Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty is the idea that the government gets its power from its citizens. This belief is based on the concept that the government should exist for the sole purpose of benefitting its citizens, and if the government is not doing everything it can to protect its people, then it should be disbanded. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that human beings, by their very nature, are selfish, and that if they are left to their own devices, their lives would be, “nasty, brutish, and short.” To explore this concept, consider the following popular sovereignty definition.

Definition of Popular Sovereignty


  1. The idea that the government is created by, and gains its power from, its people, and that it must operate in conformity to the will of the people.


1840-1850    Americanism

What is Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty is the idea that the people of a certain region should be able to decide for themselves who is going to represent them in their government. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that, in order for people to be able to survive as a race, they must give their rights over to a ruler who can provide them with the protection they need in order to thrive. In this, Hobbes believed that an absolute monarchy was the ideal form of government.

Another English philosopher, John Locke, believed that the power afforded to a monarchy or to a government is bestowed by their people. He expressed his belief that people enter into a social contract with their government – that is, that they give up their rights to their ruler in exchange for the security that ruler can provide, and the laws that are created to protect the nation’s citizens.

Locke also believed that individuals are granted certain natural rights, such as the right to own property, and that the government does not have permission to infringe upon these rights unless the people agree. If a king or other authoritative ruler does, in fact, break this social contract by taking away a citizen’s rights or property without that individual’s consent, the people then have the right to organize a resistance and, if considered to be necessary, overthrow the leader.

The term “sovereign” in popular sovereignty refers to the group of citizens as a whole, and it has power over matters of the common good. This was spelled out by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise, “The Social Contract,” in which he states, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” These chains, according to Rousseau, represent the repression of man’s natural right to freedom, and protection of that freedom is the reason man enters into civil society to begin with.

According to Rousseau, the people as sovereign are united in their focus to look out for the common good, in contrast to the individual, which cares more about his or her own selfish needs than what is best for society as a whole. Popular sovereignty grew in popularity to such a point that the Founding Fathers included it in the U.S. Constitution, making it one of the six fundamental principles on which the Constitution is built. The other five principles include limited government, separation of powers, federalism, judicial review, and checks and balances.

Popular Sovereignty in American History

Examples of popular sovereignty in American history began with the American Revolution, which was inspired by a major change in the concept of a people’s government, and how it would be shaped going forward. During the Revolution, the Americans replaced King George III’s sovereignty with a collective sovereign comprised of the people. From that point on, American revolutionaries committed themselves to the idea that a government can only be considered legitimate if it is based on the concept of popular sovereignty – an idea they did not come up with themselves but had in fact borrowed from the English.

Consent of the Governed

Consent of the governed, as Thomas Jefferson defined it, means that citizens have the right to both create and participate in their government, either directly or through the representatives they elect, and that they have every right to demand equal treatment and civil liberties from that government. “Consent of the governed” was a hot-button topic for its day, and not just in America.

Dissenters against the English monarchy demanded more civil rights, their argument being that human beings are born with certain natural and human rights, no matter who heads up their government. Simultaneously, in the American colonies, people were rebelling against high taxes, duties, and tariffs – demanding to be consulted over how much money was owed to the Crown.

Jefferson ensured that the ideology of “consent of the governed” be made a pillar of the United States government, guaranteeing that those citizens who had been denied their rights under English rule would be able to enjoy them under the U.S. Constitution, and the concept is still in practice today. This type of government is illustrated as the people’s elected officials review bills to determine which should be made law. The people are allowed access to government meetings, a practice that helps reassure the American people that its government is both transparent, and accessible to all.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

In 1820, the issue of slavery had become so inflamed in the United States, that the people were divided into pro-slavery and anti-slavery camps. Fighting broke out, and eventually slavery was made illegal in the North, by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In the 1850s, growth led to consideration of admitting the territories of Kansas and Nebraska as states. Representatives of the southern states dragged their feet on this because of a dispute over whether the Kansas territory would be a free state or a slave state.

