say, usurped) many of the rights and powers customarily associated with sovereignty, whether in a legal, economic, military, or cultural sense. Little wonder that in a 1999 appraisal of the topic, Stephen Krasner refers to the very idea of sovereigntyin our own times, and perhaps even in the pastas "organized hypocrisy." The interdependence that ties together the international state system seems increasingly likely to relegate sovereignty to the dustbin of obsolete concepts.

At the same time, sovereignty throughout the world has come under direct challenge from subnational groupings as well. The rise of regional independence movements, often built around ethno-nationalist agendas, sets in question the basic principle that public power must derive from a single autonomous and supreme source. One encounters the demand for autonomy and sometimes secession even in highly developed nation-states with strong traditions of sovereign authority, such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Canada. It is little wonder that some scholars during the last several decades of the twentieth century spoke about the "re-feudalization" or "re-tribalization" of the political scene globally.

See also Authority ; Monarchy ; Nation ; Power ; State, The .


Anderson, Perry. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: NLB, 1974.

. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London: NLB, 1979.

Baqīr Najm-i Sānī, Muhammad. Advice on the Art of Governance: An Indo-Islamic Mirror for Princes: Mau'izah-i Jahāngīri. Translated by Sajida Sultana Alvi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Beaumanoir, Philippe de. Coutumes de Beauvaisis. Trans. F. R. P. Akehurst. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Bodin, Jean. On Sovereignty. Edited by Julian H. Franklin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Filmer, Sir Robert. Patriarcha and Other Writings. Edited by Johann P. Sommerville. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Richard Tuck. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Kawharu, I. H., ed. Waitangi: Maori and Pakeha Perspectives on the Treaty of Waitangi. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Krasner, Stephen D. Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings. Edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Sim, Stuart, and David Walker. The Discourse of Sovereignty, Hobbes to Fielding: The State of Nature and the Nature of State. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003.

Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Weston, Corinne Comstock, and Janelle Renfrow Greenberg. Subjects and Sovereigns: The Grand Controversy over Legal Sovereignty in Stuart England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Cary J. Nederman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sovereignty." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Sovereignty." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 15, 2017).

"Sovereignty." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from




Political scientists trace the conventional definition of sovereigntysupreme legal authority exercised over a particular territory and peopleto the writings of European legal and political philosophers from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Many view sovereignty as a defining feature of political modernity, and some critical and postmodern theorists regard sovereignty as a discursive practice and, as such, a central problem for contemporary politics, particularly world politics. It is argued that the discursive practice of sovereignty constructs and sustains the state as the supreme authority in a world in which human well being and social justice would be better served by finding ways of simultaneously holding states more accountable to people and by enlarging the role of global civil society. By some accounts, the sovereign state is the cause of war and international anarchy as well as the primary obstacle to the construction of a humane world order.

Writings on sovereignty over the past four centuries reflect two distinct views, one unlimited and absolute, the other restrictive and conditional. The works of Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), Jean Bodin (15301596), Thomas Hobbes (15881679), and John Austin (17901859) fall into the first category. In Austins view law is the command of the sovereign. Machiavelli and Hobbes held that the recognition and exercise of sovereignty as supreme authority is necessary to the establishment of effective government. Bodins conception was so absolute that, in his view, elected officials could not be said to hold sovereign power at all. Such absolute sovereignty was mitigated when it passed historically from the divine right of kings in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries to the state or government. Though Hobbes and Austin did not deny a role for the people, their emphasis on the state as the locus of sovereignty is evident today, as there are no requirements that states be democratic in order to be recognized as possessing sovereign authority accountable to no higher authority, hence the criticism of state sovereignty by todays human rights advocates. In contrast, John Locke (16321704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) argued for a shift in the locus of sovereignty from government to people.

Recent criticisms of sovereignty as a discursive practice stem largely from the work of the influential postmodernist Michel Foucault (19261984), who sought to unveil how sovereignty discourses both correspond to and constrain the way power is constituted in social relations in specific historical and cultural contexts. This exercise reveals the paradox of modernity, where sovereignty, said to reside within the individual, has a totalizing effect when exercised by the state. Philosopher Jacques Derrida (19302004) also notes the contradiction between, on the one hand, sovereignty understood as one group or individual exercising a superior power over others and, on the other, modernitys promise of democracy and equality.

Sovereignty can be viewed within particular contexts such as international law, international political relations, or through a network of legal relations within a federal state, such as the United States. In international law, an absolute concept of sovereignty is less relevant than the sovereign equality of states. States freely enter into legally binding agreements through treaties, but in doing so, they in effect agree to a diminishment of sovereignty. An example is the optional clause to the Statute of the International Court of Justice, which imposes compulsory jurisdiction on all states signing the clause. Some argue that the members of the European Union give up some state sovereignty in favor of pooled sovereignty. A distinction is also made between de jure sovereignty, that is, the legal status of sovereignty, and de facto sovereignty, which allows a state to act sovereign as a practical matter even if not supported by de jure, or legal, recognition.

Sovereign equality is a legal attribute of states in their legal and political relations with another. New states come into existence as a result of being recognized by existing states. Thus the success of a people or a secessionist movement in seeking recognition as a sovereign state will ultimately depend on the political will of existing states. States may also experience diminished sovereignty as a consequence of violating international norms or as a result of the enforcement of international law by other states. Following their defeat in World War II (19391945), for instance, Germany and Japan formed postwar governments under the supervision of the international community, and their ability to maintain military forces was curtailed as a condition of their defeat. More recently, following the United Nations Security Council enforcement action in 1991, Iraqs sovereignty was diminished by the International Atomic Energy Commission inspections and the U.N. designation of no-fly zones.

In a federal system such as the United States, sovereignty can be reserved or shared between the federal and state or provincial governments. Additionally, indigenous peoples within a state can exercise or assert indigenous sovereignty. Although the term indigenous has gained widespread use internationally, U.S. law refers to tribal sovereignty, while Canada and other settler states refer to aboriginal sovereignty. The history of tribal sovereignty in the United States has been troubled, uneven, and often inconsistent, in large part because U.S. law asserts congressional plenary power over indigenous peoples. U.S. law treats tribal sovereignty as a lesser or subordinate form of sovereignty. Though eroded through many of the court decisions during most of the twentieth century, in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the right of self-determination has been strengthened as U.S. law recognizes that indigenous tribes and nations possess many attributes of sovereignty. A move toward international recognition of indigenous rights may further strengthen the legal and political basis of indigenous sovereignty, which indigenous peoples often regard as the ability to control ones own political destiny.

Sovereignty has no intrinsic moral authority. As a legal doctrine or norm, sovereignty is said to have settled the church-state authority crisis of the sixteenth century. Its legitimacy, however, rested at that time on the notion of divine right, whereby authoritative uses of power were grounded in the moral claims of religious loyalty. With the rise of nationalism in the eighteenth century, the moral basis shifted from the church to the people in the form of the nation, so that divine right gave way to popular sovereignty. It soon became evident that nationalism was exclusionary, and as an ideology it could be used to justify heinous atrocities against others who did not belong to the national group controlling the state.

Sovereignty today is the subject of much debate, with some calling for the deterritorialization of sovereignty and others heralding the erosion of the sovereign state in favor of a combination of simultaneously more local and more global societal relations.

SEE ALSO Confederate States of America; Federalism; Monarchy; Totalitarianism


Austin, John. 1995. The Province of Jurisprudence Determined, ed. Wilfred E. Rumble. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. pub. 1832).

Balke, Friedrich. 2005. Derrida and Foucault on Sovereignty. German Law Journal 6 (January 1).

Barker, Joanne. 2005. Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Bartelson, Jens, ed. 1995. A Genealogy of Sovereignty. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Bodin, Jean. 1992. On Sovereignty: Four Chapters from the Six Books of the Commonwealth. Trans. and ed. Julian H. Franklin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. pub. 1576).

