Theory and Society

, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 581–601 | Cite as

Popular sovereignty and the historical origin of the social movement

  • Jens RudbeckEmail author


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 



The author would like to thank participants at the Politics and Protest workshop at CUNY for their helpful comments on a draft version of the article. He would also like to express his gratitude to Mr. J. Fernando Peña, librarian at the Grolier Club, New York City. The Grolier Club has a unique collection of original book sale catalogs, which includes three catalogs covering John Wilkes’s library during the period 1764 to 1802.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Global AffairsNew York UniversityNew York CityUSA

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