Rousseau, the Other “Hero of Two Worlds”

“The hero of two worlds” was Lafayette’s nickname as he was a key political figure in both France and the United States. But Jean-Jacques Rousseau deserves the moniker more than the famous marquis, argues Leo Damrosch, a professor emeritus of literature at Harvard and the author of a biography about the Swiss-born philosopher of the Enlightenment. In fact, Rousseau’s writings inspired the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and remain a major influence in both our countries to this day.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: You write that Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) had a significant influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States. How did they discover Rousseau’s work?

Leo Damrosch: They were well aware of the geographical distance, but they maintained strong ties with England as the mother country – Benjamin Franklin represented the Pennsylvania Assembly in London before the Revolution – and with France as the intellectual center of the Enlightenment. They kept up eagerly with the latest publications from both.

How can the Declaration of Independence be connected with Rousseau and more generally with the French or British Enlightenment?

Thomas Jefferson was much more radical politically than most of his colleagues, and the Declaration he wrote is far more Rousseauian than the Constitution is. From Rousseau, Jefferson borrowed the revolutionary concept of the people’s sovereignty as opposed to the tradition of the king as the ultimate sovereign. While Jefferson was away in France, the authors of the Constitution, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, all followed another French philosopher, Montesquieu, in his concept of differing political systems – rather than a single ideal one – that arise in different places and societies. They also adopted Montesquieu’s thinking about the importance of built-in barriers against future abuses, in particular the concepts of separation of powers and of checks and balances. England, of course, had never had a written constitution and still doesn’t; the Founding Fathers wanted to create a document that would continue to govern the nation for generations to come.

“We the people,” which opens the U.S. Constitution, sounds very much like Rousseau. Is this more than a coincidence?

It does indeed echo Rousseau. He grew up in the independent city-state of Geneva, where all citizens were theoretically equal in the collective decisions of the whole. In practice, Geneva was dominated by a wealthy aristocracy, and Rousseau’s father, a skilled watchmaker, was a member of a militant artisan class that criticized that system. In searching for alternatives, they looked back to the Roman Republic before the Empire, and the young Jean-Jacques’ father encouraged him to read Plutarch and other classical writers whose ideas later bore fruit in The Social Contract. The very word “citizen” was a radical new term in this context. It used to mean just someone living in a city, but in Rousseau’s thought, citoyen was taking the place of sujet, a “subject” of the monarchy. Likewise, he thought of “the people” of Geneva as a collectivity that could share a volonté générale, or “general will” – but he doubted that the solidarity that might be possible in a small city-state could be extended to a huge nation-state like France, or like the soon-to-be-born United States.

The French and American revolutionary leaders were both influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. But the outcome was very different: a stable constitution in the U.S.; political violence in France. Robespierre claimed to be Rousseauian. Jefferson, clearly, was not. Did they read the same books or did they derive different interpretations from Rousseau’s complex philosophy?

It is very much a question of different interpretations of the same texts. Jefferson was certainly Rousseauian when he began the Declaration of Independence with a clarion call: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But Jefferson did not go so far as to place confidence in the “general will,” a controversial Rousseauian concept, as Robespierre certainly did. And when a committee of the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, its checks and balances were intended to forestall any eruptions of drastic change even if a majority of the population was in favor of them. At this very moment in the United States, we are witnessing the consequences of that commitment to the Constitution, with the tension between originalism and the gradual evolution of social and political thinking.

In France, Rousseau is often perceived as the ancestor of socialism, even totalitarianism, based on his concepts of general interest and sovereignty of the people, which seem to exclude any dissent. Does Rousseau generate the same kind of controversy in the U.S.?

The debate has been much more intense in Europe than in America, particularly in the aftermath of World War II. Two seminal polemics were Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, and J.L. Talmon’s The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy (1952). Rousseau’s emphasis on local patriotism, as in his native Geneva, could be seen as leading to the glorification of das Volk, “the people,” and in a notorious passage in The Social Contract, he actually says that if a member of the community refuses to accept the general will, on le forcera d’être libre: “He will be forced to be free.” It’s an obvious oxymoron to say someone can be forced to be free. Defenders of Rousseau argue, whether convincingly or not, that someone who doesn’t choose to conform can simply leave the community, as he himself had left Geneva, rather than being committed to a concentration camp or gulag.

Rousseau argued in favor of a common civil religion, which after the French Revolution was the Cult of the Supreme Being. Would you say that the Unitarian Church attended by many Founding Fathers was sort of an American civil religion?

In its absence of theological dogma, it might be considered like that, but Unitarians were always a minority even in New England, and some of the Founding Fathers were agnostics. Throughout the colonies, there were committed Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Quakers, and others. The First Amendment to the Constitution provides for the separation of church and state – which the American right wing, with the possible approval of the Supreme Court, is challenging at the present moment.

Times are changing. I cannot think of any contemporary author whose political influence could be compared to Rousseau and his Social Contract. Can you think of one? Could Michel Foucault be the new Rousseau?

Rousseau’s influence was so powerful because his writings were influential at a time of crucial political reinvention in the Western world; they were studied not just by academics but by statesmen who knew they were creating something new. His challenge to thinkers has remained alive ever since. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, was deeply influenced by Rousseau when he said that American society was held together not by its legal code and Constitution but by shared habitudes du cœur, or “habits of the heart.” In America today, however, though not in France, intellectuals have very little influence on non-academic thinking. Foucault never had any real influence outside the universities in this country, and now that his star has waned even there, there’s no figure who could assume even that status.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius
by Leo Damrosch, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005.


Interview published in the October 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.