While John Locke was the voice of the American Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the voice of the French Revolution. In fact, one could argue that the two revolutions turned out so differently because they were ultimately based on two different ideas about what makes government power legitimate.
Justifying the Revolution
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there was no such thing as a natural right; to him, rights weren’t natural. They are human inventions. As a result, there’s nothing to stop a government from infringing upon them.
As long as government power is deemed to be in the service of the general will—whatever that is—it can be used to justify just about anything.
And during the French Revolution, Rousseau’s philosophy was used to justify not only the revolution (which brought democracy to France), but also the Reign of Terror that followed. In the Reign of Terror, tens of thousands of people would be sent to the guillotine, in some cases just because they weren’t enthusiastic enough about France’s new democratic system.
Rousseau’s philosophy had been used to put power into the hands of ordinary citizens. But there weren’t any limits on what ordinary citizens could do with that power once they had it.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Declaration of Independence
Comparing the American and French revolutions gives us a sense for how important the philosophical views of Locke and Rousseau would become. The founding document of the American revolution—the Declaration of Independence—makes it pretty clear that our rights are natural rights: They’re God-given, and there’s nothing we or anyone else can do to legitimately take them away.
In keeping with this notion that rights were God-given, one will notice, if one reads the US Constitution carefully, that it doesn’t actually give one any rights. Instead, the rights addressed in the Constitution are all stated in the negative: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” “The right … to vote shall not be denied … on account of sex,” and so on.
And this isn’t just a semantic difference. It’s a recognition that in the American conception—in Locke’s conception—our rights are human rights: They’re ours just by virtue of the fact that we’re human. As a result, the government’s only job is to secure those rights, to protect them. Government doesn’t give us rights because government can’t give us rights. Rights are something that we already have.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
In stark contrast, the French Revolution’s founding document was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It was signed in 1789, the same year as the US Constitution. And yet in some ways, it couldn’t be more different.
The very first sentence of the French Declaration states that: “The representative of the French people, organized as a National Assembly … have determined to set forth … [the following] rights of man.” The endower of rights in the French document isn’t God or nature, but the National Assembly: the representatives of the French people.
So, this is very different from the US Declaration of Independence. In the French case, rights were endowed by the National Assembly. And as the Reign of Terror showed, what the National Assembly gave, it could also take away.
That’s the critical difference between Locke and Rousseau, and in some ways, between the American view of democracy and the European one.
In European politics today, there’s generally less hesitation than in the United States to using big government solutions to solve society’s challenges. It’s democratic. Government decisions are guided by the general will. But government action is less encumbered.
Meanwhile, the concept of limited government—and of radical, individual rights—is very American, often to the bafflement of Europeans. This includes everything from the designed inefficiency of US government (checks and balances don’t exactly make for decisive policy-making) to the baffling way we elect our president: The electoral college means that the person with the most votes doesn’t always win! And regardless of what one thinks about it, Locke’s philosophy helps explain our radically lax laws about gun ownership.
These things flow from Locke’s radical individualism, and from his intense skepticism when it comes to government power.
Solving Problems of Life in Communities
In my view, we would do well to understand that both outlooks are based on rich philosophical traditions, each of which is different but also compelling.
The same can even be said for Hobbes. We wouldn’t want to live in the type of society he advocates. But around the world, many people do. Like Hobbes in his own time, many people today have been witnesses to political turmoil and strife. In places where society is violent and chaotic, and where daily life is “nasty, brutish, and short”, the turn to authoritarianism is understandable.
Wherever we go, people turn to government to solve the problems of life in the communities where they live. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau each provide us with a different—but enduring—vision for how those problems can be addressed.
Common Questions about Locke and Rousseau
The founding document of the American revolution—the Declaration of Independence—makes it pretty clear that people’s rights are natural rights: They’re God-given, and there’s nothing we or anyone else can do to legitimately take them away.
The French Revolution’s founding document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, states that the endower of people’s rights isn’t God or nature, but the National Assembly: the representatives of the French people.
In European politics, there’s generally less hesitation than in the United States to using big government solutions to solve society’s challenges. It’s democratic. Government decisions are guided by the general will. But government action is less encumbered. Meanwhile, the concept of limited government—and of radical, individual rights—is very American.