Popular Sovereignty - History

Popular Sovereignty - History

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Popular sovereignty - idea that government should reflect the general will of the people, or the interests that all citizens have in common. Political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) described this concept in Du contrat social (The Social Contract), published in 1762.

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Popular Sovereignty and Slavery

Popular Sovereignty and Slavery
What was Popular Sovereignty and how did it affect the issue of slavery? The idea, or doctrine, of Popular Sovereignty was used by the framers of the United States Constitution as a founding principle of the government asserting rule by the people. The idea of Popular Sovereignty was also cited in the years leading up to the American Civil War asserting the right of the people living in a new territory to decide by vote of their territorial legislature whether or not slavery would be allowed. The idea of Popular Sovereignty was therefore used in debates concerning the slavery extension issue in new territories and states (refer to the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates).

Popular Sovereignty and Slavery Issue for kids
Franklin Pierce was the 14th American President who served in office from March 4, 1853 to March 4, 1857. One of the important events during his presidency was the Popular Sovereignty and Slavery extension issue.

Territorial Expansion Map

Popular Sovereignty and the Slavery Debate
The Popular Sovereignty and Slavery debate began in 1846 following the Annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War which had had highlighted the issue of US Territorial Expansion and the question of whether slavery should be permitted in new states. In less than 100 years treaties had made by the United States acquiring new land and extending US territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, as indicated on the territorial expansion map.

Popular Sovereignty and the Slavery Doctrine
The Popular Sovereignty and Slavery doctrine was first proposed in 1847 by Vice President George Dallas as a political policy that would allow the American settlers of new federal territories to decide whether to enter the Union as free or slave states. The idea was taken up by Lewis Cass in his 1848 presidential campaign causing a split in the Democratic party , which led to many anti-slavery Democratic politicians to join the Free Soil Party .

Popular Sovereignty and the Slavery Issue for kids: The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act
Popular Sovereignty was an important feature of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act which was drafted by Stephen A. Douglas and created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and opened new lands for settlement. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed white male settlers in Kansas and Nebraska to decide, through popular sovereignty, whether they would allow slavery within each territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that retained the balance between slave and free states admitted to the Union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty and slavery divided the country and pointed the nation towards civil war.

Popular Sovereignty and the Slavery Issue for kids: Bleeding Kansas
The Popular Sovereignty and Slavery issue exploded with critics of the doctrine calling it "squatter sovereignty." Violence broke out between proslavery and anti-slavery factions and reached a state of low intensity civil war and this disastrous event became known Bleeding Kansas.

Popular Sovereignty and Slavery Issue: The Republican Party is formed
The issue of Popular Sovereignty and Slavery led to a turmoil in US politics. The Free Soil Party and the newly formed National Union Party emerged as the new Republican Party in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The goal of new Republican Party, that was based in the north, was to stop the expansion of slavery.

Popular Sovereignty and Slavery for kids
The info about the Popular Sovereignty and Slavery provides interesting facts and important information about this important event that occured during the presidency of the 14th President of the United States of America.

Popular Sovereignty and Slavery Debate: Lincoln is elected President
Within six years Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln won the U.S. presidential election in 1860 gaining many votes due to his Popular Sovereignty and Anti-Slavery Debate. Following his election several southern states seceded from the Union and the establishment of the Confederacy unleashed the Civil War of 1861 - 1865. The issue of Popular Sovereignty was one of the Causes of the Civil War.

Black History for kids: Important People and Events
For visitors interested in African American History refer to Black History - People and Events. A useful resource for teachers, kids, schools and colleges undertaking projects for the Black History Month.

Popular Sovereignty and Slavery - President Franklin Pierce Video
The article on the Popular Sovereignty and Slavery provides an overview of one of the Important issues of his presidential term in office. The following Franklin Pierce video will give you additional important facts and dates about the political events experienced by the 14th American President whose presidency spanned from March 4, 1853 to March 4, 1857.