Foucault, Michel. 2003. The Essential Foucault, eds. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas S. Rose. New York: New Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1982. Leviathan, ed. C. B. McPherson. New York: Penguin Books. (Orig. pub. 1651).

Ivison, Duncan, Paul Patton, and Will Sanders, eds. 2000. Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kamuf, Peggy. 1991. The Derrida Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Krasner, Stephen. 1999. Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Krasner, Stephen. 2001. Problematic Sovereignty. New York: Columbia University Press.

Locke, John. 2003. Two Treatises on Government and a Letter on Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Orig. pub. 1689).

Machiavelli, Nicolo. 1984. The Prince. New York: Bantam Classics. (Orig. pub. 1532).

Machiavelli, Nicolo. 2003. The Art of War. Trans. Christopher Lynch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Orig. pub. 1520).

Nelsen, Brent F., and Alexander Stubb, eds. 2003. The European Union: Readings on the Theory and Practice of European Integration. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Philpott, Daniel. 2001. Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Porter, Robert Odawi. 2004. Sovereignty, Colonialism, and the Future of the Indigenous Nations: A Reader. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1968. The Social Contract. Trans and ed. Maurice Cranston. New York: Penguin Books. (Orig. pub. 1762).

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2004. A New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Trask, Haunani Kay. 1999. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii. Manoa: University of Hawaii Press.

Weber, Cynthia. 1994. Simulating Sovereignty: Intervention, the State, and Symbolic Exchange. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wilmer, Franke. 1993. The Indigenous Voice in World Politics. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Franke Wilmer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sovereignty." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Sovereignty." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Sovereignty." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


sovereignty, supreme authority in a political community. The concept of sovereignty has had a long history of development, and it may be said that every political theorist since Plato has dealt with the notion in some manner, although not always explicitly. Jean Bodin was the first theorist to formulate a modern concept of sovereignty. In his Six Bookes of a Commonweale (1576) Bodin asserted that the prince, or the sovereign, has the power to declare law. Thomas Hobbes later furthered the concept of kingly sovereignty by stating that the king not only declares law but creates it; he thereby gave the sovereign both absolute moral and political power. Hobbes, like other social-contract theorists, asserted that the king derives his power from a populace who have collectively given up their own former personal sovereignty and power and placed it irretrievably in the king.

The concept of sovereignty was closely related to the growth of the modern nation-state, and today the term is used almost exclusively to describe the attributes of a state rather than a person. A sovereign state is often described as one that is free and independent. In its internal affairs it has undivided jurisdiction over all persons and property within its territory. It claims the right to regulate its economic life without regard for its neighbors and to increase armaments without limit. No other nation may rightfully interfere in its domestic affairs. In its external relations it claims the right to enforce its own conception of rights and to declare war.

This description of a sovereign state is denied, however, by those who assert that international law is binding. Because states are limited by treaties and international obligations and are not legally permitted by the United Nations Charter to commit aggression at will, they argue that the absolute freedom of a sovereign state is, and should be, a thing of the past. In current international practice this view is generally accepted. The United Nations is today considered the principal organ for restraining the exercise of sovereignty.

In the United States, the nation (i.e. the federal government) and each state are considered sovereign. Among conflicts in which the concept comes into play are those between the federal and state governments (see states' rights) and those between citizens and either the federal or a state government. Governments are generally held to be immune from suit for consequences of their sovereign acts (those acts the government was constituted or empowered to perform). This "sovereign immunity" must be waived to permit suit against the government. It is also encountered in claims that government officials, in pursuance of their duties, be immune from having to give evidence before a tribunal or inquiry.

See C. E. Merriam, History of the Theory of Sovereignty since Rousseau (1900, repr. 1968); H. J. Laski, Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917, repr. 1968); B. de Jouvenel, Sovereignty (tr. 1957); J. L. Brierly, The Law of Nations (6th ed. 1963); F. H. Hinsley, Sovereignty (1966); A. James, Sovereign Statehood (1986).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"sovereignty." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"sovereignty." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 15, 2017).

