Theory and Society

, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 581-601

First online:

Popular sovereignty and the historical origin of the social movement

  • Jens RudbeckAffiliated withCenter for Global Affairs, New York University Email author 

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This article seeks to explain why the social movement had its historical origin in the 1760s. It argues that the rise of the social movement as a particular form of political action was closely linked to a new interpretation of sovereignty that emerged within eighteenth century British politics. This interpretation, which drew inspiration from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract thinking, not only resonated with the radicalism of John Wilkes and his followers’ struggle to promote civil liberties to Englishmen of all classes, it also spurred a transformation of the repertoire of popular contention. The article traces the evolution of the concept of sovereignty in British political thought from the Restoration to the Wilkites and discusses how this evolution informed the contentious actions of the Wilkites as they formed the first mass movement to promote a specific political issue.


Social contract theory Political Protest John Wilkes Jean-Jacques Rousseau