Representation and popular sovereignty

Notes for April 22

Main points

Authorization can be used to do any of the following:

  1. Extend rights from the author to the authorized representative. E.g. I authorize Charley to enter my house.
  2. Establish the author’s ownership of the authorized representative’s actions.
  3. Unite a ‘multitude’ such that they become a single ‘person’ that is capable of speech and action through their authorized representative. (Being capable of speech and action is a necessary condition of being a person.)

I have argued at somewhat tedious length that authorization in the social contract does not involve extending rights but does involve establishing the subjects’ ownership of the sovereign’s actions.

Today, we read an article by Quentin Skinner, an eminent historian who writes about Hobbes, that shows how authorization is used in the third way, to make the subjects into one ‘person.’

Hobbes and the democratic writers

Hobbes, according to Skinner, introduced authorization to refute various suggestions that the people are the true sovereign power. For instance, some suggested that the people were the original source of the state’s power (like Hobbes did) and that they retain the right to replace the government if they see fit (which Hobbes denied). Another suggestion was that the people chose to exercise their right through a representative body, namely, Parliament.

Hobbes’s idea was that there is no such thing as the people until the sovereign has been installed. Once the sovereign is created as the representative of the people, the sovereign is the one who speaks for them. So the people are just a multitude, without a common voice, or the sovereign speaks for them. Either way, the people don’t represent a political body that could hold sovereignty.

Incidentally, one bit of the story that is not in Skinner’s article concerns what the democratic writers said after their side had won the civil war. As Edmund Morgan put it, they believed that,

“Parliament was not simply the representative of the people, it was the people: ‘the Parliament men are no other than our selves, and therefore we cannot desert them, except we desert our selves.’ … That so infallible a body should be subject to recall or rebuke by those who chose it was unthinkable. Though Parliament might properly withstand the king whom it, acting for the people, had created, the people had no similar right in relation to Parliament because the people and Parliament were identical. The people’s act in conferring power on their representatives was one which ‘once pass’d they cannot revoke.’ Moreover the power they conferred was total: ‘The people,’ according to one of the most ardent Parliamentary spokesman [sic], ‘have reserved no power in themselves from themselves in Parliament.’” (Morgan, 64–65.)

In other words, at least some of the people Skinner calls the democratic writers had a view of sovereignty that was very much like Hobbes’s: they thought that the sovereign was the exclusive representative of the people and that the people could not revoke the sovereign’s power. What they disagreed about was who the sovereign in England in the 1640s was: Hobbes thought it was the king, the democratic writers thought it was Parliament.

At the same time, some of Skinner’s democratic writers genuinely believed in popular sovereignty. This came out in the split between the army and the Parliament after the military victory over the king. Here’s how it went according to Johann Sommerville.

“From the early 1640s men began to claim that the people could call the parliament to account if it acted evilly, and after 1645 the Levellers in particular vigorously championed the notion that parliament did hold its powers conditionally. To paraphrase Hobbes, such thinkers argued that the people of England had made a covenant with the English as represented in parliament to hold the sovereignty conditionally. … Ideas like these played a crucial role … in justifications of the army’s imposing its will upon parliament, culminating in Pride’s Purge of December 1648 and the execution of the king in the following month. Some men, then were so dull as to say the sovereign assembly is accountable to the people.” (Sommerville, 61–62.)

But I bet the army’s official rationale for purging the Parliament was that it was acting on behalf of the people. And I would also bet that after the army assumed power, it lost its enthusiasm for the people’s exercise of their sovereign powers.

Evaluating Hobbes’s arguments

Very briefly, I think Hobbes makes a few errors.

  1. He assumes that representation has to be exclusive. Why couldn’t the people have the sovereign as their representative and another representative as well, such as Parliament? There’s nothing about representation that rules that out.
  2. There has to be something wrong with Hobbes’s claim that the subjects can’t make a covenant with their representative. It’s tricky to spell out, though. The example of the people of Rome in 18.4 is relevant here.

What’s erroneous is the attempt to argue from the nature of representation to conclusions about what the social contract has to be like. Hobbes is free to argue that the social contract is a special case. That is, he could argue that in the case of the social contract it would make no sense to allow multiple representatives or conditions on the sovereign’s power.


This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted May 4, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar