Definition of sovereignty in political science

Definition of sovereignty in political science. We have said that what differentiates membership of the State from that of other mealtime is its compulsory nature. All other organizations and activities in the State’s manners are subordinate to it to the last resort. The State issues directions, and it also enforces that it is necessary to employ armed force.

The modern State, says Leaks. “is a territorial society, divided into government and subjects claiming within its allotted physical area supremacy over all other institutions.” Sovereignty is the most important constituent element of the State, and there can be no State Without a Sovereign power.

The basis of State sovereignty, to quote Laski again, “is the contingent power to use the armed forces of the State to compel obedience to its will And it is the possession of this legal right to resort to coercion which distinguishes the government of the State from the government of all other associations.” How essential that control is to the State‘s effective power is one of history’s clearest lessons.

There are two aspects of sovereignty: internal sovereignty and external sovereignty. Internal sovereignty refers to the presence in every independent State of some person miserably or group which has the final legal power to command and enforce obedience to its authority.

This supreme authority is absolute over all individuals or associations of individuals within the State. It issues orders to all men and all associations within that are, but it receives orders from none of them. It will cost rs absolute, and it is subject to no legal limitation. What it proposes is right by the mere announcement of intention.

By external sovereignty, we mean that the State is subject to no other a sorority and consequently, is independent of any compulsion or interference on other  States. If its authority is subject to the provisions of any treaty, or if it is limited by the rules of international law, the sovereign status of the State is not destroyed in any way.

These are auto-limitations and are obeyed at the will of the State. There is no other authority that can come it into obedience. Each State is independent of other States. its will is its own, unaffected by any external power’s will.

It follows that the sovereignty of the State is unlimited internally as well as externally. It is original and absolute power, and it cannot be divided. Division of sovereignty means the destruction of sovereignty. Sovereignty represents the unity of the State, and the sovereign State is externally free and internally supreme. The authority exercised by various organs of the State, that is, the government is delegated.

Gettell has aptly said:

“If Sovereignty is not absolute, no State exists, if sovereignty is divided, more than one State exist There can be no legal power at the back of the sovereignty of the State and no legal check on its scope “.

Definitions of Sovereignty:

Definitions of sovereignty, like definitions of the State, are many and varied. Bodin defined it as the

“supreme power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained by law.”

Hugo Grotius defined it as

“the supreme political power vested in him whose acts are not subject to any other and whose will cannot be overridden.”

Duguit says

“that sovereignty is the commanding power of the State, it is the will of the nation organized in the State, it is the right to give unconditional orders to all individuals in the territory of the State.”

Burgess characterized it as

“original, absolute, unlimited power over the individual subject and over all associations of subjects.”

He further says that sovereignty is the underfunded and independent power to command and compel obedience. The sovereign is legally supreme over any individual or group, says Laski; he possesses supreme coercive power. Sovereignty, according to Jenks, is an authority which, in the last resort, controls absolutely and beyond appeal the actions of every individual member of the community.

Term Sovereignty And Its Development:

Origin of the Term. The term sovereignty is derived from the Latin word superanus, which means supreme. As suggesting the supreme power in a territory, the notion of sovereignty is modern, and its emergence is connected with the rise of the modern nation-State.

But it does not mean that the ancient and medieval ages had no idea of such a notion. For the ancients, it simply meant a statement of the fact that there must be an ultimate control, someone with the last word in any case of dispute, able to make final adjustments in the sharing of responsibility and power and that the State, and no other social force, must exercise this final authority.

Creon says in Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, Whatever the State appoints must be obeyed in everything, both small and great, just and unjust. Plato and Aristotle recognized the presence of the “supreme power” in the State and emphasized the respect for State authority the finality of law. Aristotle claimed for the State a natural priority to the family and the individual. The Roman lawyers and the medieval writers spoke of the fulness of the power of the State.

The Middle Ages knew nothing about the doctrine and practice of concerted final authority. Then, the political form has feudalism, based on personal dependence and allegiance within many small groups. Feudalism was the antithesis of unified authority. There was an Open conflict between the Spiritual and Temporal authorities, and if anybody, under the circumstances, could claim final authority, it was the Church and not the State.

Moreover, people’s firm belief in nature or God and the sanctity attached to such laws over human-made laws retarded the growth of the modem idea of sovereignty. Summing up the nature of sovereignty in the Middle Ages, Ward says, The authority of Feudalism and the belief in God’s law of nature superior to the human law made impossible the modern idea of the unlimited and indivisible sovereignty of the State overall citizens.

The sixteenth century’s religious wars destroyed the unity of the Church, and on the ruins of this destruction was built the modern State. The triumphant monarch either gradually destroyed or absorbed all possible rival intermediaries between himself and his subjects, including the Church.

Sovereignty came to be regarded as one of the State’s essential attributes, incarnate in the king, the head of the State; his authority was final to define and pronounce the law. The emergence of the modem State, thus, gave a new meaning to the term sovereignty.

The struggle that gave rise to the conception of sovereignty was undertaken and sustained by the monarch himself to establish his personal independence. To the victor belonged the spoils of war.

Bodin and Hobbes:

The new reality of sovereignty of the State was given its philosophical justification by a Frenchman, Jean Bodin, and an Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, each writing during the full agony of the civil and religious wars of his country, the former at the beginning and the latter in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Both  Bodin and Hobbes defended the need for one unified authority, which should be accepted by all and against which no group or individual could object any earlier rights to independence or resistance.

