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The influence of Rousseau’s The Social Contract on the French Revolution
Kris Grint
Undergraduate dissertation, University of Manchester, 2006
I. The problems of Rousseau’s influence
II. Louis-Sebastien Mercier and L’an 2440
III. Jean-Paul Marat and L’ami du peuple
IV. Maximilian Robespierre and the Jacobin Republic
Appendix I. Sales figures of banned books in the 1780s
The Social Contract is simply the “gospel according to Jean-Jacques”1. On the
basis of Revolutionary events, “a corpus of works was constituted and authors selected
who were held to have prepared and announced it”2. These well-known but conflicting
statements respectively mean two things: that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social
Contract was the bible of the French Revolution, and that the French Revolution made
the books and the philosophy that influenced it. However, these phrases make the
literally massive subject of Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution more
opaque than it should be. Is the word gospel problematic to describe a political treatise?
How can it be a bible if it was used only retrospectively, to justify various actions and
events taken by the political leaders of the French Revolution? Are we to say that, in
reality, no-one read The Social Contract and instead Rousseau was used by the
Revolutionary government merely as someone – anyone – that could be a philosophical
reference point from which their ideas of how France was to be governed could be made
to be seen as legitimate? In effect, was Rousseau merely a post hoc legitimizing
resource? If his philosophy was merely shaped to lend legitimacy to the horrific actions
of the Jacobin Republic, rather than cause or facilitate them, was he more a progeny of
the Terror, rather than its father?
These statements, the questions they infer, and the academic debates spawned
because of them are complex and difficult, sometimes infuriating. In response, it is the
purpose of this thesis to do two things. Firstly to briefly summarize the debate thus far
on Rousseau’s perceived influence by taking into account what has been said about his
philosophy with regards to the French Revolution over the past 100 years or so, and to
judge where the debate on his influence now currently stands. Secondly, it is to
introduce a different way of thinking about how Rousseau’s influence can be proved or
indeed disproved. It is this second task that is judged to be the more important, for
entangling ourselves in the current debate extends the scope of investigation too far for
this thesis to satisfactorily make any relevant contributions to the topic. To this end, the
first part of our investigation requires only the first chapter for discussion, the second,
the remaining three.
Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History [vol.1] (London: J.M. Dent & co., 1897), p.52
Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press,
1991), p.88
Traditionally, Rousseau’s influence has either been dismissed outright or
perhaps at best evaluated by examining the extent to which those involved in the
Revolution acknowledged his significance, but the ‘different way of thinking’ about
Rousseau thus far only alluded to is this: to show that we can also judge Rousseau’s
influence on the Revolution by investigating books, journals, and speeches made by
important figures present both before and during the Revolution who may have
effectively reproduced Rousseau’s arguments, but without necessarily acknowledging
him as the source. George Rudé is sympathetic to this approach in his seminal book,
The Crowd in the French Revolution, arguing that whilst the sans-culottes did not read
The Social Contract first hand, political writers and pamphleteers conveyed Rousseau’s
political thought by addressing themselves directly to the working classes3, but so far,
no-one has really attempted to read these secondary “political writers and
pamphleteers”. If these pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary figures can be shown to
be of great influence on the population, and if what they wrote or said can be shown to
be directly or indirectly influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau, we can infer a
secondary influence of Rousseau on the French Revolution. In other words, it may be
that Rousseau’s major contribution to the Revolution was through such secondary
sources rather than directly through his ideas in The Social Contract. Such an
investigation is important to the overall study of the intellectual origins of the French
Revolution because it effectively bypasses the issue of whether anyone read Rousseau
directly either before or during the Revolution, an issue which is, as we shall see in
chapter one, a very problematic subject.
An exploration of this “indirect effect” of Rousseau is developed through
extensive bibliographical study of three key philosophical and political figures and their
various works and speeches: Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Jean-Paul Marat, and
Maximilian Robespierre. Throughout the chapters on these men, we shall attempt to
judge their influence on the Revolution, and then relate what they have said to what has
been written in the Contrat social. If we cannot establish a direct influence of Rousseau
on the Revolution, we will attempt to establish a secondary influence. The three
historical figures selected for this study are used for several reasons. Most importantly,
they are incredibly influential people in 18th century France and thus can be judged as
being worthy examples to investigate. In short, the population listened to them, and we
George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), p.211
too should therefore listen. Secondly, the restrictions of English-language sources
somewhat prohibits the extent which research can be undertaken on other influential
writers and leaders during the Revolution. This is a disappointing, but necessary, factor
to take into account. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is an overwhelming
sense when studying these various documents that Rousseau is clearly a direct influence
on their philosophical and political thought. The Contrat social has been used
throughout as a term of reference because it is judged to be Rousseau’s defining
political tract and therefore it is important to highlight where its influences can be
clearly seen.
Initially, we will address the issue of whether Rousseau’s work was an influence
on the population before the Revolution occurred in earnest in 1789. The interesting
argument about literature in pre-Revolutionary France is that, even if Rousseau was not
widely read himself, his ideas were reproduced in Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s book L’an
2440, which enjoyed a very wide readership in pre-Revolutionary France and thus
cannot be easily dismissed as having little or no influence on the population as a whole.
The second influence of Rousseau’s philosophy shall be judged on the writings and
activities of Jean-Paul Marat. Marat, himself also dubbed a “father of the Terror”, was
an enigmatic, energetic figure that bore significant political influence thanks to the
success of his journals L‘ami du people and Journal de la Republique française. It will
be the purpose of this chapter to assess how much we can relate what Marat thought
and wrote (and he wrote copiously) to the philosophy of Rousseau. Finally, we shall
turn our investigation to Maximilian Robespierre. Fortunately, Robespierre’s speeches
were well publicised and his memoranda well preserved, and as such so is his habit of
referencing Rousseau as the influence for his own ideas on government. In the case of
Robespierre it is important not only to see where Rousseau’s influence has actually
permeated his thought, but where false claims are made on the authority of Rousseau
as an end to justify Robespierre’s means. It is believed that such an analysis will bring
us full circle to the ‘traditional’ idea of Rousseau being merely a tool of the
Revolutionaries. In other words, he was used to excuse political excess but in reality,
his philosophical thought was not being adhered too. The change to this ‘traditional’
hypothesis however, is that whilst Rousseau may have been used as a mere literary
puppet by the Revolutionary government, there are definite grounds to suggest his
influence was felt on the population well before only his name was used as a means to
seek popular support for the actions of the Revolutionary government. In sum,
Rousseau may not have been the father of the Terror, but he was a progenitor of the
I. The Problems of Rousseau’s influence
The debate about philosophical influence before the Revolution took place
divides over two areas: the role of philosophy in general and the role of Rousseau in
particular. In the first sense there is the need to address the debate on whether
philosophy, particularly the growth of interest in philosophical books, actually caused
the population to seriously consider alternative forms of government to the extent that
they decided to rise up against the ancien régime in France. With more specific regard
to Rousseau the argument is about whether his books were actually that well read by
the revolutionary French either before or even during the Revolution itself. Roger
Chartier, the source of one of the opening remarks made to introduce this thesis, argues
that during the 18th century new ideas found by the general population in the printed
word “conquered people’s minds” 4 , and that reading began to penetrate “ordinary
circumstances of daily life”5. Daniel Mornet believes that this development in literacy
taught people, in essence, to deny6, or at least question their political status in the ancien
régime. Such developments, one would assume, must be very encouraging to the idea
that philosophy was responsible for radicalizing the population and thus was a causal
factor of the French Revolution. Therefore, one could argue, if we could just place
Rousseau as the most important philosopher of the time, would not the majority of our
work already be completed?
