Jefferson and Rousseau – On Democracy

Those who have followed me for any amount of time are aware that one of my academic interests is the comparison between Thomas Jefferson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  It was one of the themes of my dissertation, and I maintain that it’s an important point to consider.  Jefferson is often paired with Locke, especially by the likes of Louis Hartz, whose The Liberal Tradition in America has had a great influence on the way we view Jefferson and the founding era.  Others have noted the similarity between Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment writers.  But few have really seen the connection to Rousseau, a connection that I deem to be very important, because this Jefferson-Rousseau strand of thought is one that continues to be a dominant influence on America. Over the next few posts I plan on taking a closer look at this connection, as well as a broader examination of Thomas Jefferson’s political thought in general.  Considering my series of posts on the Federalists Papers, I believe it is useful to compare Jefferson’s thought to that of the Framers of the Constitution.

The first point of commonality between Jefferson and Rousseau is their views on democracy.  Both men are proponents of mass democracy to a far greater extent than a majority of the Founding Fathers.  This is based in large part by a shared positive appraisal of human nature.  Jefferson in particular had a very high opinion of man’s ability to reason well and positively shape society.

It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind: to shew by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs and the will of the majority, the Natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.  Perhaps even this may sometimes err.  But it’s errors are honest, solitary and short-lived. —Let us then, my dear friends, for ever bow down to the general reason of the society.[1]

Not only does Jefferson think highly of man’s ability to reason, but he also believes that the human mind is susceptible to much improvement.  Writing to William Green Munford, he states that he is “among those who think well of the human character generally.  I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society.  I believe also, with Condorcet, as mentioned in your letter, that his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception.”[2] Later on in life, he backs away somewhat from the claim that the mind is “perfectible.”  He writes that, “although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it is susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.”[3]

While it would be inaccurate to describe Jefferson as a pure democrat, there is much evidence that Jefferson comes closer than any man of his generation in trusting in the decision-making ability of the populace at large.  Much of his faith in mankind’s decision-making ability is based on a generally positive view of human nature.  As he explains to Samuel Kercheval, “I am not among those who fear the people.  They, and not the rich are our dependence for continued freedom.”[4] Further, he believes that the citizenry at large, and not kings or nobleman, are the best preservers of freedom.

If anybody thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness send them here [France].  It is the best school to cure them of that folly.  They will see here with their own eyes that these descriptions of men are an abandoned confederacy against the happiness of the mass of the people.  The omnipotence of their effect cannot be better proved than in this country particularly, where notwithstanding the finest soil upon earth, the finest climate under heaven, and a people of the most benevolent, the most gay and amiable character of which the human form is susceptible, where such a people I say, surrounded by so many blessings from nature, are yet loaded with misery by kings, nobles and priests, and by them alone.  Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people.  Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.[5]

Jefferson sees the masses as a bulwark against tyranny, and expects that an educated citizenry will stand up against the oppression of kings.

It is Jefferson’s faith in the people as the ultimate guardians of freedom that animates his democratic fervor.    Writing to Madison during the public debates over ratification of the Constitution, he says, “After all, it is my principle that the will of the majority should always prevail.  If they approve of the proposed Convention in all its parts, I shall concur in it cheerfully, in hopes they will amend it whenever they shall find it work wrong.”  Later he adds, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”[6] This latter comment also demonstrates Jefferson’s conviction that the populace ought to be well-educated in order for democracy to flourish.