Popular Sovereignty and Slavery

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Popular sovereignty in its modern sense is an idea that dates to the social contracts school (mid-17th to mid-18th centuries), represented by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), author of The Social Contract, a prominent political work that clearly highlighted the ideals of "general will" and further matured the idea of popular sovereignty. The central tenet is that the legitimacy of rule or of law is based on the consent of the governed. Popular sovereignty is thus a basic tenet of most republics, and in some monarchies. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were the most influential thinkers of this school, all postulating that individuals choose to enter into a social contract with one another, thus voluntarily giving up some of their natural freedom in return for protection from dangers derived from the freedom of others. Whether men were seen as naturally more prone to violence and rapine (Hobbes) or cooperation and kindness (Rousseau), the idea that a legitimate social order emerges only when the liberties and duties are equal among citizens binds the social contract thinkers to the concept of popular sovereignty.

A parallel development of a theory of popular sovereignty can be found among the School of Salamanca (see e.g. Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) or Francisco Suarez (1548–1617)), who (like the theorists of the divine right of kings and Locke) saw sovereignty as emanating originally from God, but (unlike divine right theorists, and in agreement with Locke) passing from God to all people equally, not only to monarchs.

Republics and popular monarchies are theoretically based on popular sovereignty. However, a legalistic notion of popular sovereignty does not necessarily imply an effective, functioning democracy: a party or even an individual dictator may claim to represent the will of the people, and rule in its name, pretending to detain auctoritas. That would be congruent with Hobbes's view on the subject, but not with most modern definitions that see democracy as a necessary condition of popular sovereignty.

The application of the doctrine of popular sovereignty receives particular emphasis in American history, notes historian Christian G. Fritz's American Sovereigns: The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War, a study of the early history of American constitutionalism. [2] In describing how Americans attempted to apply this doctrine prior to the territorial struggle over slavery that led to the Civil War, political scientist Donald S. Lutz noted the variety of American applications:

To speak of popular sovereignty is to place ultimate authority in the people. There are a variety of ways in which sovereignty may be expressed. It may be immediate in the sense that the people make the law themselves, or mediated through representatives who are subject to election and recall it may be ultimate in the sense that the people have a negative or veto over legislation, or it may be something much less dramatic. In short, popular sovereignty covers a multitude of institutional possibilities. In each case, however, popular sovereignty assumes the existence of some form of popular consent, and it is for this reason that every definition of republican government implies a theory of consent.

The American Revolution marked a departure in the concept of popular sovereignty as it had been discussed and employed in the European historical context. American revolutionaries aimed to substitute the sovereignty in the person of King George III, with a collective sovereign—composed of the people. Thenceforth, American revolutionaries generally agreed with and were committed to the principle that governments were legitimate only if they rested on popular sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of the people. [c] This was often linked with the notion of the consent of the governed—the idea of the people as a sovereign—and had clear 17th- and 18th-century intellectual roots in English history. [4]

1850s Edit

In the 1850s, in the run-up to the Civil War, Northern Democrats led by Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois promoted popular sovereignty as a middle position on the slavery issue. It said that actual residents of territories should be able to decide by voting whether or not slavery would be allowed in the territory. The federal government did not have to make the decision, and by appealing to democracy, Cass and Douglas hoped they could finesse the question of support for or opposition to slavery. Douglas applied popular sovereignty to Kansas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which passed Congress in 1854. The Act had two unexpected results. By dropping the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which said slavery would never be allowed in Kansas), it was a major boost for the expansion of slavery. Overnight, outrage united anti-slavery forces across the North into an "anti-Nebraska" movement that soon was institutionalized as the Republican Party, with its firm commitment to stop the expansion of slavery. Secondly, pro- and anti-slavery elements moved into Kansas with the intention of voting slavery up or down, leading to a raging state-level civil war, known as "Bleeding Kansas". Abraham Lincoln targeted popular sovereignty in the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858, leaving Douglas in a position that alienated Southern pro-slavery Democrats who thought he was too weak in his support of slavery. The Southern Democrats broke off and ran their own candidate against Lincoln and Douglas in 1860. [5]

Voter Impression And Voting Amendments

Voter suppression violates the voting Amendments of American citizens. The reoccurring trend is that voter suppression tends to target the minorities and their voting rights. In the Constitution there are several Amendments that states these minorities are able to vote. In 1870 the 15th amendment, which prevented the government from discriminating based off of race and color, was passed. Despite having the 15th amendment, it was not until 1965 African Americans were able to vote due to the obstacles such as literacy tests and poll taxes.&hellip