Unfortunately, the desire for certainty, or “bottom-line solutions to the cause of
the French Revolution” 7 such as this (i.e. that livres philisophes were published,
digested by the populace and the ideas found therein used to instigate Revolutionary
events) is too basic, it is argued, to explain the complex nature of what happened during
the Revolution. In other words, there is little in the unrest of 18th century France that
“implicates philosophy”8 as the prime catalyst for social change. In addition, before the
Revolution no-one had imagined anything like the “explosion” that was to occur after
the convening of the Estates General in 1788. Whilst philosophers’ writings challenged
the ancien régime, there is little to suggest that they “broke through the confines of an
Chartier, Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, p.68
Chartier, Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, p.91
Daniel Mornet, French Thought in the Eighteenth Century (North Haven, Archon, 1969), p.271
Robert Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers of the French Revolution (London: Fontana, 1996), p.169
Mornet, French Thought in the Eighteenth Century, p.323
Old Regime mentality”9. The arguments these convictions set out is clear: there was no
simple causal relationship between ideas. The Revolution can be regarded as a
phenomenon owing little influence to what had been said on the subject of political
philosophy in the 18th century, not just by Rousseau, who we are concerned with, but
also by contemporaries like Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, and many other men of
Chartier goes even further in his warning about believing books to have much
influence over revolutions, by pointing out that in the libraries of the émigrés, those that
fled France in the early years of the Revolution, the same philosophical texts were found
that were read by the most deeply committed revolutionaries10. It seems that people on
both sides of the argument over the Revolution were reading the same things! However,
Chartier may well be overstating his case. It is prudent to suggest, for example, that
whilst the same philosophy was being read by the population it may have been
interpreted differently according to factors such as class. Emigrés may have found what
was said in Rousseau’s Social Contract to be of real philosophical worth, but naturally
had no motivation to change the direction of society themselves, for that would involve
various personal sacrifices with no guarantee of permanent improvement. The most
convincing response to Chartier’s view, however, is by Robert Darnton. He suggests
that whilst the themes of philosophical books may not have been directly responsible
for revolutionary activity, the opposite is also true: political literature was not
determined by what was being said by the various agitators against the ancien régime11.
To this end, philosophical writings and events such as revolts against Louis XVI’s
government over bread worked together to define, transmit and amplify messages that
“undercut the legitimacy of the regime”12. Therefore, philosophy had a much more
significant role in pre-Revolutionary France than has so far been accredited to it.
The issue that no-one was reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophical
books before 1789 is a distinct problem if we wish to depict Rousseau as the forefather
of the Revolution in the sense that what he wrote stirred or guided Revolutionary
activity. Instead, he becomes portrayed as the forefather only because Revolutionary
politicians, after the Revolution had begun in earnest, shaped his philosophical works
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers of the French Revolution, p.129
Chartier, Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, p.85
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers of the French Revolution, p.191
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers of the French Revolution, p.191
to justify their actions, a theory that supports the stances of historians like Chartier on
the status of philosophy pre-Revolution: in effect Rousseau was not that influential. In
other words, what is laid out by Rousseau so diligently in The Social Contract was only
relayed to the French population through the auspices of the Revolutionary government
after the Revolution had started. Mornet was in fact one of the first historians to dispute
the distribution of Rousseau’s works in pre-Revolutionary France, and conducted a
study that famously concluded that The Social Contract appeared in just one record out
of 20,000 volumes of ancien régime era libraries13. Joan McDonald supports this belief,
concluding in her research that none of the population really read The Social Contract
even before 179114. We thus appear to be left with a question: how can Rousseau’s
philosophy have been present in the general consciousness if no-one bought or read his
The assumptions of Mornet’s long-standing thesis can, however, be refuted and
Rousseau’s writings shown to be, if not of direct influence, then certainly at least in
circulation before the start of the Revolution. R.A. Leigh has convincingly achieved
this by pointing out some glaring inefficiencies in Mornet’s work. For one, Mornet’s
study stops in 1779, a full ten years before the Revolution started. This appears to be a
colossal oversight on Mornet’s part, for how can one attempt to deny Rousseau’s
influence on the French revolution by ignoring the decade immediately before the
Revolution took place? We can only imagine the possibilities for Rousseau’s works to
be read during this period of fervent political activity in France. A second criticism of
Mornet can be engineered by blending the ideas of Leigh with those of Darnton. Leigh
contends that, whilst Rousseau’s Emile offended the church, The Social Contract
undermined the very foundations of the state15. We can couple this statement with the
results of Darnton’s magnificent study on books which were forbidden by the Royal
government but thrived in the publishing underground in 18th century France, which we
will focus on again in the following chapter. Not only does Darnton’s work show that
Mornet overstated his case in arguing for the poor diffusion of The Social Contract
(because it appeared in several volumes of Rousseau’s collected works that were
available illegally), but the fact that it was a banned book means one can assume that
Robert Darnton, ‘Forbidden Books of Revolutionary France’ in Colin Lucas, ed., Rewriting the
French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p.1
Joan McDonald, Rousseau and the French Revolution 1792-1791 (London: Athlone Press, 1965)
R.A. Leigh, Unsolved Problems in the Bibliography of J-J. Rousseau (edited by J.T.A. Leigh)
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p.4
the governmental authorities had distinct reasons to keep it out of general circulation.
The Social Contract was, in the Royal government’s eyes, politically subversive, and
this factor alone makes it more than significant to pre-Revolutionary France because,
as Darnton has illustrated, banning a book merely sent its distribution network
underground, it did not stop its diffusion to the population.
This brief introduction to the problems of Rousseau’s bibliography has been
designed to clarify two issues that will greatly assist in our study of the secondary
influence Rousseau had through other authors. Whilst some historians dismiss the role
of philosophy before and also during the Revolution, it can be seen that such a
viewpoint is problematic. It is certainly more convincing to suggest that the population
was radicalizing in synergy with the development of philosophy and that the two
streams worked co-operatively to challenge the ancien régime, rather than discount
philosophy completely. The lack of information on the reception of philosophical books
and tracts does not mean we should “abandon the notion of capturing the contemporary
experience of literature”16, and with this in mind, we can confidently move on to study
particular works from this period.
The complexity of the second issue, that of the diffusion of Rousseau’s own
political writings, has also been demonstrated. Whether anyone read The Social
Contract has been a question answered by mammoth studies into the libraries, reading
habits, forbidden book trades, and many other specifics of 18th century France. It is a
question that appears to have become so complicated that academics struggle to make
sense of the data that is available. Nevertheless, it is not the concern of this thesis to
show that the population read Rousseau’s The Social Contract. If we have shown that
the issue is very much more complex than this, then we can justify ourselves in looking
past the issue of direct readership of Rousseau and instead focus on his secondary
influence. Thus, in the next chapter we shall consider a book that was both certainly
well read in pre-Revolutionary France and that owed a lot of its philosophy to
Rousseau’s Social Contract. The investigation into Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’an
2440 will hopefully show that proving Rousseau’s secondary influence is a task that is
more manageable and a good deal less emotionally charged than trying to prove his
direct influence.
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers of the French Revolution, p.184
II. Louis-Sébastien Mercier and L’an 2440
Mercier’s L’an 2440, a book about a futuristic French nation where social
justice has been attained and the population enjoy levels of freedom unheard of in any
modern society, was one of the best-selling books in the underground, illegal publishing
trade in pre-Revolutionary France. Simply put, it enjoyed ‘banned’ status because it
contained “something to offend practically everyone in authority under the old
regime”17. It is the argument of this chapter that L’an 2440 relied heavily on Rousseau’s
Social Contract for its philosophical and political influence, that is to say, the political
institutions that are described and the philosophical ideas about citizenship that are
promoted within it are at times almost identical to what had already been suggested in
The Social Contract. To quickly refer back to the academic debate over whether anyone
read The Social Contract before 1789 that was outlined in the first chapter, the success
and content of L’an 2440 presents a rather unique view, suggesting that even if
Rousseau was not read by the French population, L’an 2440 was, and it paraphrased
Rousseau’s philosophy to quite an extent. Thus, even if we cannot prove that
Rousseau’s work was directly read by the masses, his secondary influence can certainly
begin to be seen as early as 1770 (the year L’an 2440 was first published). Before
delving into L’an 2440 wholesale and attempting to find extracts that support this point
of view, however, we must first establish two things: how we can prove that the book’s
distribution in the 18th century was such that it can be labelled as a “best-seller”, and
secondly, how can we show Rousseau as Mercier’s main philosophical influence?
