Is there a conflict between Hobbes’s account of Sovereignty by Acquisition and Sovereignty by Institution?

“For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it.”[1]

-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan


Thomas Hobbes’s seminal text Leviathan was published in England in 1651. The quote above summarises Hobbes’s main concern voiced in the text; preserving peace. He believed that the best way to do this was by forming a government headed by an absolute entity, a Leviathan. Hobbes was writing in the context of the English Civil War. Hobbes had his political views founded and shaped by this event. In the text, Hobbes states that there are two means by which men form covenants with the Sovereign. These are Sovereignty by Institution and Sovereignty by Acquisition. Some have said that there is a conflict between Hobbes’s account of Sovereignty by acquisition and by intuition. This essay seeks to assess possible conflicts between Hobbes’s account of Sovereignty by acquisition and Sovereignty by institution. This essay will argue that not only is there no conflict between Sovereignty by acquisition and inquisition, there is not a difference between the two. This is because they are formed on the same principles, by the same means and are subject to the same conditions. These all stem from Hobbes’s profound aversion to violence.


For Sovereignty both by acquisition and inquisition to be understood, it must be understood that Hobbes was moved primarily by a desire to preserve peace, a desire which arose from his experiences with the English Civil War. The preservation of peace was Hobbes’s main motivation in establishing absolute Sovereigns by institution or acquisition. For Hobbes, a Sovereign was anybody who could bring an end to the tragedy which is the State of War. Hobbes himself acknowledges that the English Civil War influenced his writing. In Leviathan’s Review and Conclusion Hobbes writes: “And thus I have brought to an end my Discourse of Civill and Ecclesiasticall Government, occasioned by the disorders of the present time, without partiality”.[2] This demonstrates that Hobbes was responding to the political situation in England at the time without attempting to fall into the bad books of any of those present. Hobbes’s fear of the State of War was exacerbated by personal loss in the English Civil War. In both the dedication, and the Review and Conclusion, Hobbes references his deceased friend, Sidney Goldophin.[3]  This shows that Hobbes had personal motivations for ending the violence of the English Civil War.  The English Civil War shaped Hobbes’s view that peace was to be desired above all else, and that in order to either preserve or establish peace, we should accept all de facto power as legitimate. For Hobbes, both Sovereignty by acquisition and institution are influenced by fear. Hobbes believes that the Sovereign is simply one who can protect you under the law.[4]  Further evidence that Hobbes’s desire to preserve peace came from the English Civil War is found elsewhere in the review and conclusion. “There is nothing in this whole Discourse … contrary to … the disturbance of Publique Tranquility.”[5] Hobbes believed that peace was to be desired for two main reasons, namely that a State of War naturally puts you at a disadvantage, because people can kill you, but also to honour the covenants you have made.[6] This shows that Hobbes was fearful of a backlash from his works, and was hoping to protect both himself and that which was most important to him; peace. For Hobbes, it did not matter by which means power was vested, so long as an absolute ruler was capable of preserving the peace.


Hobbes’s Sovereignty by institution is designed to preserve peace between the subjects of the Sovereign. According to Hobbes, Sovereignty by institution is the means by which Sovereigns were first implemented amongst men, and how civilisation was begun out of a State of Nature. Hobbes claims that Sovereignty by Institution is when a covenant amongst men is formed out of their fear of one another.[7] With regards to a Common-wealth by institution, Hobbes writes; “A Common-wealth is said to be Instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, Every One With Every One, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly Of Men, shall be given by the major part, the Right to Present the Person of them all, (that is to say, to be their Representative;) every one, as well he that Voted For It, as he that Voted Against It, shall Authorise all the Actions and Judgements, of that Man, or Assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men.”[8] This means that men agree to covenant with each other to decide upon a leader to represent and protect them and that because this leader protects them, that men are bound to obey him. David Hume suggests that Sovereignty by institution is an almost entirely theoretical exercise. Although Hobbes claims that upon the authorisation of the Sovereign in the creation of the commonwealth, the Sovereign cannot be disobeyed, Hobbes does allow a useful caveat to this. Hobbes says it is ok to be disloyal to a Sovereign once it becomes clear that the Sovereign is no longer capable of protecting your life.[9] According to Hobbes, so long as the Sovereign is able to preserve peace and your life, you owe obedience to him.


Sovereignty by acquisition is designed to ensure peace between the Sovereign and his new subjects. Sovereignty by acquisition is the application of the more theoretical Sovereignty by institution. Hobbes claims that Sovereignty by acquisition is Sovereignty obtained by force, and that the Sovereignty of the conqueror is authorised when one has their life or liberty under the control of the would-be Sovereign.[10] This is a very de facto approach to Sovereignty, Hobbes argues that any power which exists is legitimate. Hobbes argues that authority in Sovereignty by acquisition is based on the same premise with which a father exacts authority over his children.[11] Despite Hobbes’ claim that Sovereignty by Acquisition is different from Sovereinty by Institution, this does not really hold up to scrutiny. Hobbes acknowledges only one difference between Sovereignty by institution and Sovereignty by acquisition which lies in the fact that Sovereignnty by institution was enacted through fear of their fellows in the state of nature, whereas Sovereignty by acquisition is a covenant formed through fear of the invading Sovereign.[12] This is mere semantics, however, as both types of Sovereignty are formed out of a fear that someone is able to take your life. Hobbes claims that the rights of Sovereign are the same in both forms of Commonwealth.[13] Namely, the Sovereign cannot have his power transferred without his consent, he cannot be accused by his subjects, and he cannot be punished by his subjects.[14] Furthermore, Hobbes believes that there exists a permanent state of war between nations, so it naturally follows that should one nation become victorious over another, that there should be an end to violence.


