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The Principle of Popular Sovereignty: The People’s Rule

March 30, 2017

The Reformation era of the 1500s and 1600s prompted the spread of new religious and political ideas throughout Europe.  Ideas such as the priesthood of all believers, equal standing before God, and a Bible for all to read became more widely accepted.  During this time, both Protestants and Catholics began to argue for and advance the idea of popular sovereignty.  The principle of popular sovereignty departed from the doctrine of the Divine Rights of Kings which was widely practiced before and during this period.  It was later taken up by John Locke in his social contract theory.  Centuries later, popular sovereignty would become a key founding principle of the United States of America.

The Divine Right of Kings doctrine held that a certain ruler or group derives authority to rule directly and only from God and so is not accountable to any earthly authority or the people.  Such was the practice of monarchy prevalent during the medieval period in which a king or queen came to power and ruled by hereditary succession and/or force.  With Divine Right, the monarch made the law and ruled absolutely and arbitrarily—without limit or restriction—by “Ruler’s Law.”  To question the monarch’s rule was to question God’s rule.

In contrast, popular sovereignty, or the people’s rule, is the idea that political power resides with the people of a community or state—not with any particular person or group.  Since all humans are free and equal in standing before God, the Supreme Ruler, God firstly and then the people are the source of earthly political power.  God holds supreme rule or sovereignty over all people and earthly spheres, and the people hold God-given political power to rule or govern in their state or nation.  Consequently, the people may freely choose how and who to represent them to govern their nation, and the government and governors hold legitimate authority by the people’s consent.  For if all humans are free and equal, no one has a right to rule over another without the other’s permission.  The people may limit the power of their governors as well as resist or remove those who are tyrannical.  

Various thinkers of the Reformation era directly or indirectly supported popular sovereignty from the Bible.  Catholic churchmen Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez supported the principle based on …

Importantly, this version of popular sovereignty maintains God as the highest sovereign in the world.  The people do not replace or remove God, and they are given political power by God.  The people, to be sure, are still fallible and accountable to God and one another.  Ideally, God’s moral order may potentially be expressed and maintained through the people’s moral civil governors and governance.

John Locke’s social contract theory was later based on popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed.  In his theory, consent was the basis of the contract, the legitimizing authority of the people to form civil states and laws.  In his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government, Locke addressed the need for consent in all contracts, asserting, …

The United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 reflects and expresses the principle of popular sovereignty when it states that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  The U. S. Constitution applies this principle as it begins, “We the people of the United States…do ordain and establish this Constitution.”  In Federalist Paper 22,  American Founder Alexander Hamilton affirmed this principle as the authorization of the U. S. Constitution:  “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE.  The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”  

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This article is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America articles.

Source for more information:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related Blogs/Videos:
1.  How Protestant Religious Reformers Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
2.  How Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty From the Bible
3.  How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
4.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
5.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
6.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
7.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation Era
8.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation


High School Activity – The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The Consent of the Governed

Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 6:  Principle of Popular Sovereignty, p. 57, 328.  HS.

Purpose/Objective: Students learn definition, meaning, basis, and characteristics of Popular Sovereignty and how it differs from the Divine Right of Kings and absolute power.

Suggested Reading: Chapter 1 of Miracle of America text/sourcebook. Students read sections 1.2-1.3.

Comparison/Contrast Chart: Students create a two-column chart, titling the left column “Divine Right of Kings” and the right column “Popular Sovereignty.” Students right down characteristics of each concept in the appropriate column, perhaps including definition, basis/reasoning for it, who holds power and why, how power is obtained/delegated, how this system characterizes society, historical context/time, etc.

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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