The analysis that places L’an 2440 as a best-seller in pre-Revolutionary France
owes much to the convincing work of Robert Darnton on the ‘forbidden’ best-sellers of
pre-Revolutionary France. Darnton argues that it was this banned sector of the book
trade that essentially contained the entire philosophy of the Enlightenment and indeed,
as the previous chapter shows, his work goes someway to defending the point-of-view
that Rousseau was read first hand. The crux of Darnton’s study rests on four primary
sources that depict how many copies of forbidden books were ordered, the most
important and exhaustive of which is the archives of Société Typographique de
Nechâtel (STN), an 18th century Swiss publishing house and wholesaler18. According
Darnton, Forbidden Books, p.73
There were, of course, a great number of publishing houses exporting books into France (usually
from Switzerland or Belgium, out of reach of the French authorities), however the most complete set of
to its administrative records, by 1787 this publisher held 1,500 titles in stock and
boasted the claim that “there is no book of any importance that appears in France that
we are not capable of supplying”19. The other three sources consulted by Darnton are
the register of books confiscated by Paris customs, inventories of bookshops made by
the police after conducting raids, and catalogues of other publishers of forbidden books
whose records are unfortunately less-complete. Of course, the sources used are not
perfect and no attempt is made to infer that they can be regarded as a completely
accurate representation of the forbidden book trade in France. However, the data they
produce is the best possible reference we can use and therefore it is significant in
highlighting the most popular forbidden books in pre-Revolutionary France. Darnton
has collated these records of orders for forbidden books into a table that is reproduced
in the appendix of this thesis. Interestingly enough, it is Mercier’s L’an 2440 that heads
the table and, problematic sources acknowledged, this makes it the most popular
forbidden book in pre-Revolutionary France, going through 25 editions and 124 orders.
Furthermore, L’an 2440 was found in all four sources that Darnton investigated, that is
to say, not only was it supplied by the STN, but it was confiscated by customs, seized
by police officials, and also present in the stocks of other publishing houses. The total
number of copies ordered is 1,394, eclipsing the next best-seller, a pornographic
‘thriller’ entitled Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse Du Barry, by over three hundred
copies. Whilst the figure of 1,394 copies at first glance appear a rather paltry sum, one
must remember that Darnton’s research is only a representative sample. The sample
itself contains 28,212 books in total20 , which means that L’an 2440 alone made up
nearly 5% of the entire illegal book trade in France.
We can thus assume Mercier’s book was well distributed throughout
Revolutionary France and, therefore, we must infer it was also widely read, especially
given that it went through so many editions. What grounding, though, do we have to
perceive Mercier as being heavily indebted to Rousseau for the political philosophy that
is present in his L’an 2440? Such an attribution of influence is difficult in Mercier’s
case because there exists little biographical record of him, and certainly no in-depth
study. Therefore, this debt can best be displayed by the referrals by name that Mercier
records preserved are those of the STN, and they are judged to be a representative sample of the
publishing trade as a whole.
Darnton, ‘Forbidden Books’, p.8
Darnton, ‘Forbidden Books’, p.11
makes to Rousseau throughout his book, all of which are annotated with high praise for
the philosopher and indicates that his work was held in the highest regard, even to the
extent that the fictional characters of Mercier’s book (who are seven hundred years in
the future) deem Rousseau a fundamentally important social theorizer. In a discussion
on key French writers in L’an 2440, Rousseau is described as one of a group of
philosophers who were “amazing [in] talent”, and that the persecution he suffered from
the “foolish, brutish rage” 21 of the general 18th century population is something
incomprehensible to the futuristic French citizens. Secondly, when the narrator in L’an
2440 is introduced to the King’s Library, essentially a repository of books deemed of
social worth or philosophical value and therefore archived, not only are the works of
Rousseau valued so much that they are preserved in their entirety, but the narrator
describes his works as inspirational, vigorous and fierce. In addition, it is revealed that
the works of Voltaire have been significantly reduced because he “had the misfortune
to write insipid and gross reflections against J.J. Rousseau”22. The high regard Mercier
holds Rousseau in is therefore clear, and it is from this we can draw the assumption that
his work was not just a novel, but a way of passing on Rousseau’s wisdom to a more
general readership that The Social Contract may have been unable to reach.
There is much to be said that is critical about Mercier’s book. For one, it is much
less clinical and precise than The Social Contract. Primarily this is because it is at facevalue a work of fiction, taking the form of a dialogue between a seven hundred year old
man (whom we can confidently presume to be Mercier himself) who meanders through
an idealistic future version of Paris in the year 2440 and a denizen who is his
companion-guide. Admittedly this approach to writing is all very puzzling to a 21st
century reader, but what is important to stress in an analysis of the rhetoric of L’an 2440
is that the French public found this book fascinating, because never before had they
experienced this genre of proto-science-fiction, nor had they dreamt of a future utopia23.
As such, a significant portion of the text can be regarded as superfluous, not least
because Mercier, as the popularity of the book grew, simply revised his text by adding
to it significant tracts of further description and re-releasing the book as a new edition
Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Memoirs of the year two thousand five hundred [vol.1], translated by W.
Hooper (London: 1772), p.65. (Hereafter referred to as L’an 2440 [vol.1], n.b. the mis-translation of
2440 to 2500)
Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Memoirs of the year two thousand five hundred [vol.2], translated by W.
Hooper (London: 1772), p.28-9. (Hereafter referred to as L’an 2440 [vol.2])
Darnton, p.118
(at least 25 editions24 of the book were printed). Nevertheless, the shortcomings of L’an
2440 may have been overstated by historians. Analysing the text of L’an 2440 more
precisely enables us to distinctly see where Rousseau’s political thought is clearly
influential on Mercier’s discourse, and it is this that makes the text so pertinent to a
discussion on how far we can judge Rousseau’s philosophy to have permeated into the
political thought of the average literate French citizen.
It is perhaps best to illustrate the regular occurrence of The Social Contract
influence in the various theories of government and sovereignty presented in L’an 2440
by starting with what appears to be the reconstructing of one of Rousseau’s most
famous ideas. The original phrase of The Social Contract reads:
Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This
means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by
giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.25
This idea appears to have been repeated in L’an 2440 when Mercier’s narrator
comes across a masked man, who is deplored by his companion-guide as an “author of
bad books”26. We can assume this means that for some peculiar reason, the “bad” author
opposes the glorious utopia of the year 2440. It is stressed that the man wears the mask
because he is undergoing rehabilitation:
He is daily visited by two worthy citizens, who combat his erroneous opinions with the arms of
eloquence and complacency, hear his objections, confute them, and will engage him to retract
when he shall be convinced.27
Whilst Mercier’s system of correcting citizens who have politically gone astray
appears more sugar-coated than Rousseau’s “forcing to be free”, it is arguably very
much the same approach.
The Hall of Audience chapter of L’an 2440 is probably the most striking
implementation of Rousseau in the entire book, and is Mercier’s attempt to show the
General Will in action. The text describes a grand convention of the citizens to discuss
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers, p.115
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (London: Everyman, 1973), p.195.
(Hereafter referred to as The Social Contract)
Mercier, L’an 2440 [vol.1], p.58
Mercier, L’an 2440 [vol.1], p.58
the forming of laws but points out that, if just one voice raises an objection, then further
political discourse is required before the law can be passed:
[The objector] is brought forward to a little circle formed before the throne; there he explains
his ideas; and, if he appear to be right, he is attended to, applauded, and thanked; the sovereign28
regards him with a favourable aspect; but if, on the contrary, he advances nothing to the purpose,
of what appears plainly to be founded on private advantage, he is dismissed with disgrace, and
the hoots of the people follow him to the door.29
This description of the sovereign (i.e. the people) making laws is a staple part of The
Social Contract and Rousseau continually affirms this principle, for example when he
states that “the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will,
and the decision would always be good”30. Note also his assertion that because the
general will “is found by counting votes”, when the “opinion that is contrary to my own
prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I
thought to be the General will was not so”31. In addition, Rousseau consistently reminds
his readers of the dangerous situation for governments that find themselves being led
by private (i.e. particular) interests as opposed to the general interest (i.e. those of the
general will), which Mercier stresses in his description of the objector being shouted
down and fleeing from the building.
A final issue to address on the representation of Rousseau’s ideas of government
and sovereignty within L’an 2440 is on the issue of the Legislator. The text’s chapter
on ‘The Form of Government’ can be seen as heavily indebted to the Contrat social
with its assessment of Monarchical governments always “los[ing] themselves in
despotism”32 and its asking of the general question “is not the law the voice of the
general will of the people?”33. However, the most interesting point within this passage
is Mercier’s description of the “philosophic prince” who is responsible for instigating
the fictional revolution that created the utopia of L’an 2440. Mercier’s denizen guide
describes this revolution as occurring “without trouble, and by the heroism of one great
man”. The philosophic prince is “worthy of a throne, because he regarded it with
In L’an 2440, the king, rather than the people, is referred to as the sovereign.
