Rousseau is studied in history and government classes because of the work he did with “social contract” theory. This theory advances the idea that people make agreements, or contracts, with each other and with governments for the purpose of forming safe societies in which they may live in relative freedom.
Rousseau, however, is not the only social contract theorist. Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu also formulated their own brand of the theory. In fact, it is Locke’s thought that is probably closest to the government formed by the United States in the 18th century.
Rousseau favored a system of direct democracy, in which all citizens voted on every issue. Locke, on the other hand, favored our current republican form of representative government, in which we elect others to represent us in the government. Locke also believed that voting rights should only be granted to property owners, and, in fact, this was the case in the United States when the Constitution was first written. It was only in the early 19th century when voting rights began to expand to include people other than white, male, property owners. In this matter, we have moved a little closer to Rousseau’s ideal, although the United States will certainly never be a direct democracy.