sovereignty, supreme authority in a political community. The concept of sovereignty has had a long history of development, and it may be said that every political theorist since Plato has dealt with the notion in some manner, although not always explicitly. Jean Bodin was the first theorist to formulate a modern concept of sovereignty. In his Six Bookes of a Commonweale (1576) Bodin asserted that the prince, or the sovereign, has the power to declare law. Thomas Hobbes later furthered the concept of kingly sovereignty by stating that the king not only declares law but creates it; he thereby gave the sovereign both absolute moral and political power. Hobbes, like other social-contract theorists, asserted that the king derives his power from a populace who have collectively given up their own former personal sovereignty and power and placed it irretrievably in the king.
The concept of sovereignty was closely related to the growth of the modern nation-state, and today the term is used almost exclusively to describe the attributes of a state rather than a person. A sovereign state is often described as one that is free and independent. In its internal affairs it has undivided jurisdiction over all persons and property within its territory. It claims the right to regulate its economic life without regard for its neighbors and to increase armaments without limit. No other nation may rightfully interfere in its domestic affairs. In its external relations it claims the right to enforce its own conception of rights and to declare war.
This description of a sovereign state is denied, however, by those who assert that international law is binding. Because states are limited by treaties and international obligations and are not legally permitted by the United Nations Charter to commit aggression at will, they argue that the absolute freedom of a sovereign state is, and should be, a thing of the past. In current international practice this view is generally accepted. The United Nations is today considered the principal organ for restraining the exercise of sovereignty.
In the United States, the nation (i.e. the federal government) and each state are considered sovereign. Among conflicts in which the concept comes into play are those between the federal and state governments (see states' rights) and those between citizens and either the federal or a state government. Governments are generally held to be immune from suit for consequences of their sovereign acts (those acts the government was constituted or empowered to perform). This "sovereign immunity" must be waived to permit suit against the government. It is also encountered in claims that government officials, in pursuance of their duties, be immune from having to give evidence before a tribunal or inquiry.
See C. E. Merriam, History of the Theory of Sovereignty since Rousseau (1900, repr. 1968); H. J. Laski, Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917, repr. 1968); B. de Jouvenel, Sovereignty (tr. 1957); J. L. Brierly, The Law of Nations (6th ed. 1963); F. H. Hinsley, Sovereignty (1966); A. James, Sovereign Statehood (1986).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.