Mercier, L’an 2440 [vol.2], p.113
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.203
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.278
Mercier, L’an 2440 [vol.2], p.116
Mercier, L’an 2440 [vol.2], p.120
indifference”34. Darnton himself has analysed this passage, and believes this figure to
be some kind of unlikely “Philosopher-King”35, who perhaps merely found himself on
the throne and chose to create a more just government for society. It is more interesting,
however, to take Mercier’s revolutionary figure further than Darnton’s position and
place this philosophic prince as the Legislator introduced in chapter seven of
Rousseau’s Contrat social. In establishing the revolution, the philosophic prince has
fulfilled several of Rousseau’s demands for the role of the Legislator. He has found
himself “capable of changing human nature [and] transforming each individual… into
part of a greater whole…” whilst avoiding becoming a part of the constitution itself,
what Rousseau describes as the Legislator’s “extraordinary position in the State”36.
Rousseau sums up the position of the Legislator as the coming together of two roles
that, at face value, appear to be incommensurable: “an enterprise too difficult for human
powers, and, for its execution, an authority that is no authority”37. It is perhaps this
exceptional feat of Mercier’s philosophic prince that makes him worthy of a throne.
The fact that he will regard the throne with indifference is the crucial point that makes
him the Legislator, for by doing this he is strictly adhering to the rules laid out in The
Social Contract.
In contrast to the neutral, and therefore beneficial, role of the Legislator, one
product of the radicalisation of the French population was the calling into question of
the conduct of the ancien régime, and especially the king. To this extent is it interesting
to point out Mercier’s description of how the king should be brought up and indeed
how he should govern if we are to implicate philosophical writings, and more
specifically Rousseau, as a cause of this radicalisation. L’an 2440 appears to build on
what appears to be a throwaway comment made in the Contrat social where Rousseau
questions the wisdom of the education of young princes, stating that “their education
seems to do them no good” and that “it would be better to begin by teaching them the
art of obeying”38. Mercier appears to take Rousseau’s suggestion entirely literally, and
outlines, in a chapter entitled ‘The Heir to the Throne’ that the prince should be
educated, initially as a peasant, a follower rather than a prince and leader:
Mercier, L’an 2440 [vol.2], p.123
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers, p.126
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.214
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.215
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.247
As soon as he comes out of the hands of the women he is inured to exercise; and regard is had
to his natural education, which should always precede the moral. He is cloathed (sic) like the
son of a common peasant; he is accustomed to the plainest meats; and is early taught sobriety;
he will be the better able hereafter to teach œconomy by his own example, and to know that a
false prodigality ruins a state, and dishonours those that promote it.39
This, for Mercier, appears to be a practical implication of the Contrat social. Such
practicality can be seen as lending support to the idea of Mercier interpreting Rousseau
for a less complicated reader: by formulating common sense examples to accompany
political theory, Mercier is able to transmit and simultaneously translate the idea that
the monarchical figure should be thoroughly grounded in the ways of his people before
ever attempting to reign over them. We could therefore consider Mercier’s L’an 2440
to be a shining example of how livres philosophes in pre-Revolutionary France
attempted to challenge the population’s traditional concepts of monarchy and, therefore,
Of course, L’an 2440 is by no means a perfect copy of The Social Contract and
neither is it a work of great academic clout, for there are many confusing passages and
conflicting ideas presented in the text, as well as sections that appear to go against
Rousseau’s philosophy. Darnton is keen to point out these various, somewhat glaring
loopholes as evidence that Mercier was no philosopher and merely interested in
publishing success40. The fact that whilst the abolishment of poverty and the nobility is
celebrated in one part of the book, yet in another tract wealthy nobles are described as
the purveyors of poor relief is one such example. More critical in terms of how L’an
2440 fairs in comparison to The Social Contract is the role Mercier attributes to the
king, who at first is given only symbolic power whilst sovereignty is attributed to the
general will, but by the end is “laying down the law for the entire society”41. Are we
able to defend L’an 2440 from such criticisms? We have already established that the
text’s academic credentials are not impressive, and Mercier was himself of questionable
intent, however it can be argued that these problems are not as important as one might
think. When we look back at L’an 2440’s distribution figures it becomes obvious that
it is an incredibly important work in pre-Revolutionary France, simply because it was
so widely read. Furthermore, it has been shown that it owes much (if not all) to The
Mercier, L’an 2440 [vol.2], p.137
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers, pp.115 and 125
Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers, p.125
Social Contract for its political philosophy, and the fact that it was an 18th century
publishing phenomenon, a forbidden best-seller, is even more vital. It is with this
judgement of L’an 2440 that we can seriously portray it as an example of Rousseau’s
philosophy permeating into the French population in pre-Revolutionary France. It is, of
course, a secondary influence, and therefore likely to be diluted or distorted, but some
of the ideas of The Social Contract can be seen as being read by the population as early
as 1770, even if they were not reading Rousseau’s own books. The logical step to take
from this conclusion is to assess how important Rousseau’s philosophy was once the
Revolution began, and the array of writings published during this Revolutionary period
are the focus of the next chapter.
III. Jean-Paul Marat and L’ami du peuple
The problems associated with attempting to prove a radicalization of the French
populace through political and philosophical writings are fundamentally changed once
the Revolution was underway, most importantly because the activities of the likes of
the sans-culottes in 1789 and beyond show that Revolutionary politics had gripped the
nation and was influencing several different literate social classes in France. However,
a question that still applies is that of determining exactly what the people read during
these troubled times. More specifically, what it is they read that influenced them to act
in ways that sanctioned (whether tacitly or not) events such as the September Massacres
in 1792, and the execution of Louis XVI in 1793. Because these events were so public
in their nature, we must assume that a vast degree of organization and rhetoric was
required to garner enough public support to allow these events to take place. Evidence
of this organization can certainly be seen in the periodical journals that were published
in Paris during this time, and the most prominent of these is L’Ami du peuple by JeanPaul Marat, of which well over 600 issues were published42. As such, the main crux of
this chapter is to discover the influence Marat’s writings had on the development of the
French Revolution, and then to evaluate the influence that Rousseau, and particularly
his Social Contract, had on Marat’s writings. This introduces a further secondary
influence of Rousseau on the Revolution that can perhaps accompany the link already
demonstrated in Mercier’s L’an 2440.
In a similar vain to our analysis of Louis-Sébastien Mercier, there are two
questions that arise at this point about Jean-Paul Marat. The first, and most obvious, is
to ask why we should focus on Marat as an important writer of the French Revolution,
given the fact that an excessive number of authors were active during this period and
the general literary output was also great? Marat is perhaps the most famous and prolific
of authors during the Revolution and, of course, is the subject of David’s famous
painting The Death of Marat, which has since stood as a dramatic symbol of the French
Revolution. His pamphlets and periodicals made grandiose predictions, a number of
which turned out to be correct and resulted in Marat being referred to as a prophet of
the Revolution. Furthermore, Marat was the victim, or at least intended victim, of a
Whilst intended as a daily journal, circumstances beyond Marat’s control (such as harassment and
imprisonment by the authorities) disrupted any attempt at regular publishing. In January 1791, the
journal had reached issue no. 334, whilst by July 1792 L’Ami du peuple was at issue no. 671.
number of significant censorship cases made by the Revolutionary government. To
briefly relate to our previous chapter and the assumptions made there on the importance
of banned books, we can deduce that because drastic attempts were made to censor
Marat, and especially his L’Ami du peuple journal, the content of his writings had
significant political repercussions that the government felt threatened by. This can be
illustrated by events such as those in January 1790 when Bailly and Lafayetee mounted
“an all-out effort to squelch him once and for all but succeeded only in making him a
cause célèbre”43, or indeed his trial by the Convention just before his death in 1793,
which we shall examine in detail later in this chapter44.
