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Early Modern Views: Popular Sovereignty

Alongside the view that absolute power was vested in a single governor (or group of governors) emerged the competing doctrine that the sole legitimate source of authority sprang from the people as a collectivity or joint body. Intimations of this idea can be discovered in medieval authors such as Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280–c. 1343), for whom all forms of legislative and executive power pertained in the first instance to the whole body of citizens. But Marsilius's theory possessed the same deference to the fragmented condition of authority in the Middle Ages that characterized Beaumanoir. Instead, the modern principle of popular sovereignty arose in response to the perceived excesses of absolutistic theories.

Writing in explicit opposition to Filmer (and perhaps also indirectly against Hobbes), John Locke (1732–1804) insisted that sovereignty is the creation of the people who contract with one another to form civil society and who only entrust executive authority to a government conditionally. In contrast with Filmer, Locke held that the natural condition of mankind was individual freedom, and no person—not even a man's own offspring—was entirely subject to arbitrary rule. Against Hobbes, Locke maintained the impossibility of renouncing one's natural rights of subjects to life, liberty, and estate in the process of creating sovereign power. Instead, a ruler who systematically violates human rights breeches the bond of trust that authorizes his office. Locke thus insists that no one is obligated to obey the commands of an illegitimate government. If the magistrate attempts to coerce their obedience, members of civil society may legitimately use force against him, just as they would in the case of robbery or assault, since they retain control of their rights individually and together.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) extended the idea of popular sovereignty by means of an innovative marriage between Lockean and Hobbesian insights. Sovereignty for Rousseau cannot be exercised legitimately by any authority external to the body of citizens. The citizens alone are competent to renounce their natural liberty and bind themselves jointly and individually to laws and rulers. Hence, no matter what constitutional form of government is appointed—and Rousseau contends that kingship, aristocracy, and democracy may each be appropriate, depending on the scale of the territory to be governed—it remains only the executive of the general will of the community. Freedom reposes strictly and exclusively in the communal order in which the moral liberty of each person assumes the equal moral liberty of every person, guaranteed under the terms of the law and protected by the magistrates. Hence, Rousseau's free state is guided by the collective determinations of the people about how they wish to live—a clear statement of a system of popular sovereignty. Nor can the general will be judged errant or mistaken. Whatever the people decide is right and must be treated as obligatory.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySovereignty - Early Concepts, Early Modern Views: Absolutism, Early Modern Views: Popular Sovereignty, Later Developments