What is Sovereignty Definition Meaning & Types of Sovereignty

What is Sovereignty Definition Meaning & Types of Sovereignty

What is Sovereignty:

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What is Sovereignty ? Sovereignty is an essential element of the state. State cannot exist without sovereignty. State is regarded superior to other associations only because of sovereignty. In fact modern theory of state got its proper shape and perfection only when the concept of sovereignty was introduced in it.


When we try to search for the origin of this concept we find that the term sovereignty is the product of modern political thinking but the idea goes back to the time of Aristotle who referred to it as the “supreme power” of the state. In Middle Ages Roman jurist and civilians were also familiar to this idea. But it was Jean Bodin who developed for the first time the theory of sovereignty systematically in his book “Six Books on the Republic”.

Meaning, Nature and Definition of Sovereignty

The term sovereignty is derived from the Latin word ‘Superanus’ meaning supreme. It is basically a legal concept. It denotes supremacy of state. To understand the term sovereignty, it is desirable to look into some definitions of the given by some political thinkers.

Jean Bodin defined sovereignty as “absolute and perpetual power of commanding in a state. It is supreme power over citizens and subjects unrestrained by law”. Pollock says that “Sovereignty is that power which is neither temporary nor delegated nor subject to particular rules, which it cannot alter, nor answerable to any other power on the earth.”

Burgers described sovereignty as “original absolute unlimited power over the undivided subjects and over all associations of subjects. It is the underused and independent power to command and compel obedience.”

D.F Russell defines sovereignty as “the strongest power and supreme authority within a state, which is unlimited by law or anything else.

Characteristics of Sovereignty:


The chief characteristic of sovereignty is permanence. Sovereignty lasts as long as the state lasts. The death of the king or the overthrow of the government does not affect sovereignty. Hence, the people of England say ‘King is dead, long live the king’.


Exclusiveness here implies that there cannot be two sovereign in one independent state and if it exists the unity of the state will be destroyed.


Every individual and every association of the individual is subject to the sovereignty of the state. However rich or powerful association or group may be, it cannot resist or disobey the sovereign authority.


Sovereignty is the life and soul of the state and it cannot be alienated without destroying the state itself.

Unity and Everlasting:

The spirit of sovereignty lies in its unity. Sovereignty is not bound by time and lasts until the state lasts.


Indivisibility is the life line of sovereignty.


Sovereignty is unconditional and unlimited. Sovereignty is beyond obedience and it is entitled to do whatever it likes.


Sovereignty wields power by virtue of its own right and not by anybody’s mercy.

Types of Sovereignty:

The sovereignty of the state can be divided into several types as follows:

  • Titular Sovereignty
  • Internal and External Sovereignty
  • Legal and Political Sovereignty
  • De Jure and De Facto Sovereignty
  • Popular Sovereignty

Titular Sovereignty

The titular sovereign is just only ruler by name, but in reality is not capable of exercising any effective power. The Queen of Britain, the King of Japan,  all of them are examples of Titular sovereignty.

From the point of view of the law, they are described as the highest source of state power, a symbol of unity and tradition of the country, possessing the highest honour, etc. but the people belonging to the real sovereign power.

Internal and External Sovereignty: 

Internal sovereignty: 

An assembly of people in every independent state has the final legal authority to command and enforce obedience. This sovereignty exercises its absolute authority over all individuals or associations of the individuals in the state.

External sovereignty: 

In simple terms external sovereignty means National Freedom. Every state enjoys absolute liberty to determine its foreign policy and join any power block it likes. External sovereignty implies that every state is independent of other states.

Legal and Political Sovereignty:

Distinction is sometimes drawn between legal and political sovereignty. The sovereign is supposed to be absolute and omnipotent. It functions according to its own will. Law is simply the will of sovereign.

There is none to question its validity. Legal sovereign grants rights to its citizens and there can be no rights against him. It means rights of citizens depend on the will of legal sovereign and any time he can take away. 

Legal sovereign has following characteristics

  • The legal sovereignty is always definite and determinate.
  • Legal sovereignty may reside either in one person or in a body of persons. .
  • It is definitely organized, precise and known to law. 
  • Rights of citizen are gift of legal sovereign. .
  • The will of state is expressed by the legal sovereign only. 
  • Legal sovereignty is absolute. It cannot be question. 

De Jure and De Facto Sovereignty:

De-facto sovereignty

De-facto sovereign is one who has no legal claim to sovereignty but possesses it in fact and exercises necessary force to make and enforce its laws.

De-jure sovereignty

De-jure sovereign is one who has a legal claim to sovereignty but does not possess it in fact.

Popular Sovereignty:

Popular sovereignty roughly means the power of the masses as contrasted with the Power of the individual ruler of the class. It implies manhood, suffrage, with each individual having only one vote and the control of the legislature by the representatives of the people. In popular sovereignty public is regarded as supreme. In the ancient times many writers on Political Science used popular sovereignty as a weapon to refute absolutism of the monarchs. 

According to Dr. Garner, “Sovereignty of the people, therefore, can mean nothing more than the power of the majority of the electorate, in a country where a system of approximate universal suffrage prevails, acting through legally established channels to express their will and make it prevail”.



In the 19th century the theory of sovereignty as a legal concept was perfected by Austin, an English Jurist. He is regarded as a greatest exponent of Monistic Theory. In his book ‘Province of Jurisprudence Determined (1832) Austin observed’ “if a determinate human superior, not in the habit of obedience to a like superior, receives habitual obedience from the bulk of a given society, that determinate superior is sovereign in that society and that society (including superior) is a society political and independent.” To Austin in every state there exists an authority to which a large mass of citizen show compliance. This authority is absolute, unlimited and indivisible.


Austin’s theory of sovereignty depends mainly upon his view on nature of law. According to Austin “Law is a command given by a superior to inferior” the main tenets of Austin’s theory of sovereignty are as follows-

Sovereign power is essential in every political society.

Sovereignty is a person or body of persons. It is not necessary that sovereign should be a single person.

Sovereignty may reside in many persons also. Austin explains that a “Sovereign is not necessarily a single person, in the modern western world he is rarely so; but he must have so much of the attributes of a single person as to be a determinate.” To Austin state is a legal order, in which there is a supreme authority, which is source of all powers. Sovereignty is concerned with man, and every state must have human superior who can issue commands and create laws. Human laws are the proper subjects of state activity.

Sovereign power is indivisible. Division of sovereignty leads to its destruction. It cannot be divided.

The command of sovereignty is superior to over all individuals and associations. Sovereign is not bound to obey anyone’s order. His will is supreme. There is no question of right or wrong, just or unjust, all his commands are to be obeyed.

Austin’s theory says that the obedience to sovereign must be habitual. It means that obedience should be continuous. He also includes that is not necessary that obedience should come from the whole society. It is sufficient, if it comes from the lay majority of people. Obedience should come from bulk of the society otherwise there is no sovereign.

In brief we can say that sovereignty according to Austin is supreme, indivisible and unquestionable. Like all other theories of sovereignty Austin’s theory is also not free from criticism. The first criticism is regarding sovereignty residing in a determinate superior. Even sovereign’s acts are shaped by so many other influences, such as morals, values and customs of the society.

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