There is further evidence to support the claim that Marat was a critically
important writer during the French Revolution. Conner labels him as important because
he was the “most consistent and unwavering champion of social equality” 45 of the
French Revolution, and it was this that contributed to his immense popularity amongst
the working classes. But perhaps more importance can be attributed to Marat by nature
of the predictions of Revolutionary events he made, and the various times where he
called on the population for action and they responded. On the subject of predictions,
one of the must crucial was the attempted flight of the royal family in June 1791. Whilst
we must use the title of “prophet” with some hesitance, for Marat simply had well
placed sources when the royal family attempted to flee Paris during the night of 20 June,
but the issue of L’Ami de peuple for 21 June had already gone to press and did contain
a warning that the “royal family is only waiting for Paris to go to bed before taking
flight”46. When Marat’s revelation turned out to be accurate, it naturally boosted his
importance as a political figure. In similar circumstances, the L’Ami de peuple
published on 5 October 1789 contained a call for the people of Paris to march on
Versailles and “demand that the royal family leave the “nest of intrigue”… and relocate
permanently to Paris”47. On that very day a crowd of around 6,000, mainly women,
assembled outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris and begun the march to Versailles in
demonstration against the king48. Marat claimed a large degree of responsibility for this
Clifford D. Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, (New York: Humanity, 1997), p.170
Whilst Marat’s trial was not directly linked to his published work, it can be inferred that he was
targeted in his capacity as president of the Jacobin club because of his well-known status as a radical
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, pp.158-9
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, pp.188-9
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, pp.162-3
Christopher Hibbert, The French Revolution (London: Penguin, 1980), p.99
event but in reality, the reason why so many women marched to Versailles that day was
to protest directly to the king about the severe shortages of bread in the capital. However,
in claiming responsibility for motivating the populace to move against the king, Marat
can be seen as adding a further claim of legitimacy to his writings that would increase
his popularity amongst the working classes in Paris.
The second question to ask of Jean-Paul Marat, in relating him to our wider
study on the influence of Rousseau on Revolutionary philosopher-authors, is exactly
how did The Social Contract influence him? R.A. Leigh describes Marat as declaiming
and expounding extracts from The Social Contract in public as early as 178949, a surefire indication of the admiration Marat held for Rousseau. Conner claims that with
regards to the battle-lines drawn between philosophers representing the “central current
of Enlightenment thought” (namely Voltaire and Diderot) and the likes of Rousseau
who represented the “counter-current”, Marat “declared [his] allegiance to the latter”50.
In addition, like Mercier before him, Marat made direct references to Rousseau in his
works. For example in the first issue of the Journal de la Republique française, Marat
complains of being treated like a “complete madman, an invective that the
Encyclopedist charlatans used on the author of The Social Contract”51. Significantly,
Marat also appears to compare himself to Rousseau with regards to his status as a
Revolutionary prophet, stating later on in the same issue that this “mad patriot now
passes for a prophet”. However, it is the purpose of this section to highlight a different
way that Rousseau’s Social Contract influenced Marat: by analysing what is available
as source material from L’Ami du peuple and his second (but very similar) periodical
Journal de la Republique française, and attempting to see where it bears distinct
similarities to The Social Contract. It is suggested that such an analysis will reveal
specimens of Marat’s writing that can be seen as directly influenced by the
philosophical thought expressed by Rousseau in The Social Contract.
One of the most striking influences that can be found of Rousseau in Marat’s
journals is on the usurpation of power by a particular will during times of state crisis.
Conner notes that very soon after the establishment of L’Ami du peuple, Marat began
to identify both the National Assembly and the Paris Commune as enemies of the
Leigh, Unsolved Problems in the Bibliography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, p.2
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, p.19
Jean-Paul Marat, Journal de la Republique française [no.1], August 1792. Accessed from, February 12 2006.
Revolution at a time when “everyone – friends and foes of the Revolution alike – saw
these two governmental bodies as the institutional embodiment of the Revolution”52.
L’Ami du peuple frequently and heavily criticised the National Assembly and a
December 1791 issue of the journal labelled it as “vile and corrupted”, “gangrened”,
and “prostituted to the will of the prince”53. However, the main point Marat intended to
get across in this issue appears to be his worry that the despotic government was on the
verge of financial collapse, as “Louis Capet [has] in his pay a numberless army of
satellites formed of all the embezzlers, informers, and cutthroats ready to sell
themselves, as well as all the intriguers jealous to share his power”54, and that once
these parties had used up all of the government’s financial resources, a series of
uprisings will begin as they “join[ed] the mass of the oppressed”. Marat writes that
these successive uprisings will be followed by a general ‘second’ revolution, where:
The kingdom will be torn apart by different factions. From the fire of civil dissension several
federated republics will be born; the most audacious and skillful citizens will usurp the empire,
will subject the multitude to a new yoke, and the government will have changed form without
having re-established freedom.55
This statement appears to be drawing on the concerns over usurpation voiced by
Rousseau in Chapter 10 of Book II of The Social Contract about how governments “set
up during storms” are themselves the State’s destroyers. Indeed, Rousseau states that:
Usurpers always bring about or select troublous (sic) times to get passed, under cover of the
public terror, destructive laws, which the people would never adopt in cold blood. The moment
chosen is one of the surest means of distinguishing the work of the legislator from that of the
The implication here therefore is that the crisis looming over the current Revolutionary
government will only serve the means of those wishing to establish their own particular
will as dominant over the general will in the next incarnation of the government. Such
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, p.160
Jean-Paul Marat, L’Ami du peuple [no.625], December 14, 1791. Accessed from, February 12 2006.
Marat, L’Ami du peuple [no.625]
Marat, L’Ami du peuple [no.625]
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.223. It would be prudent to remember this passage of The Social
Contract when we consider Robespierre.
events would be disastrous to the “freedom” of the “people”, and Marat attempts to
plead with his readers that whilst he has done all he can to “make the scales fall from
[the people’s] eyes”, there remains no “means of putting off [the people’s] ruin” unless
they take up arms against those currently in government57.
As well as the dangers of usurpation, Marat also writes specifically about the
active role the citizens must play themselves in helping to create the state, a topic that,
unsurprisingly, is discussed in great length in The Social Contract. In an issue of L’Ami
du people dubbed, with no hint of sarcasm, ‘What Men Are More Vain than the
French?’, Marat states that:
The Frenchman is the one least made to be free. The practice of the obligations of a citizen are
difficult, and they aren’t followed by great elegies, a powerful motive that excites vain men and
that supports them in their undertakings58.
The implication of this statement may be specific to events occurring in the Revolution,
for as we have already seen Marat made frequent references to the French populace
being too slow to take up his instructions, but its homage to Rousseau is undeniable.
The most obvious reference on the issue of vanity in The Social Contract is Rousseau’s
statement on clothing which forms part of a more general treatise on the ‘suitability’ of
nations and their citizens with regards to applying his social contract theory. “Where
men cloth themselves only for adornment”, writes Rousseau, “what is striking is more
thought of than what is useful”59, and this points to neglect of the common good. Marat
argues that it is this “vain discourse” that has caused the “isolating [of] citizens and [the]
ruining [of] the cause of liberty”60. Both Marat’s and Rousseau’s statements appear to
building upon an early, fundamental chapter of The Social Contract where it is implied
that if The Social Contract is not completely observed – i.e. if everyone does not
subscribe to the “total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the
whole community”, indeed even if the arrangements are tweaked slightly – the political
result is to make men vain and ineffective, or more precisely, it causes them to lose the
“whole common force”61 that protects the person and goods of each man. The loss of
Marat, L’Ami du peuple [no.625]
Jean-Paul Marat, L’Ami du peuple [no.671], July 12 1792. Accessed from, February 12 2006.
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.253
Marat, L’Ami du peuple [no. 671]
Rousseau, The Social Contract, p.191
this protection causes man to revert to a natural ‘free’ state as particular wills begin to
take precedent over the general will, and the downfall of sovereignty held by the people
begins. Such a state is a creation that Marat believes benefits only the strong and the
powerful, and the oppressed people of the French nation then only serve as the “arms”
used to “force obedience on those who refuse to submit”62.
Thus far, what both of these illustrations have show is Marat using examples of
Rousseau’s philosophy to attempt to change for the better the course of events he saw
occurring in Paris around him. Both extracts are general in the sense that the discourse
within them is designed to assist the people, for there appears to be no personal benefit
to Marat for bringing these issues to life. However, a problem arises when we consider
the complexity of Marat’s discourse which, whilst invigorating and fluid, could also be
regarded as somewhat difficult to comprehend. One of the arguments for L’An 2440
being effective in the previous chapter was that its simplicity successfully transformed
what was said in The Social Contract to a level more easily understood by the average
literate French citizen. Marat, however, was as sophisticated as Rousseau, which begs
the question of whether he was that well read and, more importantly, understood.
