What Is an Example of Popular Sovereignty?

An example of popular sovereignty occurred in the 1850s, when Senators Lewis Cass and Stephen Douglas proposed popular sovereignty as a compromise to settle the question of slavery by allowing the people of each state to vote on whether to allow it. Douglas hoped that allowing the people to decide directly would ease national tensions over slavery, but the result was that both sides came to blows over the question.

Popular sovereignty holds that the people ultimately hold political power. The theory of popular sovereignty first appeared in the writings of the political theorists Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. They believed that all political entities are composed of a social contract in which individuals give up some of their natural freedom in return for protection from the dangers offered by the unfettered freedom of others.

The American revolutionaries argued in the Declaration of Independence that all just political power derives from the consent of the governed. This idea is in contrast with monarchy, in which the king’s governing power derives from his birth or directly from God. Popular sovereignty has many institutional arrangements, such as direct democracy, representative republics or parliamentary democracy. The people may delegate lawmaking to elected representatives, but those representatives are ultimately accountable to the people.