Polarization over slavery

Northern sensibilities were outraged. Although disliking slavery, Northerners had made few efforts to change the South’s “peculiar institution” so long as the republic was loosely articulated. (Indeed, when William Lloyd Garrison began his Liberator in 1831, urging the immediate and unconditional emancipation of all enslaved people, he had only a tiny following and a few years later he had actually been mobbed in Boston.) But with the sections, perforce, being drawn closely together, Northerners could no longer profess indifference to the South and its institutions. Sectional differences, centring on the issue of slavery, began to appear in every American institution. During the 1840s the major national religious denominations, such as the Methodists and the Presbyterians, split over the slavery question. The Whig Party, which had once allied the conservative businessmen of the North and West with the planters of the South, divided and virtually disappeared after the election of 1852. When Douglas’s bill opened up to slavery Kansas and Nebraska—land that had long been reserved for the westward expansion of the free states—Northerners began to organize into an antislavery political party, called in some states the Anti-Nebraska Democratic Party, in others the People’s Party, but in most places, the Republican Party.

Events of 1855 and 1856 further exacerbated relations between the sections and strengthened this new party. Kansas, once organized by Congress, became the field of battle between the free and the slave states in a contest in which concern over slavery was mixed with land speculation and office seeking. A virtual civil war broke out, with rival free- and slave-state legislatures both claiming legitimacy (see also Bleeding Kansas). Disputes between individual settlers sometimes erupted into violence. A proslavery mob sacked the town of Lawrence, an antislavery stronghold, on May 21, 1856. On May 24–25 John Brown, a free-state partisan, led a small party in a raid upon some proslavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek, murdered five men in cold blood, and left their gashed and mutilated bodies as a warning to the enslavers. Not even the U.S. Capitol was safe from the violence. On May 22 Preston S. Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, brutally attacked Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts at his desk in the Senate chamber because he had presumably insulted the Carolinian’s “honour” in a speech he had given in support of Kansas abolitionists. The 1856 presidential election made it clear that voting was becoming polarized along sectional lines. Though James Buchanan, the Democratic nominee, was elected, John C. Frémont, the Republican candidate, received a majority of the votes in the free states.

The following year the Supreme Court of the United States tried to solve the sectional conflicts that had baffled both the Congress and the president. Hearing the case of Dred Scott, an enslaved Missourian who claimed freedom on the ground that his master had taken him to live in free territory, the majority of the court, headed by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, found that African Americans were not citizens of the United States and that Scott hence had no right to bring suit before the court. Taney also concluded that the U.S. laws prohibiting slavery in the territory were unconstitutional. Two Northern antislavery judges on the court bitterly attacked Taney’s logic and his conclusions. Acclaimed in the South, the Dred Scott decision was condemned and repudiated throughout the North.

By this point many Americans, North and South, had come to the conclusion that slavery and freedom could not much longer coexist in the United States. For Southerners the answer was withdrawal from a Union that no longer protected their rights and interests they had talked of it as early as the Nashville Convention of 1850, when the compromise measures were under consideration, and now more and more Southerners favoured secession. For Northerners the remedy was to change the social institutions of the South few advocated immediate or complete emancipation of enslaved people, but many felt that the South’s “peculiar institution” must be contained. In 1858 William H. Seward, the leading Republican of New York, spoke of an “irrepressible conflict” between freedom and slavery and in Illinois a rising Republican politician, Abraham Lincoln, who unsuccessfully contested Douglas for a seat in the Senate, announced that “this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

That it was not possible to end the agitation over slavery became further apparent in 1859 when on the night of October 16, John Brown, who had escaped punishment for the Pottawatomie massacre, staged a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), designed to free enslaved people and, apparently, to help them begin a guerrilla war against the Southern whites. Even though Brown was promptly captured and enslaved people in Virginia gave no heed to his appeals, Southerners feared that this was the beginning of organized Northern efforts to undermine their social system. The fact that Brown was a fanatic and an inept strategist whose actions were considered questionable even by abolitionists did not lessen Northern admiration for him.