Conner states that despite Marat’s confrontational and aggressive style, he “never
ceased to be politically sophisticated” and furthermore, “he eschewed the crude street
slang, expletives, and bathroom humour used by other popular journalists such as
Hérbert and Lemaire” 63 . Whilst the transformation of French society during the
Revolution was apparent, what such social and cultural changes certainly did not do
was drastically improve the literacy rates of the population so that they could
understand more complicated political tracts. Why, then, was Marat such a popular
writer? This is a question difficult to answer. The fact that Marat developed a redundant
publishing network consisting of publishers, distributors and sellers (who were often
seen selling their copies of L’Ami du peuple whilst surrounded by “burly men” with
large clubs for protection64) points to the existence of a definite market for Marat’s
journal, but the question of his success it still a mystery. One thesis that can be drawn
is simply Marat’s popularity as a political figure, as a spokesman for the sans-culottes
and as a constant thorn in the side of the Revolutionary government, inspired the
population to at least buy his journal regardless of its more complicated discourse.
Marat, L’Ami du peuple [no.671]
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, p.179
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, p.165
Furthermore, whilst Marat did not have a habit of over-emphasising the revelations
expressed in his journals, the content was sensational, as the sub-titles of and extracts
from his writings show. It may have been, therefore, that his publications were bought
because their reliability and accuracy served a need for information that the Parisian
population, most notably the sans-culottes, could not get elsewhere.
As a final example to draw on from Marat’s journals, the issue of Le Publiciste
de la Republique française entitled ‘What is a Law?’ is more problematic to our
investigation of Marat being solely a conduit of Rousseau’s philosophical thought to
the people. In this issue, Marat begins by defining what a law is:
[It is] an expression of the general will on an object of common interest. A law can thus never
be anything but a deliberation taken with maturity for the common good after a tranquil, wise
and in-depth discussion.65
The stress Marat puts on the common interest and the common good link his ideas of
law to those emphasized in The Social Contract. Rousseau, in comparison, describes
the law-making process as one where “the whole people decrees for the whole people”,
and where a “decree is made [that] is, like the decreeing will, general”66. This sense of
the population having a common purpose when making laws is what Rousseau depicts
as the very essence of liberty, and thus when a particular group begins making decrees
in lieu of the whole people, these are, in both Rousseau’s and Marat’s views, not strictly
laws but decrees that go against the general will. It is this justification that Marat gives
when he rails against the “faction of statesmen”, the “henchmen of the ancién regime”
in the same issue of Le Publiciste de la Republique française, stating that it is this group
that has “in the midst of chaos and against the demands of the patriots of the Mountain,
rendered the decrees against me”67.
It is important at this point to place this final example of Marat’s revolutionary
discourse in a historical perspective, for it provides a useful platform to critique his
work. Marat had been indicted by the Girondin majority of the Convention for signing,
in his capacity as president of the Jacobin club, a manifesto that called for the overthrow
of the Revolutionary government. What is interesting to point out about Marat’s tract
Jean-Paul Marat, Le Publiciste de la Republique française [no.172], April 19, 1793. Accessed from, February 12 2006.
Rousseau, Social Contract, p.211
Marat, Le Publiciste de la Republique française [no.172]
is that whilst he invokes Rousseau’s crucial rule that the general will can not be directed
to a particular object in his attack on the decrees of the Convention, he appears to do so
only in a bid to defend some of his own ‘particular’ interests: that of his own security
and, more importantly, the interest of the Jacobins (who controlled the Paris commune)
against the Girondin-dominated Convention. To elaborate on this statement, whilst
previous citations of Marat’s work has shown his use of Rousseau’s political
philosophy only in the interest of the welfare of ‘the people’68, this article appears to
use such concerns as a thinly disguised front for Marat to try and petition his own case.
It therefore becomes irrelevant whether or not Marat was using a correct interpretation
of Rousseau’s Social Contract. Furthermore, it does not even matter that, when he came
to successfully and dramatically answer his charges at the Tuileries theatre where the
Convention met, he was first paraded around by a “mob of cheering women and sansculottes”69 complete with a wreath of oak leaves around his head, because in reality,
these events forced the Girondins into a collision with the Jacobins that created a
volatile political environment. This unstable situation came to a head with the
insurrection of 31 May that removed the Girondins from power and brought the Jacobin
Republic into being70. Marat had succeeded in using Rousseau’s philosophy to justify
his particular will, and he had managed it with full support of the Revolutionary
working classes.
The conclusion we can thus draw on Marat’s influence on the Revolution
through his writing is swift and decisive. Marat did start his journalism career as a friend
of the people, writing tracts that were in direct support of the working-classes in the
Parisian districts and beyond. Furthermore, he was immensely successful in his
endeavours, attaining a level of support and affection from citizens that was so great
that it made it difficult for the authorities of the Revolutionary government to contain
him. It would be extraordinarily difficult to state as a conclusion that what Marat wrote
in his journals and pamphlets was the direct inspiration for critical Revolutionary events.
However, what we can conclude is that, as a writer, he was revered. Furthermore, and
Even as late as April 1793, when Marat eluded the bailiffs after being brought before the
Revolutionary Tribunal, he justified his refusal to be detained in a speech that claimed “before
belonging to the Convention, I belonged to the people. I have an obligation to the people, of whom I
am their eye. I am going to remain in hiding… in order to be able to continue to unmask traitors”.
(Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, p.244)
Hibbert, The French Revolution, p.197
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, p.250
in contribution to our wider study, whilst his writing can be seen by the sources selected
to have been heavily influenced by Rousseau’s Social Contract, Marat can be criticized
for abandoning these values himself when he began to be heavily involved with the
Jacobin movement. Despite his own protestations that he was always and only
interested in the welfare of the people71, the particular interest of the Jacobins to attain
power reveals Marat using the philosophy of Rousseau as a means to justify both his
personal actions and those of the Jacobin club, and this activity cheapens his legacy.
The notion of using Rousseau to justify Revolutionary events is actually one of the
staple ideas about the French Revolution alluded to at the start of this thesis – that the
Revolution ‘made’ the philosophy that influenced it. Furthermore, as we shall see in
the following chapter, one of the main criticisms that can be made against the likes of
Robespierre and the Jacobin Republic as a whole is this retrospective use of Rousseau
and The Social Contract to justify the various excesses of the French Revolution, the
most obvious of which is the Great Terror. To this end, Jean-Paul Marat can be seen as
one of the first political ‘offenders’ of the Revolution to utilise Rousseau for his own
means, and this judgement must be made despite the laudable, more impartial work he
did when he still was truly writing as the people’s friend. Bearing this analysis of Marat
in mind, we must now look to Maximilian Robespierre to see how this use of Rousseau
is taken to its logical conclusion
Conner, Jean-Paul Marat, p.244
IV: Maximilian Robespierre and the Jacobin Republic
Before investigating Rousseau’s influence on Maximilian Robespierre it is
perhaps wise to further expand on why Robespierre has been chosen as the last political
figure to focus on in our study. Robespierre does not appear to fit alongside Mercier or,
to a large extent, Marat in the suggestion that these writers transformed Rousseau’s
philosophy into a style that was more accessible to the general population because his
motivations for doing so can be judged as being entirely different. In contrast to Marat
(initially, for as the previous chapter demonstrates he also began to use Rousseau for
political ends) and Mercier, Robespierre, as a leading member of the Jacobin Republic
installed after the fall of the Girondins in June 1793, was interested in achieving
political power and control. Because Robespierre was so closely involved with the
power struggle at the heart of the Revolutionary government it is difficult to consider
him as being virtuous in this matter – that is to say, it is unlikely that Robespierre’s
interests really were solely for the good of the people, despite his protestations that his
intentions were honourable. The reason why Robespierre is deemed of interest to study
in this case is because of two things. Firstly, he was well-known in his adoration for
Rousseau, and he asserted that his own actions (and the actions of the Jacobin republic)
were simply implementations of Rousseau’s philosophy. Thus we can be assured that
Rousseau’s philosophical influence on Robespierre is a given. More importantly,
however, Robespierre represents the final stage in the influence of Rousseau on the
French Revolution, a stage where we see Rousseau’s status as a philosopher change
from influencing the direction of the Revolution to being used as justification for the
This idea of Robespierre using Rousseau to justify political events is one that
will, of course, appear familiar. It is exactly what historians such as Roger Chartier have
championed about philosophy and the French Revolution all along. However, before
we discuss the implications of this retrospective use of Rousseau’s philosophy and how
it affects our investigation into Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution as a
whole, it is practical to briefly illustrate where Rousseau’s philosophy is being used by
Robespierre. It is hard to deny, for example, the influence of Rousseau found in
Robespierre’s speech to the Convention on the trial of Louis XVI in December 1792.
