Tocqueville identifies the sovereignty of the people as the main characteristic of American liberty, explicitly recognized and defended in law. Early on in American history, this sovereignty was kept in check by the necessity of obeying Britain. In addition, intelligence in New England and wealth in the South continued to exert an aristocratic influence, keeping power in the hands of the few. The right to vote was limited until the American Revolution, when people fought for national sovereignty. Martial victory was also victory for sovereignty of the people, and the more powerful found that the only way to secure the good-will of the people was to vote, often against their own interest, in favor of the most democratic laws, including universal suffrage.
“Sovereignty” means autonomy, and sovereignty of the people would have been a familiar term even to European audiences of the time, since it was a principle to which people could appeal in their struggle against the authority of the monarch or State. Early on, Tocqueville argues, Americans also had to negotiate with other authorities to secure their own sovereignty, but the difference now is that sovereignty of the people triumphed in an entirely unprecedented way in America.
Tocqueville contrasts the explicit sovereignty of the people in America to the weaker manifestations of the principle in other countries. But in the United States, the entire nation is involved in making its laws by choosing its legislators and officials. The people reign in American politics like God does in the universe, Tocqueville argues.