How did Jean-Jacques Rousseau impact government?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an Enlightenment thinker whose political philosophies impacted both French and American revolutionaries. He is perhaps best known for his "social contract" theory, which outlined the conditions for legitimate government. One of Rousseau's major arguments was that the power to shape a society's laws belonged to the citizenry. Today, this is one of the central foundations of democratic government.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Rousseau published The Social Contract in 1762. In it, he follows Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Hobbes by arguing that people give up a certain number of individual freedoms in order to obtain the security and protection the state provides. Government is a tradeoff.

In a time of monarchial...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Rousseau published The Social Contract in 1762. In it, he follows Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Hobbes by arguing that people give up a certain number of individual freedoms in order to obtain the security and protection the state provides. Government is a tradeoff.

In a time of monarchial government, Rousseau had a belief in pure democracy that was radical. His bottoms-up approach to government, in which the people elect their rulers, has now become commonplace in many parts of the world.

Rousseau's political thinking evolved over time, however. At first, he did not believe in representative democracy, in which people elect officials to represent them and vote their interests. He wrote in The Social Contract that the

moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists.

This conviction that government had to be wholly democratic made him pessimistic about the possibility of overcoming oppression. He believed that a state that had pure democracy would have to be very small and that, being small, it would soon be conquered. He did believe, however, that a number of city-states could ally and survive that way. He also later evolved in his thinking and conceded that representative government was the only plan that made common sense. This evolution in his thinking is important, because it underscores the importance of adapting to reality.

This leads to another contribution of Rousseau on theories of government: he believed that no government created by humans would be perfect and that we have to simply do the best we can.

Rousseau was ahead of his time in his conviction that government should be democratic, and his writings impacted the future by suggesting that this mode of constructing the state was possible.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jean Jacques Rousseau had a major impact on modern governments through the advancement of the philosophy of social contract. Through his work he was able to transform mostly despotic government institutions into democratic institutions based on individual freedoms. He also participated in the advancement of the Enlightenment era, a period when the people challenged the existing authority structures and other facets of human life.

The social contract as envisioned by Rousseau sought to describe the framework used in establishing leadership structures among the populace. He suggested that no legitimate government should exist without the general will of the people. This was because since the people relinquished equal rights making them the governed, it would only be right if they gave their consent to be governed. His idea made it possible for the masses to challenge the legitimacy of the set structures especially monarchies. This led to revolutions such as the French Revolution which can be traced back to his ideology. The social contract can also be seen in the American Declaration of Independence when the Founding Fathers sought to establish a government for and by the people of the United States.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau impacted governments around the world with his idea of the social contract and the importance of individual freedoms.

Rousseau argued that the people and the government form a social contract.  The people allow the government to have power over them, they consent to be governed.  In return, the government promises to protect the rights of the people.  Rousseau believed that the right of individuals to be free is one of the most important things that people have.  Because of this, he believed that a good government had to protect those rights.

This idea of the social contract and of individual rights was very important in changing the world.  For example, it was the driving force behind the American Revolution.  Through that revolution and changes in other countries, Rousseau's ideas have impacted governments across the world.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team