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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 BodinBodin, Jean
, 1530?–1596, French social and political philosopher. He studied and taught at Toulouse and enjoyed a successful legal career. His most notable book, Six livres de la republique (1576, tr.
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 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 HobbesHobbes, Thomas
, 1588–1679, English philosopher, grad. Magdalen College, Oxford, 1608. For many years a tutor in the Cavendish family, Hobbes took great interest in mathematics, physics, and the contemporary rationalism.
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 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 NationsUnited Nations
(UN), international organization established immediately after World War II. It replaced the League of Nations. In 1945, when the UN was founded, there were 51 members; 193 nations are now members of the organization (see table entitled United Nations Members).
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 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' rightsstates' rights,
in U.S. history, doctrine based on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
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) 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 evidenceevidence,
in law, material submitted to a judge or a judicial body to resolve disputed questions of fact. The rules discussed in this article were developed in England for use in jury trials.
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 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 supreme, theoretically unrestricted, political POWER by which a STATE is identified. The concept acquired particular importance throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, in association with the formation of the modern NATION STATE (see also ABSOLUTISM, HOBBES).



supreme, independent power exercised in a state’s domestic and foreign policy. The term “sovereignty” was first used in reference to constitutional law in the 16th century by the French scholar J. Bodin. The concept of popular sovereignty was used by the bourgeoisie in its struggle against absolutism and feudalism in order to win the support of the common people. Sovereignty varies in different socioeconomic systems, depending on the class-oriented nature of state power and the economic structure of a given society. The power of the people is the basis of sovereignty in socialist states.

Sovereignty is manifested above all in the way a state functions, but it is most apparent in the system of state rights, including sovereign rights. It is precisely the state’s powers that ensure the state’s authority and thus its sovereignty. Supreme state power in a society is characterized by the establishment of law and order and the granting of rights and duties to officials, public organizations, and citizens. These characteristics distinguish state power from other forms of authority, for example, in a family or social group. Only state power can authoritatively influence and, when necessary, exercise coercion on all aspects of life in human society; state power is in effect universal and sovereign in nature.

A state’s domestic sovereignty is closely linked with its independence from foreign powers. Sovereignty gives a state independence in international relations and allows it to act as an autonomous party in matters of international law. The foreign policy of the USSR recognizes the sovereign equality of all states, regardless of the sociopolitical system, economic development, size, or population. The principle of sovereign equality, which is set forth in the UN Charter, is one of the universally recognized principles of modern international law.


1. supreme and unrestricted power, as of a state
2. the position, dominion, or authority of a sovereign
3. an independent state
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