Jefferson’s optimistic appraisal of mankind’s capacity for self-government is largely shaped by his views on the moral sense.  Jefferson believed that since man is a social animal, God had given humans an innate sense of right and wrong.  Man will ultimately, when left to his own devices, choose the right path unless led astray by some bias or religious principle.[7] Wiltse notes Jefferson’s letter to Peter Carr as an example of Jefferson’s take on this matter.  “I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudices on both sides,” he writes, “and neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it.  Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision.”[8]

Compare this with Rousseau’s comments on the general will and what may cause it to err:

If, when a sufficiently informed populace deliberates, the citizens were to have no communication among themselves, the general will would always result from the large number of small differences, and the deliberation would always be good.  But when intrigues and partial associations come into being at the expense of the large association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members and particular in relation to the state.  It can be said, then, that there are no longer as many voters as there are men, but as many as there are associations.  The differences become less numerous and yield a result that is less general.  Finally, when one of these associations is so large that it dominates all the others, the result is no longer a sum of minor differences, but a single difference.  Then there is no longer a general will, and the opinion that dominates is merely a private opinion.

For the general will to be well articulated, it is therefore important that there should be no partial society in the state and that each citizen make up his own mind.[9]

Both theorists posit that individuals need the proper space in order to deliberate, and fear that organized interest groups will prevent the proper form of dispassionate deliberation to occur.  Rousseau’s denunciation of all partial associations and his call for their removal is echoed years later when Jefferson writes that he considers political parties as “the last degradation of a free and moral agent.  If I could not go to heaven with a party, I would not go there at all.”[10] These associations have many baleful affects, not the least of which is their tendency to divide citizens’ loyalties and color their decision making.  Individual people possess enough common sense that the act of deliberation can only have a negative influence upon them.

Jefferson believes that the moral sense natural to man because he was formed for society.  This innate moral sense given to humans allows them to adduce right and wrong through their own reason.  Man is naturally formed for society, and no law is needed to make man more virtuous.  As Claes Ryn writes, Jefferson’s describes the moral sense “as a spontaneous force, an ‘instinct’ which puts man on the moral course.”  Ryn adds, “Knowingly or unknowingly echoing Rousseau, he describes it as a pleasurable feeling of benevolence towards others which ‘prompts us irresistibly to feel and succor their distresses.”[11]

Here Jefferson is at odds with figures like John Adams .  Adams thought as Burke that government was instituted to provide for wants, especially a want of security against the passions of men.  David Mayer asserts that Jefferson held a completely different view, holding instead that government need not make men moral – the innate moral sense already makes them so.[12] Jefferson believed that government merely created an “environment in which it was possible for individuals to be moral, to live harmoniously and benevolently together in society.”[13] Society can order itself.

More evidence of Jefferson’s faith in human reason is seen in a letter to Thomas Law:

These good acts give us pleasure, but how happens it that they give us pleasure?  Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses, and protests against the language of Helvetius, “what other motive than self-interest could determine a man to generous actions?  It is as impossible for him to love what is good for the sake of good, as to love evil for the sake of evil.”  The Creator would have been a bungling artist, had he intended man for a social animal, without planting in him social dispositions.  It is true they are not planted in every man, because there is no rule without exceptions; but it is false reasoning which converts exceptions into general rules.[14]

Here Jefferson contradicts Hobbes in harshly stark tones.  Man is a naturally social animal because man has been given by God the innate ability to think beyond self-interest.

Once again Jefferson echoes Rousseau, specifically Rousseau’s comments about pity in the Second Discourse.  Here Rousseau similarly refutes Hobbesian logic regarding the state of nature.  Whereas Hobbes felt that man can be induced to do good only through self-interest, Rousseau writes that the sense of pity was inborn to man, and it is this inborn character trait that inclines natural man to do good.

Moreover, there is another principle that Hobbes failed to notice, and which, having been given to man in order to mitigate, in certain circumstances, the ferocity of his egocentrism or the desire for self-preservation before this egocentrism came into being, tempers the ardor he has for his own well-being by an innate repugnance to seeing his fellow man suffer.  I do not believe I have any contradiction to fear in granting the only natural virtue that the most excessive detractor of human virtues was forced to recognize.  I am referring to pity, a disposition that is fitting for beings that are as weak and as subject to ills as we are; a virtue all the more universal and all the more useful to man in that it precedes in him any  kind of reflection, and so natural that even animals sometimes show noticeable signs of it.[15]

Pity is an innate moral characteristic, and it is the most basic natural virtue that all human beings possess.  It is pity that is the basis of amour-de-soi, the more benevolent form of love to which Rousseau hopes to restore the human race.

