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Later Developments

The dispute between absolutistic and popular conceptions of sovereignty might seem highly polarized and irresolvable. Certainly, the violent upheavals of the French Revolution between the ancien régime and the advocates of popular rule seemed to presage a cataclysmic clash between two profoundly opposed visions of the location of supreme authority. But at times, efforts were made to find a common ground or bridge between the apparently incommensurable points of view.

The framers of the United States federal Constitution, ratified in 1789, afforded one strategy for resolving the conflict. The Constitution proclaimed in its preamble the sovereignty of the people as the source of the authorization of government and the execution of public duties. Toward this end, some officials were to be directly elected on the democratic principle of one vote assigned to each citizen. At the same time, other magistrates such as the President and Vice-President and senators were to be selected by intermediary bodies (the Electoral College and state legislatures, respectively, although the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 provided for senators to be directly elected), while still others (such as the judiciary) were appointed by essentially non-democratic means. The result was to create a system of checks and balances to diffuse the potential domination of any portion of the populace—especially, the poor and least educated (but numerically greater) segment of the people. The supporters of this vision articulated a set of theoretical principles supporting the constitutional design in the collection of occasional essays collected together under the title of The Federalist Papers (1788).

From a more philosophical perspective, the German thinker Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel (1770–1831) in his Philosophy of Right (1821) endorsed a conception of the state that also sought to redress the divide between absolutism and populism. Hegel evinced considerable skepticism concerning the viability—let alone coherence—of unmitigated popular sovereignty such as that endorsed by Rousseau. Hegel instead posited a realm of civil society the members of which concerned themselves with their own narrow and partial interests. In order to ensure that these interests did not come into conflict, they received representation at the level of a legislative body and enforcement by a professionalized and disinterested civil service. But Hegel also insisted that an independent hereditary monarchy, unencumbered by any external constraints, was necessary to ensure that the laws governing the nation arose from an undivided and unimpeachable act of will. Hence, Hegel's king lacks constitutional restraints, in the sense that he is not obligated to defer to the popular determinations of the legislature, but his absolute power is limited to the ability to affirm or deny the statutes with which he is presented.

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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