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Sovereignty: The Source of Governmental Authority

Updated on December 31, 2011
 John Trumbull's painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress.
John Trumbull's painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. | Source

As I’ve observed and participated in political discussions over the years, I’ve come to realize that political differences can often be traced back to our views concerning the source of governmental authority. I could bore down deeper – to our beliefs in the nature and origin of rights – but for the purposes of this article I’d like to focus on the authority “level”. In order to do this we need to look at the concept of sovereignty.

The word "sovereign" has reference to something that is above all else in authority. Black's Law Dictionary defines sovereignty, in part, as "that power in a state to which none else is superior or equal".[1] But where does this power reside specifically? Where do governments get their authority from?

Popular Sovereignty

On the one side we have the idea that sovereignty exists exclusively in each individual within a society or state because God, or nature, has infused each person with certain unalienable rights. This is sometimes called “popular sovereignty”, and the people "sovereign individuals". It means that the "powers" of government all find their origin in individual "rights". This view was supported by Bastiat when he defined law as “the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do”.[2] It was also espoused by the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.[3] The Framers of the Constitution of the United States established a republican form of government in order to preserve and express this concept of sovereignty. A republic, to them, was a form of government where the "rule of law" held sway. In other words, law based on natural law and natural justice; a law that protects liberty because it respects individual sovereignty. Thomas Jefferson opined this view when he wrote: "Our legislators are not sufficiently apprized of the rightful limits of their power; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights . . . and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him . . . and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right."[4]

Assumed Sovereignty

Throughout history nearly all governments have functioned, to some extent or another, on the basis of a concept of sovereignty very different to the popular sovereignty view. They have held to the assumption that sovereignty has existed in a certain ruling family, among a specific class of citizen, or even among the majority. This source of authority may be held to be inherent within the state itself, or it might be claimed to be of divine origin such as in the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Whatever the claim, it goes beyond and is considered superior to the authority of the individual. It, not the individual, is held to be sovereign. In essence, under this idea, government may do anything the whim of the sovereign dictates. Thus it is “rule by whim” and not the “rule of law”.

Such a non-individualistic view of sovereignty created a form of government known as oligarchy, though when the majority were held to be sovereign the form of government was said to be a democracy. However, democracies are often unstable and manipulated by a ruling class, so in effect the only two forms of government, oligarchy and the republican, mirror the two concepts of sovereignty.

Assumption and Usurpation

Thus under the popular sovereignty view, governments derive their authority from individual rights that have been specifically delegated (not transferred) to it. Government cannot justly exercise any power that cannot be found in the rights of the individual. If it exercises powers that are found in the rights of the individual, but which have not been delegated, this is a usurpation of powers. If it seeks to exercise powers that do not exist in the individual as rights (and therefore can never have been delegated to it), it is, to proponents of the popular sovereignty viewpoint, an assumption of powers. The form of government has become an oligarchy.

Moral Inconsistency

An inconsistency of those who espouse assumed sovereignty is that they must of necessity believe that the government – a group of people – is subject to a different law of morality than individuals or other groups of people. For example, it is not moral for someone to steal another’s property, but it is moral for government to take, by force or the threat thereof, money from one group of people and give it to another.

Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary for Agriculture under Eisenhower, said "The same moral law which governs the actions of men when acting alone is also applicable when they act in concert with others … no citizen or group of citizens has any right to direct their agent, the government, to perform any act which would be evil or offensive to the conscience if that citizen were performing the act himself outside the framework of government.”[5]


If we have an interest in politics, and the discussion thereof, it befits us to determine what we really believe the source of government's authority to be. We must be honest with ourselves. To claim that we believe that governments gain their authority from the people, and then to believe governments can do things that would be morally wrong for the individual to do, is an inconsistent position, and yet one that is very common. Either we must accept that governments derive their just powers from the governed, or that they are endowed with some inherent or divine authority of their own. In short, we must accept the concept of either limited or unlimited government. Liberty or tyranny...

End Notes

1. Second Edition, online version at

2. Frederic Bastiat, The Law, 1849.

3. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." (United States' Declaration of Independence, 1776).

4. Thomas Jefferson to Francis W. Gilmer, June 27, 1816, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, vol. 10, p. 32.

5. In a speech, given February 29, 1968, at the Utah Forum for the American Idea, Salt Lake City, Utah.


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