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In the context of establishing a lawfully constituted authority, does conquest1 differ from usurpation2?

How is conquest different from usurpation, which is an unlawful way of establishing an authority?

What exactly gives a certain person authority, such that the subjects are obliged to obey him? Is it force? Is it ability to govern well?

1 OED: "The action of gaining by force of arms; acquisition by war; subjugation of a country, etc."

2OED: "to assume or arrogate to oneself (political power, rule, authority, etc.) by force"

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    Unless you have a specific reference with a political flavour in mind, this question may be a significantly better fit to the English language & usage stack exchange site.
    – origimbo
    Dec 6, 2021 at 6:56
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    @Geremia: Really, how else is "lawful" authority established in the first place? Every country's "lawful" government was established by a string of conquests, often interspersed with usurpations. Try British history for a series of examples. (Downvoted because it displays a serious disconnection from the real world :-))
    – jamesqf
    Dec 6, 2021 at 18:11
  • In my opinion this is a good question relating to the nature of legal obligation in a political society. Answers could, for example, refer to Kelsen's Pure Theory of Law. This subject is Jurisprudence in the sense of Legal Theory. This sits somewhere between Law and Politics My experience of Law SE is that it is not keen on Legal Theory questions I think mainly because, although Legal Theory is a standard part of a law degree in the United Kingdom it is not common in US law degrees. So I think Politics SE would be the best place for it.
    – Nemo
    Dec 6, 2021 at 19:07
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    What exactly gives a certain person authority ... " -- The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king. -- Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!"
    – James K
    Dec 6, 2021 at 20:48
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    Most (would-be) usurpers claim to have legal authority, and so do many invaders: in the past, often through descent from a lawful monarch (as the would-be James VII or Charles Edward Stewart); or to have been appointed as a lawful heir (William of Normandy); elected via some disputed procedure (like Trump tried); or to be taking office temporarily to allow lawful elections and prevent anarchy (another popular third world coup reason).
    – Stuart F
    Dec 6, 2021 at 23:16

2 Answers 2

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A usurpation is when the ruler of a political entity (state, country, region, city, organisation, whatever) is forcefully replaced by a different ruler from within. But there is no change to the sovereignty of the entity. It's the same entity with the same borders and the same political status under new management. This usually happens from the inside (although external support can of course also help). The term is mostly used historically, though. Nowadays an event like that would be referred to as a "coup" or "putsch".

A conquest, on the other hand, was an event where one political entity forcefully took over another political entity through an offensive war. A successful conquest resulted in the conquered entity losing its sovereignty. Either in form of a subjugation, where it officially stayed intact but unofficially became a non-sovereign puppet subservient to the conquering entity. Or in form of an annexation, where the conquered territories became a part of the conquering entity. For example, in World War II, Nazi Germany subjugated France but annexed Czech.

Throughout history, subjugations or annexations often meant that the conquerors would replace the leadership of the conquered entity, but that does not necessarily need to happen. When the conquerors believe that the conquered leadership will now be loyal to them, then it is very well possible that they leave them in power in order to ensure a smooth transition to the new status quo.

Note that the concept of "right of conquest" is officially no longer a thing in international law. The international community is reluctant nowadays to recognize claims legitimized solely by force.

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'Usurpation' is an old-fashioned word, usually used in the context of kingdoms, where one person vaguely within the line of succession grabs power from the current legitimate king. Today we tend to use the following terms:

  • Coup d'état: A group internal to the government power structure tries to seize control of the government
  • Rebellion: a group of citizens outside the government power structure tries to seize control
  • Invasion/occupation: a group entirely external to the nation (usually a foreign government) tries to seize control

Authority is always granted by the people being ruled, who must consent (in one way or another) to being ruled. Sometimes this may involve force, where the police and military are used to coerce obedience from citizens, but its worth remembering that most people, most of the time, don't think much about large-scale government unless they have specific needs or problems that the government is/isn't addressing. Even in totalitarian regimes the government is a distant thing for most people, who may not like the actions of their leaders but go about their daily lives without much impact from it. They cede authority to the leaders through inaction and diffidence. Where people don't consent to being ruled by certain leaders, there is inevitable unrest and occasional insurrection, which leads to the general degradation of the political system over time.

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