Sovereignty History

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Sovereignty History

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The term ‘sovereign’ has its origin in the Latin word ‘supra’ or in medieval times ‘superanus’. It was first used in early French as ‘sovrains’ and appeared later as ‘soverain’, in Italian as ‘sovrano’. The meaning of this early term was concretely hierarchical, rather than abstractly dogmatic. Etymologically, it simply meant one of various forms of superiority. (Wildhaber, ‘Sovereignty and International Law’ in Macdonald and Johnston, eds, The Structure and Process of International Law: Essays in Legal Philosophy Doctrine and Theory, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1983, p 425.) The doctrine of ‘sovereignty’ was ‘first explicitly formulated in 1576 in the De Republica of Jean Bodin’. (Waldock, ed, The Law of Nations, 6th ed, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963, p 7.) . It was and still is based on the notion of state which, as defined by Jean Bodin, is ‘a multitude of families and the possessions that they have in common ruled by a supreme power and by reason’. (Id.) Although we still agree that sovereignty is based on the notion of state – namely, its status as an independent nation among the nations – we may wonder whether Bodin’s comparison is still valid or accurate in today’s world. The Marxist theory of class struggle revealed that ‘supreme power’ represents the interest of a class which dominates in a given society, and the notion of an elected government by majority vote suggests that the expression ‘families ruled by supreme power and by reason’ does not accurately reflect the nature of today’s government (in fact, it might never have done so).9 (The argument would be whether families are still the basic components of a society and whether all governments rule the countries by reason.). Appreciating the difficulties of formulating a universal definition of sovereignty, modern jurists appear to separate sovereignty in an international context from sovereignty in a domestic context. In an international context, sovereignty refers to the power and privilege of a country which can be derived from the nationhood of that country; and in a domestic context, sovereignty refers to the power of a government under the relevant constitution, if the government is constitutionally elected, or under force or tradition, whatever it may be, to govern the country.(1)

Sovereignty in 1889

The following information about Sovereignty is from the Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States by the Best American and European Writers:

“But what is the sovereignty of a state? and how does it comport with the sovereignty of a ruler? In the intercourse of nations, certain states have a position of entire independence of others, and can perform all those acts which it is possible for any state to perform in this particular sphere. These same states have also entire power of self-government, that is, of independence upon all other states as far as their own territory and citizens not living abroad are concerned. No foreign power or law can have control except by convention. This power of independent action in external and internal relations constitutes complete sovereignty. This definition of sovereign states would be inconsistent with the claim of sovereignty which has been set up in this country by communities called states, and in the treaty of 1783 with Great Britain called sovereign states; which, however, never made a treaty separately with foreign nations, never belonged in their separate capacity to the community of nations, and are incapacitated by the constitution from performing any international act; and which, moreover, by the same constitution, are precluded from doing many things within their own territory and in the exercise of state power, which sovereign states do and must do. This use of the word sovereignty, and, indeed, the use of the word state, shows the poverty of political language, but has helped on far greater evils than that of supplying false premises for syllogisms ending in secession.

Sovereignty of the ruler

Is the sovereignty of the state a term emanating from the sovereignty of the ruler? or is the ruler properly called a sovereign only as representing the state?. The state stands for an untold amount good to be secured to present and future generations by a just and wise government, at the head of which the ruler is placed. He is a means for a great permanent end; he dies, and some one else succeeds to him, and not by his will, for the most part, but by the law of the state. He disobeys the law, and seeks to overturn it; another is substituted for him, and all things go on, it may be, better than before. All this shows that the ultimate power in theory rests with the state or the people constituting it, and that the prince is a delegate or deputed sovereign. This of course touches the source of his power, and the object for which it is granted.

The power itself may be absolute, and the grant may have been made in remote ages. The prince is a vicar of God, just as receivers of tribute are ‘God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing’. But he is such because the state and its authority are from God, and because he fulfills the end for which the helm of state is intrusted to him. If some democrats of the French school have talked of cashiering kings, the grossness of taste, and want of reverence for old dignities, were the result of an ill use of sovereign power. If the French kings had felt that they were created to minister rather than to be ministered unto, that their power, called sovereign, was delegated to them, the outrages of an extreme reaction against their sway might been spared to the world.”



  1. John Mo, International Commercial Law

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