The Concept of Sovereignty

Daniel Cole, Jennifer Williams
  • Author
    Daniel Cole

    Daniel Cole has taught a variety of philosophy and writing classes since 2012. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Kentucky in 2021, his MA in philosophy from Miami University in 2011, and his BA in philosophy from Ball State University in 2008.

  • Instructor
    Jennifer Williams

    Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

What is sovereignty? Know how to define sovereignty and what is meant by de facto sovereignty and de jure sovereignty. Learn how independence is different from sovereignty. Updated: 11/06/2021

Table of Contents


What is Sovereignty?

In this lesson, we will address the question 'what is sovereignty?' To state it briefly, sovereignty is the concept for the highest, independent power in a given territory. Stroud's Judicial Dictionary defines sovereignty as a form of government that has administrative control of a state and has not been subordinated to another state. Or in other words, a sovereign state is one that has its own mode of self-control; it is not under the control of another power, and it is not out of control. Moreover, the idea of sovereign authority is supreme within a given territory. So while individuals and organizations, for instance, a social club, may be able to make their own rules, they are not sovereign if there is some source that has more authority to overrule their proceedings.

Sovereignty: Etymology and historical background

Carl Schmitt makes the claim that all political concepts are essentially secularized theological concepts. As such, sovereignty, when applied to a state, is actually derived from theological thought, namely, the thought of a supreme organizing power. Etymologically, the concept of sovereignty seems to follow Schmitt's maxim about the theological origins of political concepts. The term stems from the Latin word superanus, meaning whatever relates or pertains to that which is super-, meaning that which is over. The Latin term is further reflected in the French souveraineté, which means much the same. At its core, the term indicates supremacy or 'highest power.'

In medieval thought, the theory of sovereignty relates to a notion of the king's two bodies. In one regard, the king is possessed of a physical body that carries on normal biological functions; it differs little from the bodies of other particular people. But the king, as the living embodiment of the head of state, is also invested with significant powers to command others and shape the behaviors of other bodies within his demesne. This second notion of 'body' was not about the particular person who happened to be king, it was about a kind of social organization around an office. So while a particular king might die, a new one would take his place. Thusly, the office of the king was enduring, and it is from this notion that we are familiar with the phrase, 'the king is dead, long live the king.'

Bodin was a leading figure in the theory of sovereignty

A portrait of Jean Bodin

In the 16th century, Jean Bodin further developed the concept of authority, associating it with the Latin term majestas. This transformation is important because Bodin clearly defines the highest power in terms of command. Even his notion of statutes, meaning general laws, is understood in terms of what the sovereign ruler commands. Consequently, to live within the commonwealth is to be obliged to obey the sovereign. Carl Schmitt built on that definition in the context of democracy. He takes democracy, as sovereign rule by the people, not to be a matter of electing an official but of deciding matters directly. Thus, if a people are to be sovereign, they need to vote on issues directly in the form of a referendum or plebiscite. Schmitt advocates for such a direct act of control by the people because he thinks that elected, parliamentary officials make decisions by private committee and do not answer to their constituents.

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  • 0:00 What is Sovereignty?
  • 0:55 De Jure Sovereignty
  • 1:28 De Facto Sovereignty
  • 2:27 Independence and Sovereignty
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Types of Sovereignty

From the preceding definition and etymology of sovereignty, we have identified the concept as pointing out a 'highest power.' The term has been further specified across several kinds of sovereignty, including titular sovereignty, internal and external sovereignty, legal sovereignty, de facto and de jure sovereignty, and popular sovereignty.

Titular Sovereignty

Titular sovereignty refers to an office that has supreme authority in name only. In the actual function of exercising power, such an office is a mere figurehead or symbol without being able to issue commands. Arguably, the British monarch is a titular sovereign, since much of the activity of ruling the state is carried out by parliament and the prime minister.

Internal and External Sovereignty

Internal sovereignty refers to a government capable of demanding obedience from all persons and parties within it. Or in other words, no one is free to refuse the sovereign or disobey without punishment. For instance, the United States is the sovereign power over its territory, and no one--including the heads of major corporations like Mark Zuckerberg--can refuse to obey the laws of the land. External sovereignty refers to a government that is not subordinated to another. Again, the United States is a good example. While the US may take part in the United Nations and make compromises in the realm of international diplomacy, it cannot be commanded by any foreign leader. Taiwan is a relatively good candidate for exemplifying internal sovereignty but not external sovereignty. While the Taiwanese government carries out its administrative governance without any major internal dispute, its claim to external sovereignty is disputed by China.

Legal and Political Sovereignty

Legal sovereignty refers to the highest legal power. Such a power is generally well-defined, constitutionally speaking, and often involves a separation of making the laws and enforcing the laws. The United States Congress, for instance, is the legal sovereign when it comes to making laws and the office of the President is the highest executive authority. Nevertheless, the President is at least somewhat subordinated to Congress since the President is bound to obey the laws passed by Congress. Individual states within the US may have their own legislatures, but they are not sovereign since they cannot contradict or disobey the national Congress. Again, the concept of sovereignty picks out what the highest power is.

Political sovereignty is more opaque and refers to whoever exercises the highest influence or control. Ideally, in a democracy, the people as a whole are the political sovereign insofar as they can influence the laws and governments without being directly empowered to make or enforce the laws. In a hereditary monarchy, a family would be the political sovereign, even if they have to interact with their ministers and parliaments in day-to-day ruling. In sum, the legal sovereign is the well-defined office that directly controls the concrete reality of the law, whereas the political sovereign is the indirect power that vaguely influences or impacts the law. In part because of this separation, there can be a breakdown in the functioning of law. For instance, when the US passed prohibition laws, this was an exercise of legal sovereignty but did not reflect the will of the people, which ideally would be politically sovereign. The result was widespread criminality and eventually the repeal of the law.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does sovereign mean?

"Sovereign" is the designation for the highest authority within a given territory, supposing that such an authority is not beholden to an external territory. The ideal realization of this concept requires recognition both within the boundaries of the territory, i.e., the subjects to the sovereign recognize its legitimacy, and from external powers as well.

Does sovereignty mean freedom?

Sovereignty and freedom are not identical terms, in part because of the multiple meanings of freedom. Freedom can mean self-determination, it can also mean 'freedom from', meaning a kind of independence. Neither definition makes a claim to supremacy, and freedom can apply to individuals and collectives. Sovereignty, however, refers only to a supreme power of self-determination and independence in reference to a government.

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