Few Revolutionary concepts are expressed as succinctly as the principle contained in the first three words of the United States Constitution: "We, the people." By this simple phrasing the federal Constitution institutionalized the "revolution principle" that had rejected the sovereignty of king-in-parliament and replaced it with a structure embodying the sovereignty of the people assembled in conventions and implemented in republican political institutions. Trying to condense his lectures on American law into basic principles, the lawyer and politician James Wilson (1742–1798) found it in popular sovereignty. "Permit me to mention one great principle, the vital principle I may well call it, which diffuses animation and vigor through all the others," he explained. "The principle I mean is this, that the supreme or sovereign power resides in the citizens at large." From—or upon—that principle rested the justification for the major achievements of the Revolution: a government that was limited, whose representatives were directly responsible and accountable to their constituents, and in which powers were checked and balanced by function as well as between the states and a central authority.
In its initial practical application in the newly independent states, however, the theory of popular sovereignty had created unanticipated political crises that endangered the survival of republican government. With suffrage expanded, residency required of representatives, and frequent elections, the reformed state legislatures claimed to be a faithful reflection of the popular will. Thus legitimated in their assumption of unmediated political authority based on popular sovereignty, they exercised their powers often erratically and without restraint, threatening property and civil liberties and generating fear for the future of republican government. The cure for the excesses of popular sovereignty was actually more popular sovereignty, though reconstituted in a federal framework that used the concept as a foundation for changes in the structure of government as revolutionary as anything attempted in 1776. Federalists urging ratification of the Constitution thus rallied behind the maxim, "All power is in the people, and not in the state governments."
In so doing, however, they were not simply redistributing political authority between national and local units, but rather simultaneously enhancing and limiting it at both levels. Vesting all power in the undifferentiated "people" and then shaping political institutions to embody their will constituted the American revolution principle. British government was vested in the king-in-parliament, a structure that embodied the body politic as three distinct "orders," the king, the aristocracy, and the democracy. In a system of "mixed government," each order protected its interest, or estate, against the others. This arrangement did not check power, however, because the actual institutions of government operated without effectual restraint. It was against such a concentration of effectively indivisible sovereign authority as achieved by king-in-parliament that Americans had rebelled, and in place of which they had vainly sought to implement popular sovereignty since 1776.
It was the achievement of the Philadelphia Convention to put this concept into practical form in 1787 and to embody the previously amorphous principle of popular sovereignty in a written structure. Wilson tried to assure doubters that all political authority was limited by what he called the "great truth … that in the United States the people retain the supreme power" and reserve the right to restrain or empower government as they see fit. To skeptics who demanded a Bill of Rights, James Madison responded with a proposed declaration that included language "that all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the people." Madison's suggestion was not used, but it had correctly identified the means of putting Revolutionary ideas into practice. Reiterating the American revolution principle that founded all power in all the people, the framers produced a government in which each functional branch of government possessed clearly delimited authority but drew it directly from the sovereignty of the people. The result was government of balanced and limited powers derived from all the people rather than government of mixed social and legal orders possessing ill-defined powers. As "Publius," the pseudonymous author of The Federalist explained, the new American nation was a "compound republic" in which "the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct [state and federal] governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments." To each only a portion of the people's sovereignty was allotted, and each was subject to the people. In justifying judicial review, for example, Alexander Hamilton rejected the criticism that it assumed "a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both." Popular sovereignty had established fundamental law, which the courts were to interpose to restrain other branches from exceeding the will of the people.
The legitimizing of government as the genuine expression of popular sovereignty, however, subtly but significantly changed American constitutionalism. In his Farewell Address, George Washington lauded a government as resting on popular sovereignty. But he spoke in a political atmosphere of conflict and challenge to many of the actions of his Federalist Party. Washington's words (written for him by Hamilton) testified to the new mantle of popular sovereignty claimed by government in the new Republic—a claim not accepted by all, and even opposed with violence by some. The sovereignty of "the people out of doors," the collective acts of groups deemed mobs by the British but championed as constitutional expressions of the popular will in the 1770s, now lacked the legitimacy of the people as embodied in formal constitutional institutions created under the mantle of popular sovereignty. Washington thus went on to explain that "the constitution which at any time exists till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government." With popular sovereignty ratified and given form in written constitutions, the conflict of power and liberty was transformed into contests over politics, government, and law in the new nation.
Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: Norton, 1988.
Novak, William. The People's Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Wills, Garry. "James Wilson's New Meaning for Sovereignty." In Conceptual Change and the Constitution. Edited by Terence Ball and J. G. A. Pocock. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969, 1998.
POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY. A broad political principle originally advanced by members of the English Parliament in the 1640s as they sought to limit the divine right of kings and asserted the right of self-government, popular sovereignty acquired a new, albeit ambiguous, meaning between 1847 and 1860. In August 1846, Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman David Wilmot argued that language forever banning slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico should be added to a Mexican-American War appropriations bill. His Wilmot Proviso raised the complex question of whether or not Congress possessed the power to prohibit slavery in the western territories. The United States soon acquired some 500,000 square miles of land from Mexico, and leading Democrats, including presidential contender Lewis Cass of Michigan, felt compelled to respond to Wilmot.
In a December 1847 letter to his Tennessee political supporter, A. O. P. Nicholson, Senator Cass argued that the Wilmot Proviso was unconstitutional because the federal government lacked authority to interfere with slavery in states or territories. Cass declared that the actual settlers of a new territory should decide whether or not to permit slavery. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas defended this view of popular sovereignty for the next decade. Like Cass, Douglas believed that slavery was a local matter. By embracing popular sovereignty, these prominent western Democrats and their supporters hoped to advance their own political interests, preserve the national Democratic Party, and alleviate sectional tensions.
Seeking to placate both pro-and antislavery men within their party, Cass and Douglas never specified precisely when the residents of a new territory would decide whether or not to permit slavery. Thus popular sovereignty as loosely defined in the published Nicholson letter and in later pronouncements by Cass and Douglas initially reassured Southern Democrats who assumed that slavery would be permitted at least until a territory drafted a constitution and pursued statehood. Northern Democrats, in contrast, could assure their constituents that a territorial legislature might prohibit slavery at any time prior to statehood.
Cass, Douglas, and other moderate Democrats enjoyed some political successes. In 1848 Cass won the Democratic presidential nomination, but the votes cast for the new Free Soil Party cost him the White House.
In 1854, however, when Douglas backed a bill to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territories on the principle of popular sovereignty, he was stunned by the storm of protest from Northern voters. Antislavery Northerners formed the new Republican Party to prevent the extension of slavery. Douglas denied that the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision negated popular sovereignty. When Douglas articulated his Freeport Doctrine in 1858 in debates with Abraham Lincoln, he fanned Southern fears that territorial legislatures would fail to pass the local laws necessary to support slavery. By 1860 many Southerners became convinced that popular or "squatter" sovereignty would not meet their needs. In that year's presidential election, a sectionally divided Democratic Party enabled Lincoln to defeat Douglas. Support for popular sovereignty tarnished the reputations of Lewis Cass and Stephen A. Douglas during and after their lifetimes because these pragmatic politicians did not treat slavery as a moral issue.
Klunder, Willard Carl. Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.
The concept of popular sovereignty is grounded in three terms: popular, which refers to behavior or sentiments associated with the common people or with all of the people, as in popular culture and popular opinion; sovereign, which refers to a person or group invested with the highest authority and exercising supreme power, as with a sovereign monarch or government; and sovereignty, which refers to the condition or quality of being sovereign, as with the sovereignty of states in the international community.
The idea of popular sovereignty took root in the West with the onrush of modernism . This was especially evident in the sphere of governance and politics. By the end of the sixteenth century, new states, mostly in Europe, were being carved out of old empires—a process that spread across the world and continued to almost the end of the twentieth century. Early on, a distinctive vocabulary was devised to explain and legitimize this historic development, beginning, in 1576, with the French thinker Jean Bodin (1530–1596) introducing the legal concept of state sovereignty.
In a generic sense the concept of sovereignty speaks to the right of the government in a state to make and enforce rules within a defined territory containing a permanent population, without external interference. A state that is free and independent from others, and commands obedience from its citizens or subjects, is regarded as sovereign, or invested with sovereignty.
For Bodin, sovereignty was lodged in a ruler, the monarch, who, unrestrained by law, had unqualified power over the people inhabiting a defined territory. Subsequently, political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau instead associated the concept of sovereignty with either the government or the people themselves. This was the basis for popular sovereignty, a doctrine in law and political theory holding that government is created by and subject to the will of the people.
In the modern parlance of governance and politics, popular sovereignty has been displaced by another concept, democracy, meaning, literally, the "rule of the people." In its modern incarnation, popular sovereignty is integral to institutional arrangements for arriving at political decisions intended to serve the common good by making the people decide issues by electing individuals who then carry out the popular will.
Modern authoritarianism often seeks to cloak tyranny and repression with the vocabulary of popular sovereignty. For example, in the aftermath of World War II (post-1945) the Soviet Union imposed "people's democracies" throughout Central and Eastern Europe, mocking the key attributes of modern democracy: governance in accordance with the rule of law; citizens having the right of free expression of opinion on matters of policy; and respect for a broad range of human rights. In the early twenty-first century a similar disposition can be found in numerous authoritarian societies, among them the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea).
Commager, Henry Steele, ed. Documents of American History. New York: F.S. Crofts & Company, 1943.
MacIver, R. M. The Web of Government. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
UN General Assembly. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Resolution 217A. New York: United Nations, 1948.
In the mid-1800s the U.S. Congress struggled with how to organize western territories—in terms of whether they would be free or slave regions—without upsetting the tenuous political balance between North and South. Congress settled on the idea of popular sovereignty, relying on the vote of the people in the territory to decide the question for themselves.
The biggest proponent of popular sovereignty (and the person who coined the term) was Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) of Illinois. An ardent expansionist, Douglas viewed popular sovereignty as a way for the nation to get on with the business of organizing new territories. But policy of popular sovereignty had ramifications that even its strongest supporters did not foresee.
Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), two new territories were established, and the voters in each territory were charged with deciding the question of slavery for themselves. Many lawmakers assumed Nebraska residents would vote in favor of a free territory and Kansas residents would vote in favor of slavery. Instead, advocates from both sides sent people to settle Kansas, which became the backdrop for violent conflicts between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces, earning it the nickname "Bleeding Kansas."
The practice of sending people into a territory, sometimes only temporarily, to swing the vote prompted critics of popular sovereignty to dub it "squatter sovereignty." The tragic conflict in Kansas was evidence that the policy had failed. With the failure of popular sovereignty, federal lawmakers had exhausted their abilities to address the nation's political and ideological problems, which would only be resolved by the outcome of the American Civil War (1861–1865).
"Popular sovereignty" was a solution proposed by some northern Democrats to the problem of slavery's access to the territories. As an alternative to the wilmot proviso, Michigan Senator Lewis Cass proposed in 1847 that slavery be left "to the people inhabiting [the territories] to regulate their internal concerns their own way." He later concluded that congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories was unconstitutional. Popular sovereignty was a radical innovation: never before had residents of the territories been thought to be invested with sovereignty, let alone a territorial sovereignty implying that the federal government lacked substantive regulatory power over the territories.
Illinois Senator stephen a. douglas took up popular sovereignty in 1854, recommending that the missouri compromise be jettisoned in order to get the slavery question out of Congress and leave it to the settlers of the territories. Though adopted in the kansas-nebraska act, popular sovereignty soon fell into disfavor in both the North and the South. Douglas and other northern Democrats rejected the travesty made of it by President james buchanan in his attempt to force slavery into Kansas, while southern leaders abandoned it in favor of a constitutional program that would have forced slavery into all the territories.
William M. Wiecek