Popular Sovereignty

Regardless of how the nation state gains power, its citizens are usually given certain rights. As a result, the nation state has certain rights such as liberty, or freedom from outside forces. This freedom is called popular sovereignty.


Popular sovereignty is a form of power that a nation state has over itself and its people. There are several key questions that need to be answered to understand popular sovereignty: what is a nation state, what is power, and why (because of power and statehood) is popular sovereignty important. This paper will also use some historical works to show the good and bad aspects of popular sovereignty.

A nation state is, very simply, a group or nation of people who live under the rule of one government. An example of a nation state is the United States. The U.S. is different from a state, such as, Indiana, because the United States government rules all the people in all 50 states whereas Indiana's government rules only Indiana. Sometimes the nation state is elected by the people and sometimes the nation state government imposes itself on the people. Most often people in a nation state have similar traditions, culture, and identity. Regardless of how the nation state gains power, usually its citizens are given certain rights. This also means that the nation state has certain rights such as liberty, or freedom, from outside forces. This freedom is called popular sovereignty .

Historic Roots

In order to understand popular sovereignty one must appreciate the role power plays and its relationship to the state and popular sovereignty. Power, according to The New World of Politics: An Introduction to Political Science, is "The ability -- political, legal, economic, military, social, or moral - of one political actor to influence another political actor to do or not do something" (Riemer and Simon, 469). Therefore, when one nation state tries to oppress another nation state this is an attack on the first nation state's popular sovereignty. A prime example of this kind of attack is when Iraq took over Kuwait during the Gulf War. Iraq was exerting power over the rights and liberty of citizens of another country and, in doing so, threatened the popular sovereignty of that nation.

The concept of popular sovereignty essentially says that the collective identity of a nation state's people possesses the right to liberty from oppression by outside sources. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of the famous book called Democracy in America, found there could be problems with popular sovereignty. De Tocqueville feared that if citizens put too much power into the hands of its electedgovernment, they would lose their individual freedoms. As de Tocqueville states:

When the sovereign is elected, or when he is closely supervised by a legislature which is in very truth elected and free, he may go to greater lengths in oppressing the individual citizen, but such oppression is always less degrading. For each man can still think, though he is obstructed and reduced to powerlessness, that his obedience is only to himself and that it is to one of his desire that he is sacrificing all the others. (de Tocqueville, 693)

By this de Tocqueville meant that government needs to be free and democratic and it needs to make sure that the citizens of that government have ways to keep their elected government from becoming too powerful. There are reasons why de Tocqueville's worries are valid but, in the American model, popular sovereignty was good because it helped a large group of people join together as one group and exert their power over European countries that wanted control of America.

Another famous book that argues the good qualities of popular sovereignty is The Federalist or more commonly known as The Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers were written by three men, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison (who would later become president), and John Jay, during the 1780s. They argued that popular sovereignty was good because it was a way to protect the values, freedom, and identity of a nation state from other countries that might try to take them away:

In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills
[the 13 original colonies] is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. It has happened as was to have been foreseen. The measures of the Union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the states have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand. (Federalist No. 15, 72).

By this, Alexander Hamilton, the author of this Paper, was stating that a nation state must be strong as a whole to protect itself. Before the 13 Colonies became the United States they were vulnerable. When a nation state has a strong government then its popular sovereignty is protected.


Popular sovereignty is an important part of a nation state's government. Without it, the rights and liberties of its citizens are not fully protected by national or international standards. Also, the power and strength that the nation state holds is very important in the protection of the nation state.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Popular sovereignty is tied to the philanthropic sector because often the sector helps assure the preservation of the concept. To start, popular sovereignty makes it so a nation has certain sovereign freedoms. If that nation's sovereign freedoms are violated then things must be done to preserve those freedoms. An example is when human rights are violated. The preservation of these rights helps make human life and national peace better, and their violation helps to jeopardize popular sovereignty. There are many organizations in the philanthropic sector that strive to make sure that popular sovereignty remains strong and secure, particularly through the preservation of related rights.

Key Related Ideas

  • American Revolution

  • Concept of the nation
  • Freedom
  • Liberty

Important People Related to the Topic

Alexis de Tocqueville

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

Boehm Foundation
http://members.aol.com/boehmfdn [no longer available]
Mission: The Boehm Foundation provides support to grassroots groups in the U.S. and their support organizations working to advance democratic values, civil and economic rights and to eliminate the root causes of conflict.

Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
Mission: Through its programs of Civil Society, Environment, Flint Area and Pathways out of Poverty and more specific program areas, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation seeks to fulfill its mission of supporting efforts that promote a just, equitable and sustainable society.

CarEth Foundation
Mission: The CarEth Foundation seeks to promote a compassionate world of enduring and just peace with social, economic and political equality for all.


Brock, William R., ed. The Federalist. Vermont: Everyman, 1996.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. New York: Harper Perrenial: 1988.

National Network of Grantmakers [online]. Available: www.nng.org. (April 6 2001).

Riemer, Neal and Douglas W. Simon. The New World of Politics: An Introduction to Political Science, Third Edition. San Diego: Collegiate Press: 1994.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.