"sovereignty." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



The supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power by which an independent state is governed and from which all specific political powers arederived; the intentional independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign interference.

Sovereignty is the power of a state to do everything necessary to govern itself, such as making, executing, and applying laws; imposing and collecting taxes; making war and peace; and forming treaties or engaging in commerce with foreign nations.

The individual states of the United States do not possess the powers of external sovereignty, such as the right to deport undesirable persons, but each does have certain attributes of internal sovereignty, such as the power to regulate the acquisition and transfer of property within its borders. The sovereignty of a state is determined with reference to the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sovereignty." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Sovereignty." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (December 15, 2017).

"Sovereignty." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



Sovereignty is the supreme power of an individual, country, or state to govern internal affairs without interference from any other comparable authority. Sovereign countries can conduct foreign affairs with other nations including negotiating treaties, engaging in international commerce, and making war and peace. Sovereignty defines political authority within the modern nation.

Sovereignty first applied to a king's divine right to rule his subjects. Unlimited power was believed to flow from God to the king enabling him to rule his kingdom. The term evolved through time to represent the power of a state to take every action necessary to regulate itself. In democratic countries, the ultimate source of sovereignty or government power lies with the people.

In 1777, the Second Continental Congress of the United States adopted the Articles of Confederation giving Congress a few powers typical of an independent sovereign nation. Congress alone had the power to conduct foreign affairs, negotiate treaties, control a national army, coin money, and operate a national postal system. The Articles did deliberately keep the central government weak by limiting sovereignty. Each state had its own state court to settle disputes. All important Congressional decisions required approval of at least nine states, and these resolutions were mere suggestions to the states. This limited sovereignty granted to Congress proved ineffective and ten years later the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It was followed by ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. The Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." The United States is a sovereign nation in external affairs but the states do hold certain attributes of internal sovereignty, such as providing for public schools. The U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, is the ultimate determinant of sovereignty powers in the nation.

"Popular sovereignty" is another variant of the term sovereignty in U.S. history, referring to the principle of allowing settlers to decide on their own a territory's slavery policy. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 embraced popular sovereignty. Another use is sovereign rights of territorial waters. The United States has sovereign ocean rights extending 12 nautical miles from shore. These rights include fishing, shipping, navigation, and use of natural resources.

See also: Article of Confederation, Continental Congress (Second), Kansas-Nebraska Act

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sovereignty." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Sovereignty." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . (December 15, 2017).

"Sovereignty." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


sovereignty Ultimate authority, held by a person or institution, against which there is no appeal. In early modern Europe, sovereignty came to be ascribed to the absolute monarchs of the new nation-states. In Britain, sovereignty resides in Parliament. In most countries, it now resides in ‘the people’. Since 1945 states agreed to pool sovereignty in certain intergovernmental organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"sovereignty." World Encyclopedia. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"sovereignty." World Encyclopedia. . (December 15, 2017).

