An Exposition on Legitimacy, Authority, and Sovereignty

“True republicanism is the sovereignty of the people,” once spoke Marquis de Lafayette (Kramer 256), but what did he mean by this? The concepts of legitimacy, authority, and sovereignty are essential to any critical understanding of politics. These concepts will be explored over the course of this essay, especially in their relation to government and to the state.

Legitimacy is the state in which the governed accept their governance, while authority is when a governing group or individual maintains legitimacy (Mintz Close Croci 10). According to prominent sociologist Max Weber, there are three core types of authority, or ways in which legitimacy is maintained. The first is traditional authority, which is where the governed accept the governing group due to some appeal to tradition or history. Familial monarchies, in which governing power is inherited, is a kind of traditional authority. Many forms of religious authority, in which appeals to traditional divine sanctions or holy orders are made, are also forms of traditional authority. Traditional authority seeks to maintain the status quo and thus changes to the system do not occur (Williams 2-3). Prior to the French and American revolutions, traditional authority was the historical standard. It wasn’t until these revolutions occurred that new kinds of authority commonly emerged: legal-rational and charismatic.

Legal-rational authority is the type of authority that the French (initially) and American revolutions created, and it is governance based on an agreed-upon set of rules or laws. Legitimacy, in this regard, is maintained by appealing to commonly accepted laws and principles rather than to an individual or tradition. Legal-rational authority, unlike traditional authority, is able to adapt to change and is thus less likely to destabilize in response to internal or external pressures (3-4). Charismatic authority, on the other hand, attempts to locate legitimacy in the extraordinary qualities of an individual (3). This was the case with Napoleon Bonaparte, whose war victories and appeal to nationalism characterized him as heroic, thus granting him legitimacy. Adolf Hitler similarly acquired legitimacy by scapegoating popular discontents on Semitic populations and the newly-established democratic system while promising radical changes. Charismatic authority is rooted in the heroic characteristics of the individual and usually in the promise for radical changes or for success. Maintaining legitimacy is important because, while all states tend to rely on coercive power to some degree, it decreases the amount of resources that need to be expended to maintain stability and power.

States, such as Canada, France, and Russia, are political communities which serve as the fundamental organizational unit in contemporary global politics. A political community is a group consisting of governed and governing members. The United Nations can be thought of as a political community, as it consists of member states who are collectively governed by themselves. In this case, the member states occupy both the governed and governing positions. In a monarchy, the king or queen occupies the governing position while the subjects of the kingdom occupy the governed position. States are a particular kind of political community in that they are independent, self-governing, and their governmental institutions have the highest authority (Mintz et al. 12). This highest authority is referred to as sovereignty, which is an authority that does not need to answer to any higher authority. This is where the concept of “failed states” comes in. When a state (via its government) is unable to make binding decisions on its community (legitimacy), it becomes a failed state. Somalia was defined as a failed state because its government was regularly challenged and subverted by paramilitary groups and thus, it has not been able to self-govern, be independent, or act as the highest authority in its region. Overall, the success of states depends greatly upon the ability of its government to maintain sovereignty and legitimacy.

When Marquis de Lafayette spoke of republicanism being the sovereignty of the people, he meant that the heart of republicanism is when the people are the highest authority of their region. The legitimacy and authority of the republic and its governmental institutions is located in its capacity to be answerable to the people. Put otherwise, the governing members of a political community are answerable to those they govern. While there are many different ideas for transcribing the will of the people, the concepts of legitimacy, authority, and sovereignty are essential for understanding republicanism, as they are for understanding any form of government.



Kramer, Lloyd S.. Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions. The University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Print.

Mintz, Eric, David Close, Osvaldo Croci. Politics, Power, and the Common Good: An Introduction to Political Science. Pearson, 2014. Print.

Williams, Dana. Max Weber: Traditional, Legal-Rational, and Charismatic Authority. The University of Akron, 2003. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.


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