The Modern Conception of Sovereignty

A Jacobin Invention

The question of sovereignty reappeared at the end of the Middle Ages, when many began to ask not only what is the best possible form of government, or what should be the purpose of the authority held by political power, but what is the political bond that unites a people to its government?  That is to say, how ought we to define, within a political community, the connection between those who govern and those who are governed?

This is the question that Jean Bodin attempted to address in his famous book, La République (The Commonwealth), which appeared in 1576.  Bodin did not invent sovereignty, but he was the first to make a conceptual analysis and to propose a systematic formulation.  The starting point for this exercise was not an observation of the facts but a two-fold aspiration: first, Bodin’s desire for a restoration of the social order, which had been turned upside down by the religious wars, and second, the demand, on the part of the kings of France, for emancipation from every form of allegiance to the emperor and the pope.  Bodin’s treatment of sovereignty would quite naturally constitute the ideology of the territorial kingdoms, then in their infancy, which sought to emancipate themselves from the tutelage of the Holy Roman Empire, while consolidating the transformation of power that resulted from the king’s success in dominating his feudal nobility.


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