In the speech Robespierre recalls ideas such as the formation of the social compact and
the election of the sovereign in Rousseau’s Contrat social and practically relates them
to the situation in France:
When a nation has been forced to have recourse to the right of insurrection, it returns to the state
of nature as regards the tyrant. By what title could he invoke The Social Contract, he who has
destroyed it? The nation may still keep The Social Contract if it so judges, for that which
concerns relations of citizens with each other. However, the effect of tyranny and insurrection
is to break it entirely in relation to the tyrant; to place them in a state of mutual war.72
The above passage can be seen as Robespierre attempting to use Rousseau’s
social contract theory to dictate what action the Convention should take with regards to
the king, and therefore what Robespierre is essentially saying is that there is no longer
a covenant between the king and his people, and the people are now free to negotiate a
new sovereign as and how they see fit. Robespierre, at this point, appears sincere in his
application of Rousseau to Revolutionary events.
However, there are examples of Robespierre’s speeches that show a different
approach in attitude to Rousseau, one that still appears to imply his philosophy, but
does so ex post facto. The most striking instance of the use of this rhetoric is in the
various defences Robespierre made of the use of Terror. In a speech to the Convention
in February 1794, Robespierre states that:
This great purity of the French revolution's basis, the very sublimity of its objective, is precisely
what causes both our strength and our weakness. Our strength, because it gives to us truth's
ascendancy over imposture, and the rights of the public interest over private interests; our
weakness, because it rallies all vicious men against us.73
Robespierre here uses Rousseau’s ideas on total alienation when commentating on the
reign of the public sphere over the private sphere, a topic set out very early on in The
Social Contract. However, Robespierre states that this total alienation generates
enemies of the Republic who must be destroyed by Terror:
Maximilian Robespierre, ‘First speech to the convention on the king’s trial’ in John Hardman, ed.,
The French Revolution Sourcebook (London: Arnold, 1981), p.160
Maximilian Robespierre, ‘Justification for the Use of Terror’, speech given February 5 1794.
Accessed from, March
20 2006.
Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny's friends conspire; they will conspire
until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the
Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to
lead the people by reason and the people's enemies by terror.74
The difficulty with Robespierre’s claims in the second part of speech is that they have
no real basis in The Social Contract. Essentially what Robespierre is saying is that by
conducting politics along lines inspired by Rousseau, the Jacobin Republic has incurred
considerable enemies and opposition that must be destroyed. In effect, Robespierre is
claiming self-righteously that Rousseau implies Terror is a necessary consequence of
total alienation whereas in reality it is merely a device to eliminate the enemies of the
Robespierre is thus at a point where he must justify the actions of the Jacobin
Republic through Rousseau’s philosophy, but critically also fill a gap between what
Rousseau has said in The Social Contract, and what Robespierre is saying in his public
speeches to justify the Jacobins claim that they themselves embody the general will.
Alfred Cobban states that it gradually dawned upon Robespierre that the actual will of
the people “did not coincide with the dictates of virtue” and that the people had to be
“made fit to wield” 75 the power attributed to them by the Revolution. Not only did
Robespierre feel that “public feeling has lagged behind the Revolution” and that “the
people still lack[ed] political sense”, but also that his “enemies [had] public opinion in
their hands”76, and he thus needed to justify the use of Terror to destroy these enemies.
In claiming that Rousseau sanctioned this use, he found a justification for dreadful
events such as the various purges of the Revolutionary government of perceived threats
to the Jacobins, via the guillotine. Indeed, Jason Niedleman states that as the Jacobins
began to think of themselves as the sole repositories of the people’s will, they also
began to believe that everything they did was right and true77.
The revelation that Robespierre and the Jacobin Republic used Rousseau’s
philosophy retrospectively to assist them in justifying their own actions is not surprising.
However, what is more important to determine is whether such a discovery lends its
Robespierre, Justification for the Use of Terror
Alfred Cobban (1948), “The fundamental ideas of Robespierre”, English Historical Review 63(246),
Norman Hampson, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’ in Colin Haydon and William Doyle, eds.,
Robespierre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.164
Jason A. Niedleman, The General Will is Citizenship (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), p.92
support to the idea that the Revolution created the books and philosophy that influenced
it. So far in this thesis, Rousseau has been shown to be influential before the Revolution
by way of books, and during the Revolution because aspects of his social theory were
transmitted via popular journalism. To this end, it is relatively difficult, despite perhaps
the protestations of Daniel Mornet and Jane McDonald, to admit that Rousseau was of
no influence until the Jacobin Republic used him in the ways that have been outlined.
However, as we have only been able to prove Rousseau’s influence on the population
indirectly, i.e. through the works of others who may or may not have acknowledged
him as their source of influence, one outcome we can perhaps arrive at is that if no one
read Rousseau directly, but a majority of the population had certainly heard of him,
Robespierre and the Jacobin Republic could easily manipulate the idea of Rousseau to
their own ends and thus claim legitimacy from one of the ‘great’ philosophers.
“Because Rousseau did exist”, argues James Swenson, “the revolutionaries were forced
to reinvent him”78. Actions such as interring Rousseau’s remains at the Panthéon in
Paris in 1794 were, therefore, simply a way of increasing this cult like status of
Rousseau within the population, and allowed further abuse of his name to be made by
those wishing to hold on to power in the Revolutionary government.
A second issue to address with regards to this notion of retrospective use of
Rousseau by Robespierre is the idea that The Social Contract took on biblical
importance for the Jacobins, providing support to the well-used phrase that The Social
Contract was the bible of the French Revolution. In other words, because Robespierre
and the Jacobins saw themselves as the embodiment of the general will outlined in
Rousseau’s Social Contract, they began to use this as justification for every political
excess they committed. Not only did these excesses stray far from Rousseau’s original
philosophical thought, but the self-righteous ideology meant that they began to see
omnipresent traitors and conspirators trying to bring down what had become their
Revolution when threats did not actually exist. This is actually a type of fundamentalist
ideology highlighted by Neil J. Mitchell, whereby the Jacobins take on a ‘Grand
Inquisitor’ figure that “quite explicitly denies the power motive, except as power serves
his ideals” and burns non-believers out of “love and duty”, not by what they actually
do to threaten their power79. If we accept the application of Mitchell’s analysis to the
James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p.159
Neil J. Mitchell, Agents of Atrocity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.4
actions of the Jacobins, we can see a complete detachment of Rousseau in particular as
an influence on their political thought. Instead, he is replaced by a more general
“utopian” ideology that is more common throughout the history of revolutions and civil
In attempting to judge Robespierre and the Jacobin Republic he helped create,
therefore, what is demonstrated is, at first, the implication that Rousseau’s
philosophical thought runs parallel to the events unfolding in Revolutionary France.
However, several factors begin to shake the unquestionable belief Robespierre holds in
Rousseau, not least the realisation that the population appear to be “unsuitable” for the
sovereign power they are meant to be acquiring following the deposition of the
monarchy. As such, Robespierre begins to use Rousseau’s philosophy in his
explanations to the public in order to justify actions that are not a product of the general
will but that assist the Jacobins in keeping power. In taking this self-righteous belief to
its logical conclusion, Robespierre engineers a removal of all opposition to the Jacobin
Republic, whilst still claiming to be representing the general will, despite now only
using Rousseau in name as a token reference. What we thus witness is a complete
reversal in how Rousseau influences the French Revolution as it progresses, beginning
with some philosophical influence at the start which slowly morphs into an engineered
legitimation of Jacobin actions. Finally, however, Rousseau’s philosophy is hardly
being used at all. Thus, whilst Rousseau may have inspired Robespierre and the
Jacobins with his philosophy, the state of Terror they eventually achieve appears to owe
little or nothing to The Social Contract.
The start of this thesis introduced a problem on the subject of Jean-Jacques
Rousseau and the French Revolution. The problem was complex and ran off in a
number of directions, but was essentially this: did Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social
Contract influence the French Revolution? By influence, we were to suppose that what
he wrote directly affected people and events in late 18th century France. The answer to
this question is that Rousseau’s Social Contract certainly did influence the French
Revolution, but the way we investigated this answer was significantly different to how
it has been attempted in the past. The Social Contract has two major problems to
overcome with regards to the French Revolution. The first is that significant studies
have been carried out that allege no-one in France could get hold of it before 1789. The
second is that, even if people did read it, historians believe no-one was influenced by it
because the role of books in the French Revolution was either overstated, or attributed
only after the events had taken place. This thesis has tried to overcome the problematic
nature of The Social Contract’s influence on the French Revolution in two stages.
