Sovereignty in the American Political System: Definition & History

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  • 0:02 Declaration of Independence
  • 1:58 Popular Sovereignty
  • 3:19 Dual Sovereignty
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The United States is a sovereign nation with two levels of sovereignty. This lesson takes a look at the history of U.S. sovereignty, including the principles of dual sovereignty and nullification.

The Declaration of Independence

Meet Darla. She just graduated from college. She's moving out on her own and will be responsible for making her own rules, paying her own bills and otherwise fulfilling her responsibilities. Darla is declaring her independence!

In 1776, our Declaration of Independence formally announced the American colonies to be independent and sovereign states. This meant that the colonies were no longer under the authority of Great Britain. Instead, the colonies each claimed all rights that other independent nations enjoyed, such as declaring war and establishing their own system of commerce.

Specifically, the colonists sought independence because they objected to various rules put upon them by Great Britain. This included foreign taxation. The colonists felt they shouldn't be taxed by Great Britain. Also, they didn't want to be transported back to Great Britain to appear in court if they were involved in a dispute or charged with a crime. They wanted to have their own taxes and their own court systems. As a truly independent entity, the colonists no longer had to answer to any other nation's government. They could develop their own government.

The independent colonies eventually became the United States of America. The states agreed to work together and be united, though each state also remained independent from the other states and independent from the federal government. The country was formed, and continues to operate, as a sovereign nation. In other words, the United States is a free and independent country. No other country or entity has control over the U.S.

Popular Sovereignty

Remember that the United States is established under the U.S. Constitution, which was enacted in 1788. The Framers of our Constitution created our government to be exclusively controlled by the people of the U.S. It's important to note that we are self-governed. We elect our government representatives and make our own laws. So many legal scholars prefer to think of the citizens as being sovereign rather than the states or the federal government.

This political principle is known as popular sovereignty. This principle maintains that the source of governmental power comes from the will of the people. Popular sovereignty is based on the concept that government exists in order to benefit the citizens. If the government isn't operating to benefit the citizens, then the government should cease to exist.

The U.S. wasn't the first to use popular sovereignty. The idea was around and in use for thousands of years before the creation of the Constitution. In fact, both the Romans and Greeks used popular sovereignty. Both systems used elected or appointed representatives to administrate government, much like the U.S.

Dual Sovereignty

In the U.S., we actually have several sovereign governments. Remember that the Constitution created federalism. Federalism is a separation of powers between the federal government and the individual state governments. Certain powers are given to the federal government through the Constitution, and all other matters are reserved to the states through the Tenth Amendment.

This means that each state government is also a sovereign entity. We therefore have two levels of sovereignty: the federal government and the state governments. For example, Nebraska can't tell Nevada what they can and cannot do. The states are independent from one another. Additionally, the federal government is independent from each of the states.

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