"sovereignty." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


sovereigntybanditti, bitty, chitty, city, committee, ditty, gritty, intercity, kitty, nitty-gritty, Pitti, pity, pretty, shitty, slitty, smriti, spitty, titty, vittae, witty •fifty, fifty-fifty, nifty, shifty, swiftie, thrifty •guilty, kiltie, silty •flinty, linty, minty, shinty •ballistae, Christie, Corpus Christi, misty, twisty, wristy •sixty •deity, gaiety (US gayety), laity, simultaneity, spontaneity •contemporaneity, corporeity, femineity, heterogeneity, homogeneity •anxiety, contrariety, dubiety, impiety, impropriety, inebriety, notoriety, piety, satiety, sobriety, ubiety, variety •moiety •acuity, ambiguity, annuity, assiduity, congruity, contiguity, continuity, exiguity, fatuity, fortuity, gratuity, ingenuity, perpetuity, perspicuity, promiscuity, suety, superfluity, tenuity, vacuity •rabbity •improbity, probity •acerbity • witchetty • crotchety •heredity •acidity, acridity, aridity, avidity, cupidity, flaccidity, fluidity, frigidity, humidity, hybridity, insipidity, intrepidity, limpidity, liquidity, lividity, lucidity, morbidity, placidity, putridity, quiddity, rabidity, rancidity, rapidity, rigidity, solidity, stolidity, stupidity, tepidity, timidity, torpidity, torridity, turgidity, validity, vapidity •commodity, oddity •immodesty, modesty •crudity, nudity •fecundity, jocundity, moribundity, profundity, rotundity, rubicundity •absurdity • difficulty • gadgety •majesty • fidgety • rackety •pernickety, rickety •biscuity •banality, duality, fatality, finality, ideality, legality, locality, modality, morality, natality, orality, reality, regality, rurality, tonality, totality, venality, vitality, vocality •fidelity •ability, agility, civility, debility, docility, edibility, facility, fertility, flexility, fragility, futility, gentility, hostility, humility, imbecility, infantility, juvenility, liability, mobility, nihility, nobility, nubility, puerility, senility, servility, stability, sterility, tactility, tranquillity (US tranquility), usability, utility, versatility, viability, virility, volatility •ringlety •equality, frivolity, jollity, polity, quality •credulity, garrulity, sedulity •nullity •amity, calamity •extremity • enmity •anonymity, dimity, equanimity, magnanimity, proximity, pseudonymity, pusillanimity, unanimity •comity •conformity, deformity, enormity, multiformity, uniformity •subcommittee • pepperminty •infirmity •Christianity, humanity, inanity, profanity, sanity, urbanity, vanity •amnesty •lenity, obscenity, serenity •indemnity, solemnity •mundanity • amenity •affinity, asininity, clandestinity, divinity, femininity, infinity, masculinity, salinity, trinity, vicinity, virginity •benignity, dignity, malignity •honesty •community, immunity, importunity, impunity, opportunity, unity •confraternity, eternity, fraternity, maternity, modernity, paternity, taciturnity •serendipity, snippety •uppity •angularity, barbarity, bipolarity, charity, circularity, clarity, complementarity, familiarity, granularity, hilarity, insularity, irregularity, jocularity, linearity, parity, particularity, peculiarity, polarity, popularity, regularity, secularity, similarity, singularity, solidarity, subsidiarity, unitarity, vernacularity, vulgarity •alacrity • sacristy •ambidexterity, asperity, austerity, celerity, dexterity, ferrety, posterity, prosperity, severity, sincerity, temerity, verity •celebrity • integrity • rarity •authority, inferiority, juniority, majority, minority, priority, seniority, sonority, sorority, superiority •mediocrity • sovereignty • salubrity •entirety •futurity, immaturity, impurity, maturity, obscurity, purity, security, surety •touristy •audacity, capacity, fugacity, loquacity, mendacity, opacity, perspicacity, pertinacity, pugnacity, rapacity, sagacity, sequacity, tenacity, veracity, vivacity, voracity •laxity •sparsity, varsity •necessity •complexity, perplexity •density, immensity, propensity, tensity •scarcity • obesity •felicity, toxicity •fixity, prolixity •benedicite, nicety •anfractuosity, animosity, atrocity, bellicosity, curiosity, fabulosity, ferocity, generosity, grandiosity, impecuniosity, impetuosity, jocosity, luminosity, monstrosity, nebulosity, pomposity, ponderosity, porosity, preciosity, precocity, reciprocity, religiosity, scrupulosity, sinuosity, sumptuosity, velocity, verbosity, virtuosity, viscosity •paucity • falsity • caducity • russety •adversity, biodiversity, diversity, perversity, university •sacrosanctity, sanctity •chastity •entity, identity •quantity • certainty •cavity, concavity, depravity, gravity •travesty • suavity •brevity, levity, longevity •velvety • naivety •activity, nativity •equity •antiquity, iniquity, obliquity, ubiquity •propinquity

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"sovereignty." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"sovereignty." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 15, 2017).

"sovereignty." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from