Firstly, it has championed the work of Robert Darnton who has meticulously researched
the issue of books in 18th century France and concluded a number of things. First,
Rousseau was read before 1789, a conclusion which resolves the debate on whether The
Social Contract was available to the population. In addition to this, however, Darnton
also highlighted the existence of an entire culture of reading politically subversive,
philosophical books which developed in France during the final stages of the Ancién
regime and that grew alongside a rise in the discontent of the population with the Royal
government. These two patterns of thought worked co-operatively to facilitate the
destabilisation of Louis XVI’s administration to the point of Revolution.
If philosophical books were thus important to the development of the French
Revolution, it is important for us to investigate why they are important, and furthermore
what they contain that is important. This is, essentially, the second stage of the thesis.
In acknowledging that Rousseau’s own direct influence is a notoriously difficult subject,
we found a way to judge his influence by considering the words spoken and written by
figures greatly influenced by Rousseau. Studying Louis-Sébastien Mercier and JeanPaul Marat, two key authors who were widely read, revealed the extent to which the
ideas of The Social Contract were responsible for what they were writing. We could
begin to see that, beneath the superfluous nature of Mercier’s novel and aside from
Marat’s impassioned polemics, real examples of Rousseau’s Social Contract were
permeating through to the general population in a way that could understand. However,
towards the end of Marat’s writing career we also saw a distinct change in his use of
Rousseau: he began to implicate The Social Contract’s philosophy in a way that was
personally beneficial to both himself and the Jacobin cause he was a supporter of. The
appropriation of the general will by a particular will is, we must recall, one of the
cardinal sins of Rousseau’s social theory, an action that robs a people of its liberty. The
investigation of Robespierre and the Jacobin Republic served as an example of the use
of particular will masquerading as the general will taken to such an extent that the use
of Rousseau as a philosophical influence had atrophied by the time the Terror was being
unleashed on the French population – he was then being used only in name to legitimate
Robespierre’s actions.
There are, naturally, several areas where this research could be taken further.
As stated in the introduction, the restriction of English-language sources not only
restricts the authors we can look at, but also what parts of their published output we can
investigate. Fortunately, Mercier’s L’an 2440 was translated into English very quickly
after its publication and this translation has survived for study. However, the lack of
sources particularly affects research into Jean-Paul Marat, whose various journals have
not been fully translated. Marat represents a fascinating Revolutionary figure who was
writing first hand about the politics of the French Revolution. If we could further
research the mountain of tracts he published we could gain an even greater insight into
the political thought of a Revolutionary mind committed, for the most part, to
representing the political interests of the sans-culottes. Fortunately, what has been
translated from Marat’s French originals is striking in its use of Rousseau’s philosophy,
but one can only begin to imagine how else Rousseau influenced this prolific journalist.
There are also other authors we could consider in this approach of studying Rousseau’s
indirect influence upon the Revolution. One figure that springs to mind is Jacques René
Hébert who, as well as leading the Hébertist faction that were eventually sent to the
guillotine, published the popular, more basic sans-culotte paper Le Père Duchesne. The
scope of material present both in pre- and Revolutionary France presents a tempting
investigation to one that considers the written and spoken word to be extremely
important to the French population, the only problem is that such scope means an
investigation into it is off-limits to this thesis, but would provide a fascinating research
project at a higher academic level.
What can we conclude about Rousseau and the French Revolution? The
investigations into Mercier and Marat highlight many things, such as the importance of
philosophical literature and the growth of Revolutionary sentiment within France, but
most importantly for us they show that Rousseau was an indirect philosophical
influence on the population. Because Marat and Mercier were successful in the sense
that their work was very well distributed throughout France, the ideas in their work,
which were based heavily on Rousseau’s Social Contract, can be judged to have
permeated the national consciousness. To this extent, we can thus dismiss the generally
held viewpoint that Rousseau had no influence on the French Revolution. Although
problems still exist in the debate about how many or how few may have read The Social
Contract, it can be seen that other authors who were repackaging Rousseau’s
philosophy in their own words were widely read. Mercier produced the best-selling
politically subversive book in pre-Revolutionary France. Marat wrote one of the most
respected daily journals in Revolutionary Paris that was so important it had its own
underground publishing network. The problem that arises from reaching this conclusion
is that the study of Robespierre appears to contest it. Robespierre and the Jacobins, it
has been convincingly shown, used Rousseau primarily to justify their own actions to
such an extent that they usurped the idea of a general will with their own particular
vision. When the French Revolution entered its sixth year in 1794, Rousseau was being
used only to legitimate the self-righteousness of the Jacobins. The philosophy of his
Social Contract was unrecognizable, it had been re-created to show how it had
influenced the rise of the Jacobins. How are we to reconcile these two conflicting ideas
about Rousseau? The answer appears to be that we can actually have both. The French
Revolution started with Rousseau as a legitimate philosophical influence on it, but this
influence slowly receded, especially when the Jacobin Republic began to attain more
and more power over the Revolutionary government and were in need of a source of
legitimacy for their actions. Thus, the Jacobins began to use Rousseau retrospectively,
relating their actions to dubious interpretations of The Social Contract. It is because of
the actions of the Jacobins, therefore, that phrases suggesting that The Social Contract
was the “gospel according to Jean-Jacques”80 and that it was the French Revolution
“that made the books and philosophy”81 have arisen. The wider picture that this thesis
Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History [vol.1], p.52
Chartier, Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, pp.85-6
has attempted to portray is that Rousseau actually influenced the French population
before the Jacobin Republic decided to use him as a figure to which they could attribute
all their terrible excesses. To dismiss him merely as an afterthought by the likes of
Robespierre to justify bloody events such as the Terror is, therefore, an inaccurate
conclusion to draw on Rousseau. Jean-Jacques was not the father of this Terror, but he
was one of the parents of the Revolution.
Appendix I: Sales figures of banned books in the 1780s (representative sample)
Source: Robert Darnton, ‘Forbidden Books of Revolutionary France’ in Colin Lucas,
ed., Rewriting the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp.1415
Primary Sources:
Marat, Jean-Paul. Journal de la Republique française [no.1], August 1792. Accessed
from, February 12
Marat, Jean-Paul. L’Ami du peuple [no.625], December 14, 1791. Accessed from, February 12 2006.
Marat, Jean-Paul. L’Ami du peuple [no.671], July 12 1792. Accessed from, February 12 2006.
Marat, Jean-Paul. Le Publiciste de la Republique française [no.172], April 19, 1793.
Accessed from, February
12 2006.
Mercier, Louis-Sébastien. Memoirs of the year two thousand five hundred [vol.1],
translated by W. Hooper (London: 1772)
Mercier, Louis-Sébastien. Memoirs of the year two thousand five hundred [vol.2],
translated by W. Hooper (London: 1772)
Robespierre, Maximilian. ‘First speech to the convention on the king’s trial’ in John
Hardman, ed., The French Revolution Sourcebook (London: Arnold, 1981), p.160
Robespierre, Maximilian. Justification for the Use of Terror, speech given February 5
1794. Accessed from, March 20 2006.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses (London: Everyman,
Secondary Sources:
Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History [vol.1] (London: J.M. Dent &
co., 1897)
Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1991)
Cobban, Alfred “The fundamental ideas of Robespierre”, English Historical Review
(1948) 63(246), pp.29-51
Conner, Clifford D. Jean-Paul Marat, (New York: Humanity, 1997)
Darnton, Robert. Forbidden Bestsellers of the French Revolution (London: Fontana,
Darnton, Robert. ‘Forbidden Books of Revolutionary France’ in Colin Lucas, ed.,
Rewriting the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)
Hampson, Norman. ‘Robespierre and the Terror’ in Colin Haydon and William
Doyle, eds., Robespierre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Hibbert, Christopher. The French Revolution (London: Penguin, 1980)
Leigh, R.A. Unsolved Problems in the Bibliography of J-J. Rousseau (edited by
J.T.A. Leigh) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)
McDonald, Joan. Rousseau and the French Revolution 1792-1791 (London: Athlone
Press, 1965)
Mitchell, Neil J. Agents of Atrocity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
Mornet, Daniel. French Thought in the Eighteenth Century (North Haven, Archon,
Niedleman, Jason A. The General Will is Citizenship (New York: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2001)
Rudé, George. The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1959)
Swenson, James. On Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Stanford: Stanford University Press,