The presidential election of 1860 occurred, therefore, in an atmosphere of great tension. Southerners, determined that their rights should be guaranteed by law, insisted upon a Democratic candidate willing to protect slavery in the territories and they rejected Stephen A. Douglas, whose popular-sovereignty doctrine left the question in doubt, in favour of John C. Breckinridge. Douglas, backed by most of the Northern and border-state Democrats, ran on a separate Democratic ticket. Elderly conservatives, who deplored all agitation of the sectional questions but advanced no solutions, offered John Bell as candidate of the Constitutional Union Party. Republicans, confident of success, passed over the claims of Seward, who had accumulated too many liabilities in his long public career, and nominated Lincoln instead. Voting in the subsequent election was along markedly sectional patterns, with Republican strength confined almost completely to the North and West. Though Lincoln received only a plurality of the popular vote, he was an easy winner in the Electoral College.

Stephen A. Douglas

Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) was a U.S. politician, leader of the Democratic Party, and orator who espoused the cause of popular sovereignty in relation to the issue of slavery in the territories before the American Civil War (1861-1865). He was re-elected senator from Illinois in 1858 after a series of eloquent debates with the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who defeated him in the presidential race two years later.

Born in Vermont, Douglas studied law in Canandaigua, New York, before moving to Illinois in 1833, where he became involved in politics. As a youth he had been captivated by Andrew Jackson, and it was as a Jacksonian that he built his career. He played an important part in the organization of the Democratic party in Illinois, introducing such new devices as party committees and nominating conventions and pushing for party regularity and discipline. He enjoyed a lasting popularity among the small farmers of the state, many of whom had migrated from the border South, and he used his popularity to establish a tightly knit Democratic organization.

Did you know? After moving to Illinois in the 1830s, Stephen A. Douglas briefly courted Mary Todd, who went on to marry his future rival, Abraham Lincoln.

After holding several state offices, Douglas ran for Congress in 1837, losing by the narrow margin of thirty-five votes. Six years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he sat for two terms. In 1847, he was elected U.S. senator, a position he held until his death in 1861.

Douglas was involved in every major issue to come before the nation during his years in Washington. As chairman of the House and Senate Committees on Territories, he developed a strong interest in the West. One of his first legislative proposals was a program that included territorial expansion, the construction of a Pacific railroad, a free land (homestead) policy, and the organization of territorial governments. ‘You cannot fix bounds to the onward march of this great and growing country,’ he declared. He believed in America’s unique mission and manifest destiny, was a leading proponent of Texas annexation, demanded the acquisition of Oregon, and supported the war with Mexico. A man of great energy and persuasive power, standing only five feet four inches tall, Douglas became known as the Little Giant.

When slavery became a divisive political issue during the Mexican War, Douglas’s romantic nationalism faced a new challenge. Fearing that the issue might disrupt the Republic, he argued for the doctrine of popular sovereignty-the right of the people of a state or territory to decide the slavery question for themselves-as a Union-saving formula. He led the fight in Congress for the Compromise of 1850. Four years later, he incorporated the doctrine in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thus repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Douglas’s hopes for the country suffered a setback when the act aroused bitter opposition from northern antislavery elements, who eventually formed the Republican party.

During the 1850s, he continued to fight for popular sovereignty in Congress and in Illinois, where the state election campaign of 1858 was highlighted by his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln. He blamed the agitation over slavery on abolitionists in the North and disunionists in the South, trying to find a middle way that would preserve the Union. Slavery, he believed, must be treated impartially as a question of public policy, although he privately thought it was wrong and hoped it would be eliminated some day. At the same time, he saw in popular sovereignty an extension of local self-government and states’ rights and charged his opposition with seeking a consolidation of power on the national level that would restrict individual liberty and endanger the Union.

Douglas’s popularity waned as the party system foundered on the slavery question. Proposed as the Democratic candidate for president in 1852 and 1856, he did not win his party’s nomination until 1860, when it was too late. With his party hopelessly divided and a Republican elected to the presidency, he fought strenuously to hold the sections together with a compromise on the slavery issue, but to no avail. Following the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, he pledged his support to the northern cause and urged a vigorous prosecution of the war against the rebels. He died in June, however, worn out from his exertions and broken in spirit.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective

This book has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Online publication date: March 2016
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online ISBN: 9781316418024
  • DOI:
  • Subjects: Political Theory, History, Politics and International Relations, History of Ideas and Intellectual History