Having now understood Hobbes’s definitions for Sovereignty by Institution and Acquisition, it can be demonstrated that not only does no conflict exist, but they are in fact the same. Thinkers such as David Gauther argue that as Hobbes argues that the Sovereignty by Acquisition is of that between a “Child to the Parent”, there is an inconsistency in Hobbes’s argument as children are not able to form the covenants required to authorise Sovereignty.[15] This does not stand up to scrutiny of the text, however. Hobbes suggests a number of reasons why children owe obedience to their parents. Hobbes says that children must be obedient towards their parents because children are dependent upon them.[16] Hobbes provides further evidence that children are bound to obey their parents from scripture, Collosians, 3:20 says, “Children obey your Parents in All things.”[17] There is only a contradiction between Hobbes’s account of sovereignty by acquisition and Hobbes’s other writings when the entirety of the text is not considered.


It could be argued that a conflict between Hobbes’s account of Sovereignty by institution and acquisition arises with regards to the terms of the covenants made to authorise a Sovereign by institution in Chapter XIV, when Hobbes writes, “A former Covenant, makes voyd a later. For a man hath passed away his Right to one man to day, hath it not to passe to morrow to another: and therefore the later promise passeth no Right, but is null.”[18] This appears to instantly invalidate any Sovereignty by Acquisition, seeming to give ultimate authority the original Sovereign, that of institution. This is is only when the quotation is taken out of context, however. The very next passage explains how covenants made which endanger the life of the person making the covenant are invalid.[19] This demonstrates that the apparent indefeasibility of covenants made are in fact not indefeasible because of the caveat which allows people to protect their own lives. This is further supported by a passage in Chapter XXI which claims that when the command of a Sovereign places one’s life in danger then “yet hath that man the liberty to disobey.”[20] This is further demonstration that contradictions in Hobbes’s accounts of sovereignty only exist when terms are taken out of context.


Finally, we must examine the difference which Hobbes himself claims exists between Sovereignty by institution and Sovereignty by acquisition. Hobbes states that a Sovereignty by institution differs from Sovereignty by acquisition in that  Sovereignty by institution is authorised by men covenanting amongst themselves for fear of each other. Hobbes argues that Sovereignty by acquisition is authorised by covenants made amongst men out of fear of a conquering Sovereign.[21] The only difference, therefore appears to be one of semantics. Both Sovereignty by institution and Sovereignty by acquisition are established through covenants made amongst men out of fear of an individual or individuals, be they potential sovereigns or their fellow man. Hobbes goes on to write that after such a covenant is established, an individual is not at liberty to break it, and they owe total obedience to their Sovereign unless their life is threatened.[22] There is no conflict in Hobbes’s account of Sovereignty by acquisition Sovereignty by institution and acquisition arise from ultimately the same circumstances and are bound by the same conditions.


Sovereignty by institution is a covenant people make amongst themselves to surrender their powers to a Sovereign in order bring about the peace which a State of Nature lacks. A Sovereign by acquisition brings order to a nation besieged by war, freeing people from a state of war. Therefore, not only is their not a contradiction between a Sovereign of institution and a Sovereign of acquisition, there is not a difference between the two. The belief in ultimate authority by a Leviathan for Hobbes was shaped by his belief that peace should be valued above all else. Thus, whether Hobbes was experiencing war due to existing in a state of nature, or due to a conquering force, obedience to the de facto ruler was paramount for the establishment of security through peace. Any distinction made is for clarity in light of the overthrow of previously established government during the English Civil War. For Hobbes, the ability to rule effectively was a legitimisation of said rule, and the establishment of the regime by conquest or from a state of nature is wholly irrelevant.

[1] Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan (2013th, Empire Books, United States ed.), p. 74

[2] Ibid, p. 346

[3] Ibid, p. 341

[4] Hoekstra, K. (2004). The de facto Turn in Hobbes’s Political Philosophy. In P. T. Sorell, L. Foisneau, & T. Sorell (Eds.), Leviathan after 350 years (pp. 33–74). New York: Oxford University Press, p. 38

[5] Hobbes, p. 346

[6] Taylor, A. E. (1969). The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes. In B. Baumrin (Ed.), Hobbes’s Leviathan (pp. 35–49). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, p. 36

[7] Hobbes, p. 95

[8] Hobbes, p. 82

[9] Ibid, p. 64

[10] Ibid, p. 95

[11] Ibid, p. 82

[12] Ibid, p. 95

[13] Ibid, p.  96

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gauthier, D. P. (1969). The logic of ‘leviathan’: The moral and political theory of Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 117 and Hobbes, p. 95

[16] Hobbes, p. 167

[17] Ibid, p. 99

[18] Ibid, p. 65

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, p. 104

[21] Ibid, p. 95

[22] Ibid, p. 96



Gauthier, D. P. (1969). The logic of ‘leviathan’: The moral and political theory of Thomas Hobbes. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan (2013th, Empire Books, United States ed.)
Hobbes, T. (2009, October 11). Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from

Hoekstra, K. (2004). The de facto Turn in Hobbes’s Political Philosophy. In P. T. Sorell, L. Foisneau, & T. Sorell (Eds.), Leviathan after 350 years (pp. 33–74). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David (1969). Of the Original Contract. In B. Baumrin (Ed.), Hobbes’s Leviathan (pp. 26–35). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company

Taylor, A. E. (1969). The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes. In B. Baumrin (Ed.), Hobbes’s Leviathan (pp. 35–49). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company


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