Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the European theorists who has been cited as an inspiration for the Founding Fathers as they wrote the U.S. Constitution and created the American form of government. In some ways, however, they were using what Rousseau wrote as a beginning point and then finding a governmental form to refute some of Rousseau's concerns for what representative government might become if not controlled. The authors of The Federalist Papers answered certain of these concerns, especially regarding concerns about factions and the effect of differences of opinion on the sovereign.
Property in its broadest sense was a concern for Rousseau, as it was for the Founding Fathers. Rousseau believed that the individual in effect own's him or herself, for he states that "no man has a natural authority over his fellow man" (Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings 144). All children are born free:
Their liberty belongs to them; they alone have the right to dispose of it... Renouncing one's liberty is renouncing one's dignity as a man, the rights of humanity and even its duties (Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings 144).
Yet it is the development of external property that leads to the formation of a civil society, and external property is precisely that for Rousseau -- not an embodiment of rights but a creation that signals a change from the state of nature to the state of a civil society:
The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society... For this idea of property, depending on many prior ideas which could only have arisen successively, was not formed all at once in the human mind. It was necessary to make great progress... before arriving at this final stage in the state of nature (Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings 60).
The right that Rousseau holds in highest regard is the social order, and he says that this is a right that does not come from nature but that is rather founded on conventions. Identifying these conventions is the issue, and one of the important forces expressed by Rousseau as being the motivator for the development of these conventions and for the agreement resulting in a social order is the general will. Rousseau was less interested in individual freedom and more in making government responsive to the general will. Rousseau considered the formation and influence of groups within society. For Rousseau, the social contract created an environment in which the general will of the people, a unifying force, would dominate individuals and their particular wills.
Rousseau felt that once individuals came together to form a social order, what was formed was a new entity with a common life and a common will. This is the general will, and it always tends to preserve the existence and welfare of the whole. The general will is something intangible but powerful. Rousseau states that "only the general will can direct the powers of the State in such a way that the purpose for which it has been instituted, which is the good of all, will be achieved (Rousseau, "The Social Contract" 190). It may have been the opposition of private interests that made the establishment of societies necessary, but now it is the agreement of those same interests that made it possible. These different interests have in common the bond of society. At some point, their interest had to have been identical or no society would be possible. Now that there is a society, it is only on the basis of this common interest that society can be governed:
maintain, therefore, that sovereignty, being no more than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the sovereign, who is a collective being only, can be represented by no one but himself. Power can be transmitted, but not will (Rousseau, "The Social Contract" 190).
Sovereignty is no more than the exercise of the general will. The sovereign is only a collective being. Rousseau makes a distinction between a particular will -- any particular will -- and the general will. A particular will tends toward partiality and will agree with the general will only part of the time. The general will, however, tends toward equality, leveling the many individual wills and finding some common ground. The general will determines the actions of the sovereign by giving the sovereign the power to act for what can be called the common good. The individual who does not agree with the general will on a given matter is still compelled under the social contract to accept the general will. This creates an interesting contradiction in that the individual will finds freedom in submitting to the larger freedom of the general will.
Rousseau sees all men as born into freedom, and yet he sees the people of his own society in the eighteenth century as being in chains. The France in which Rousseau lived as a highly stratified society, with rigid class levels and a wide disparity between the upper and the lower classes. Rousseau would see this as the result of the development of separate factions speaking for individuals. He states that for the general will to be truly expressed, there must be no subsidiary groups within the State. Instead, "each citizen [must] voice his own opinion and nothing but his own opinion" (Rousseau, "The Social Contract" 194). When there are subsidiary groups in the State, however, there should be as many of them as possible, diluting the influence of any one or two. None of these groups should be more powerful than any other. This is a precaution that also assures the expression of the general will, and freedom is dependent on the expression of the general will under the social contract. The expression of the general will assures that the people will not be led into error.
The Constitution that was ratified in 1787 promoted the ideal of equality, but in fact its provisions were not at first applied equally to all the people. Women could not vote, for instance, and being unable to vote means being less than a full citizen. The nation still had slaves, and they were counted as three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. More fundamentally, the Constitution was designed by and for the interests of property owners more than other citizens, and they were given more rights because they owned property.
The concern over large-scale polities was addressed in The Federalist Papers in Numbers 18, 19, and 20 where James Madison pointed up the fundamental weaknesses of mere confederations composed of independent states, for such a confederation would not be strong enough to protect itself from external or internal pressures. Avoiding this sort of situation wa addressed by Madison, who became a thorough nationalist and wanted to subordinate the states as much as possible to the sovereignty of a central government. In No. 39 of The Federalist Papers, Madison asked whether the new government would be strictly republican:
It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or with that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments in the capacity of mankind for self-government (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 189).
Madison concluded that the proposed government was indeed republican in form, modified for the size of the territory:
The proposed Constitution therefore is in strictness neither a national nor a federal constitution; but a composition of both (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 195).
Madison addressed the matter of factions in Federalist 10 and gives a clear definition of faction: