In Foundations, Quentin Skinner presented a powerful interpretation of the origins of the modern Western understanding of popular sovereignty. With his customary clarity and erudition, Skinner began with the rise of government by the popolo in northern Italy early in the last millennium, and went on to show how the conception of popular sovereignty evolved via scores of thinkers: Bartolus, Marsilius and Gerson in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for example; Goodman, Salamonius and Hotman in the sixteenth. Skinner's study of the development of the theory of popular sovereignty culminated with its articulation by Buchanan and Mariana in the later sixteenth century, which was ‘available to be used by all parties in the coming constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century’. In subsequent work, Skinner has shown in detail how elements of this theory of popular sovereignty were used in those struggles: not only by republicans, Levellers and moderate constitutionalists, but also by Thomas Hobbes, who opposed all of these groups.
In contrasting Hobbes with some of his contemporaries, Skinner has made much of Hobbes's sardonic characterisation of them as ‘democratical gentlemen’. A number of scholars have none the less claimed that Hobbes's own writings form the foundation of the modern theory of political democracy. The label of ‘democratical gentlemen’ is deliberately paradoxical, suggesting the untenability of a position that can be summed up by a contradiction in terms. Such incompatibility also inheres, I shall argue, in the position of the democratical Hobbesians.
That position incorporates and extends two commonplace claims.