Rights were what the State granted, compatible with the State’s unity and keeping of peace and order within it. There could be only one power within the community; they urged, which could not be limited or divided and shared. Bodin’s sovereign was, however, subject to four limitations.

Firstly as the king did not possess supermundane sovereignty, God was above him. Secondly, the king’s supreme power over his subjects was subordinated to the law of God and nature, that is, to the requirements of the moral order. Thirdly, the French King could not modify the succession of many parts of the public domain, and, finally, the king could not touch private property.

But these limitations, Bodin maintained, did not limit the power of the king over the body-politic. His assertion that the Prince was the image r nod meant a sovereign living person, and his authority transcended the whole political community just as God transcended the cosmos.

He said either sovereignty meant nothing, or it meant migraine power ruling over the entire body-politic. He thus defined sovereignty as a supreme power over citizens and subjects, not bound by the laws. It gave orders and received orders from none.

In this way, the concept of sovereignty took a definite form when absolute monarchy was beginning to make its appearance in Europe. With Thomas Hobbes, it reached its perfection when the king’s sovereign power was held to be natural and inalienable. His whole idea was to establish that the king possessed a natural and inalienable right to rule over his subjects.

Once the people had agreed upon the fundamental law of the kingdom and given the king and his descendant’s power over them, they were deprived of any right to govern themselves, and the full natural right to rule the body-politic resided in the person of the king whose authority was absolute and indivisible.

Sovereignty and the Modern Democratic State:

Later, people realized that the king was a part of the governmental machine and, accordingly, an agent rather than a master. As such, he possessed subordinate and delegated authority, which could be revoked at the will of the master, the people. It was a protest against the absolute monarchy; it began with John Locke, an English political philosopher, who justified the Glorious Revolution (1688), and found its fullest expression in the French Revolution,

The French Revolution made the people sovereign, and not only transferred to it, as Soltau remarks, all the attributes of the old monarchy of divine right but removed all limitations, on the ground that the people, when governing itself, had named to restrict its authority. The State, in its corporate capacity, was thus, endowed with all the attributes of sovereignty which the monarch previously possessed.

Two factors reinforced the absolutism of the new democratic State. One was nationalism, which added the claims of the nation to those of the sovereign people. The national State claimed unlimited authority at home over its members and the right to expand abroad at the expense of others. The second factor was the enormous increase in the province of the State following the Industrial Revolution:

The State’s activities were not only limited to protection, administration, and dispensation of justice, but it became an organizer of economic life, an educator, an agent in practically every aspect of the collective existence. This meant a meme-increasing mass of legislation and a great increase in the State’s importance as supreme law-maker, thus reinforcing the dogma of sovereignty by giving it a much wider field of application.


The concept of popular sovereignty and the identification of the people with the State were actually the result of Rousseau’s teachings, which he had propagated thirty years before the French Revolution. Rousseau made popular sovereignty the doctrine of individual freedom. Still, the myth of the General Will, which was “always right,” made it a vindication of much more comprehensive State power than any previous political thinker had offered since Plato.

Rousseau injected into the nascent modern democracies a notion of sovereignty that was destructive of democracy and pointed towards the totalitarian State. People and the State having become one, the individual’s personality is merged in the social whole, for it is only the power of the State which makes the freedom of its members.

Rousseau asserted that the will of the State is the will of the individual so far as he has accepted this identification of himself with the community, His real self, his real will becomes part of the common or General Will for the common good. If he does not agree with what the General Will consents for him, he pursues selfish ends, and the General Will can compel him to agree, and by doing so, he is forced to be free. Thus, the mystical operations of the General Will create Conditions of unheard absolutism. Rousseau’s State was the Leviathan of Hobbes crowned with the General Will instead of the crown of absolute monarchs described as tyrants.


As initiated by Rousseau, the theory of sovereignty was given its complete and coherent form by Hegel, the German political thinker, who made it more definitely philosophical and metaphysical. “The State,” he said, is perfected rationality, the eternal and necessary essence of spirit, the rational in itself and for itself, an absolute fixed end in itself.

In this way, Hegel completely identities the State with society and asserts that only in and through the State does the individual receive what makes life worth living; without it, he is nothing. Consequently, the State’s rights are unlimited, legally as a matter of fact and morally as a matter of right, and the individual lives to make his contribution to the common life of the State.

He must be prepared to enjoy and sacrifice what the good of the common life of the State either grants him or demands from him. The State being not the agent of society, does not exist for some specific purposes and with clearly donned functions. For Hegel, the State is the supreme community, and organized moral life is only possible within the State. It is the source of morality and all civilized existence.

Austin and the Pluralists:

The legal theory of sovereignty received its logical analysis from John Austin, an English jurist. Austin’s conclusions formed the basis of jurisprudence’s prevailing systems, and they exercised immense influence on political thought in England and the United States of America.

Till recently, sovereignty has been viewed as absolute internal sovereignty and complete external independence. The Pluralists, the recent school of thought, reject outright the concept of the State’s absolute authority and plead for the division of sovereignty between the State and various other associations present within its territorial limits.

They regard the State as an association like various other associations with a specific purpose to perform. The functions of the State are well-defined, and it has no rightful claim to eminence. In brief, the Pluralists maintain that sovereignty is divisible, and the State is not supreme and unlimited in its authority.

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Sovereignty in political science

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  1. Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies

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