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Book description

This collaborative volume offers the first historical reconstruction of the concept of popular sovereignty from antiquity to the twentieth century. First formulated between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, the various early modern conceptions of the doctrine were heavily indebted to Roman reflection on forms of government and Athenian ideas of popular power. This study, edited by Richard Bourke and Quentin Skinner, traces successive transformations of the doctrine, rather than narrating a linear development. It examines critical moments in the career of popular sovereignty, spanning antiquity, medieval Europe, the early modern wars of religion, the revolutions of the eighteenth century and their aftermath, decolonisation and mass democracy. Featuring original work by an international team of scholars, the book offers a reconsideration of one of the formative principles of contemporary politics by exploring its descent from classical city-states to the advent of the modern state.


‘Popular sovereignty is the most fundamental, most widespread and least understood principle of political legitimacy in the world today. As the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of the subject over the longue durée, Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective will become a pivotal work in the history of political thought.'

David Armitage - Harvard University, Massachusetts

‘Although the idea of popular sovereignty is central to modern political thought, its historical evolution and conceptual transformations have received little sustained scholarly attention. The erudite and insightful chapters in Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective trace its emergence and development across time and space, from the ancient Mediterranean world to the present, and from Europe to the United States and India. It is a major scholarly achievement, and is sure to become a standard reference point for those working on the topic in political theory, intellectual history, philosophy and law.'

Duncan Bell - University of Cambridge

'Can popular sovereignty be more than an ideology we impose on the people we call our fellow citizens - and the past? The essays in Richard Bourke and Quentin Skinner’s collection all address this question. Some of the authors consider it soluble. They think that a people can be supreme, even though only a few ever rule …'

Political theory tends to react to upsurges in populist politics in the real world, explaining them in turn as largely reactions to contemporary political crises, and in terms of regional styles, American or European most commonly. But for students of political theory, populism in theory and in practice has only been contingently, rather than structurally, related to the history of democratic politics and the growth of popular sovereignty. This chapter argues by contrast that populism is part of the mainstream structural history of popular sovereignty, and moreover, that such a history connects European and American democratic politics from the period of the 1848 revolutions through to the present. Taking populist politics as one component part of this transnational history, it also claims that the derivative reliance upon different national styles of populism misses something deeper about the relationship between populism and modern political theory.

Duncan Kelly, Reader in Political Thought, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK

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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.

Pros and Cons of Popular Sovereignty

Should people be able to govern themselves in the region where they live? That’s the idea of popular sovereignty. The United States in many ways can be described as such a government because there are local, county, and state governments in place in addition to the national government. Here are the key pros and cons of popular sovereignty to consider.

The Pros of Popular Sovereignty

1. It provides people with regional stability.
Many wars are fought over resources within a region. If it doesn’t come to war, it may come to theft. Popular sovereignty allows each region to manage their own resources at the individual level, creating a natural set of checks and balances.

2. It creates numerous economic opportunities.
Let’s say one region grows wheat and a second region grows corn. Each region has more than they need, so they trade with each other so that there is wheat and corn for both. This economic opportunity creates jobs, livable wages, and a better standard of living for all.

3. It allows unique cultures to thrive and grow.
Popular sovereignty allows for cultures who wish to maintain their heritage to do so without conflict or interference.

The Cons of Popular Sovereignty

1. It usually runs on the will of the majority.
Ruling by a majority means that there are always people who will disagree with a decision being made. Internment camps, slavery, and other detrimental practices that have negatively reflected on the human experience were once approved by a majority as well, which shows the majority isn’t always on the right side of history.

2. It can create pockets of isolated people.
Popular sovereignty can also lead people to isolate from other regions. This creates a potential lack of opportunity for the people in that region. Not only will products and services be limited in such a circumstance, but so will educational opportunities.

3. It creates visitor confusion.
Popular sovereignty means that laws can be different from region to region. In one US state the highway speed limit might be 75mph, but in another state it could be 55mph. Without notification of such changes, visitors could break the law and never even realize it.

The pros and cons of popular sovereignty show that if it is carefully managed so that everyone can have a voice, there are certain benefits which can be achieved. The negative components should be monitored consistently, but the chance to make one’s own choices is a chance that most people don’t and shouldn’t ignore.

Watch the video: 5. Rousseau: Popular Sovereignty and General Will (June 2022).


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