Illinois representative Stephen A. Douglas applied the concept of popular sovereignty to determining the answer to this issue, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by Congress in 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act spurned two unexpected results.

The first of these results was that the Act actually provided a significant boost to slavery’s reach by dropping the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which stated that slavery would never be allowed on Kansas soil). Northern anti-slavery forces united overnight in their “anti-Nebraska” outrage to put an end to the expansion of slavery.

The second unexpected result was that supporters of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery movements filtered into Kansas for the purpose of voting on the slavery expansion issue. The hope was that their votes would tip the scales in favor of their own cause. This migration ultimately led to the mini Civil War known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Bleeding Kansas

An example of popular sovereignty application in American history that had unfortunate consequences came when violence broke out in Kansas as a direct result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This period, from 1854-1858, saw so much bloody conflict that it has been called “Bleeding Kansas” ever since.

Once Stephen Douglas and other congressional representatives pushed through their idea of allowing popular sovereignty to determine where the new line separating which states slavery would be accepted. These men believed that the residents of the territories should be allowed to vote on whether or not slavery would be allowed in their particular territories.

Bleeding Kansas took a sharp upturn in violence in 1855, when an armed group of men, who were in favor of slavery, burned down the “free soil” town of Lawrence, Kansas. The Free Soil party was fanatical about keeping slavery from spreading west, as the nation expanded in that direction.

In response, John Brown – a fanatical abolitionist – and his followers, executed a number of pro-slavery men the following year at Pottawatomie Creek. That same year, a South Carolina congressman violently attacked a Massachusetts senator with his cane, after the senator made a strong speech about slavery and the violence that was happening in Kansas at that time.

The violence continued for another two years, finally ending in 1858. About 200 people were killed in Bleeding Kansas, which would eventually be considered a minor civil war. It was this period of popular sovereignty in American history, in fact, that led to the American Civil War, in which 620,000 men lost their lives over the issue of slavery.

Popular Sovereignty Example in a State’s Power

In 1777, the Executive Council of Georgia authorized a purchase of supplies for use during the Revolutionary War from a South Carolina businessman by the name of Robert Farquhar. However, once Georgia received the supplies, it did not pay as agreed.

After Farquhar’s death, the executor of his estate, Alexander Chisholm, sued the state of Georgia in federal court, in an attempt to collect on the debt. Georgia didn’t even show up, claiming that, because it was a sovereign state, it was not subject to the federal court’s authority, nor could it be sued without approving of the suit itself.

In this example of popular sovereignty in American history, the first question before U.S. Supreme Court was whether the state was subject to the federal government, and to the U.S. Supreme Court itself. The Court ruled that the Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution clearly gives authority over controversies between the states, or between citizens and a state, to the Supreme Court of the land, as it states:

“The judicial Power shall extend … to Controversies between two or more States; – between a State and Citizens of another State; – between Citizens of different States; – between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.”

In his written opinion, Justice James Wilson compared an individual man to a group of men – in this case, a state. While an individual man has to obey the laws, so too does the state. A state should fulfill a commitment it makes the same way a man should, and a state is ultimately a group of men who share common beliefs. When the people of the United States united to draft the Constitution, the people of Georgia were among them, and so too did they agree to the same rights, laws, and policies as did everyone else in the nation.

Justice Wilson rationalized that if an individual man should obey the law and, by proxy, a higher court, then the state must do the same because the state is nothing more than a collection of individual men appointed to represent the people, or the “sovereignty.” In a 4-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court held that sovereign power was held by the citizens themselves, and not the “artificial person” that was the State of Georgia and, as such, the federal courts did have jurisdiction of the individual states and the citizens of those states.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Abolitionist – A person who supported the elimination of slavery.
  • Absolute Monarchy – A form of government in which the monarch has absolute power over the people.
  • Dissent – To hold or express an unpopular opinion.
  • Natural Rights – Those rights endowed by birth, including life, liberty, and happiness, among others.
  • Popular – Intended for or suited to the needs of the general public.
  • Sovereignty – Supreme power or decision-making authority.

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