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THE VOCABULARY OF SOVEREIGNTY - Joyce Lee Malcom, The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 1 
The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, 2 vols, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1.
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THE VOCABULARY OF SOVEREIGNTY
Even without the king, Parliament, people, or lawyers seeking to enhance their share of power, the English ideal of a balanced government was beset with problems. The interpretations sixteenth-century Continental philosophers had given to “absolute” and “sovereign,” terms Englishmen were accustomed to applying to their kings, were sufficiently influential in England to set political nerves jangling.39 If the definition of sovereign was that power whose actions were not subject to the legal control of another and could not be rendered void by the operation of another human will, it was unclear just who or what was England’s sovereign. If the king was sovereign then he could not be subject to Parliament or the law. The king in Parliament came closer to the definition, but Parliament only met intermittently and in important respects answered to the higher authority of the law. Statutes approved by the king in Parliament were regularly modified by the justices in the royal courts and could even be found to be against law and therefore void.
Popular understanding of the English constitution was also challenged by the influential sixteenth-century French philosopher Jean Bodin. In his classic study The Six Books of the Commonwealth, Bodin insisted sovereignty must be not only absolute—“not limited either in power, or in function, or in length of time”—but indivisible.40 “To combine monarchy with democracy and with aristocracy,” as the English claimed to do, was in Bodin’s estimation “impossible and contradictory, and cannot even be imagined.”41 He specifically considered the English Parliament but found: “The entire sovereignty belongs undivided to the kings of England and that the Estates are only witnesses. . . . The sovereignty of the monarchy is in no way altered by the presence of the Estates.”42 To Bodin “the main point of sovereign majesty and absolute power consists of giving the law to subjects in general without their consent.”43
Consider an incident that occurred over the use of the word “sovereign.” When the Petition of Right was being drafted in 1628, the Lords moved to add a paragraph expressing “due regard to leave entire that sovereign Power, wherewith your Majesty is trusted for the protection, safety, and happiness of your people.” Many in the Commons voiced their dismay. “What is ‘sovereign power’?” John Alford asked. “Bodin says it is that that is free from any condition. . . . Let us give that to the King that the law gives him, and no more.” John Pym continued, “I know not what it is. . . . I know how to add ‘sovereign’ to his person, but not to his power.” The great jurist, Sir Edward Coke, pleaded that the Lords’ proposal would “overthrow all our petition. . . . I know the prerogative is part of the law, but ‘sovereign power’ is no parliament word in my opinion. It weakens Magna Carta and all other statutes, for they are absolute without any saving of sovereign power. . . . We must not admit of it; and to qualify it, it is impossible.”44 The Lords capitulated, and the offending language was rejected. The Petition of Right opened with dutiful reference to “our Sovereign Lord the King,” and men continued to refer to “sovereignty in a king,” but Coke and his colleagues had thwarted legal recognition of such sovereign power.
Or take “absolute.” The Speaker of the Commons welcomed James to his first English parliament by proclaiming that they had “exchanged our exquisite Queen for an absolute King.” But when James “desired and commanded, as an absolute King, that there might be a conference between the House and the judges,” members were alarmed by his use of the term “absolute.”45 James may have been misunderstood, perhaps “all he was asserting was his rightful authority as a monarch whose claim to the English throne was beyond challenge,” the customary meaning of “absolute.” But apparently members did not see it that way.46 They were wise to be cautious for James intermittently pressed for absolutist powers, and there were those who argued that Charles I possessed the more potent meanings Europeans were giving these customary terms. It was presumably in response to this threat that Coke had already begun to make exalted claims for the antiquity and supremacy of the law.
[39. ]The struggles between kings and their people and between church and state in sixteenth-century Europe produced a body of literature exalting absolutism on the one hand and arguing for resistance to it on the other. See, for example, Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 2, “The Age of Reformation”; J. N. Figgis, Political Thought from Gerson to Grotius: 1414-1625 (rpt., New York, 1960). The following definition is a paraphrase of that used by Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, Book 1, chap. 2, vii.
[40. ]This work first appeared in 1576 and was translated into English in 1606.
[41. ]Jean Bodin, The Six Books of the Commonwealth, Book 1, chap. 8, in On Sovereignty, ed. and trans. Julian H. Franklin (Cambridge, 1992), 2; Book 2, chap. 1, 92. Bodin was adamant that “there is not now, and never was, a state compounded of aristocracy and democracy, much less of the three forms of state.” Bodin, Book 1, chap. 8, 23.
[43. ]Ibid., 23.
[44. ]This debate took place on 20 May 1648. See Robert C. Johnson, Mary Frear Keeler, Maija Jansson Cole, and William B. Bidwell, eds., Common Debates: 1628 (New Haven, 1977), 3:494-95.
[45. ]Cited by Roger Lockyer, The Early Stuarts: A Political History of England, 1603-1642 (London, 1989), 159.