It is this view of human nature that leads both to advocate a form of government that places much power in the hands of the people.  For example, Jefferson’s democratic fervor causes him to define republic more broadly than his contemporaries such as Madison.  He writes:

that action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic; that all governments are more or less republican in proportion enters more or less into their composition; and that a government by representation is capable of extension over a greater surface of our country than one of any other form.[16]

As I’ve discussed elsewhere in my posts on the Federalist Papers, James Madison and the Framers define republic more narrowly.  Though both Jefferson and Madison believe that the government ought to be responsible to the people to some extent, Jefferson emphasizes popular participation to a greater degree than does Madison and his fellow Founders.

Jefferson’s preference for popular control is even more noticeable in his letter to John Taylor.  He defines republic thusly:

Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say, purely and simply, it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority; and that every government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action if its citizens.  Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population.  I doubt it if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.  The first shade from this pure element, which, like that of pure vital air, cannot sustain life of itself, would be where the powers of government, being divided, should be exercised each by representatives chosen pro hac vice, or for such short terms as should render secure the duty of expressing the will of their constituents.  This I should consider as the nearest approach to a pure republic, which is practicable on a large scale of country or population.[17]

The ideal republic then is one where the populace acts on its own behalf; however, it is not reasonable to expect such a pure republic to exist on a large scale.  Representation is especially crucial in a large country.  But representation is a departure from the ideal.  “The further the departure from direct and constant control by the citizens, the less has the government of the ingredient of republicanism.”[18] Jefferson laments the need to mitigate to any extent the ability of citizens to act in person, for they should have as much power as is feasible.

Jefferson’s preference for direct citizen control causes him to prefer the larger legislative assemblies.  “The purest republican feature in the government of our own State, is the House of Representatives.  The Senate is equally so the first year, less the second, and so on.  The Executive still less, because not chosen by the people directly.  The Judiciary seriously anti-republican, because for life; and the national arm wielded, as you observe, by military leaders irresponsible but to themselves.”[19]

Though grudgingly accepting of the reality of representation, he believes that the majority’s will should govern the nation.  He tells Edmund Randolph that:

the whole body of the nation is the sovereign legislative, judiciary, and executive power for itself.  The inconvenience of meeting to exercise these powers in person, and their inaptitude to exercise them, induce them to appoint special organs to declare their legislative will, to judge & to execute it.  It is the will of the nation which makes the law obligatory; it is their will which creates or annihilates the organ which is to declare & announce it.[20]

This notion of the “will of the nation” calls to mind Rousseau’s conception of the general will.  Under Rousseau’s social compact, each member alienates himself and his rights to the community, and subjects himself to the general will.  “If, therefore, one eliminates from the social compact whatever is not essential to it, one will find that it is reducible to the following terms.  Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as indivisible part of the whole.”[21] This majority will is the sovereign power of the nation, and all must submit to its authority.

Rousseau and Jefferson both emphasize a sense of duty.  Rousseau writes that for the general will to have meaning “it tacitly entails the commitment – which alone can give force to the others – that whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to by the entire body.  This means merely that he will be forced to be free.[22] This controversial statement implies an extreme notion of duty.  A person cannot truly be a member of the social order unless he is willing to do his duty for the fatherland.  In order to receive the benefits of the social compact one is required to submit fully to the general will.

Jefferson does not have quite as extreme a view, but he nonetheless preaches the importance of duty.  An effective republic requires active citizenship, thus “every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of society, and this all the laws should enforce on him.”[23] Jefferson, like Rousseau, indicates that society can compel individuals to perform their civic duties, for without an active and engaged citizenry the republic could collapse into tyranny.  The people are to be on guard in defense of their freedom by actively participating in the affairs of government.

That’s it for a look at their views on human nature and democracy.  The next time we’ll examine the concept of spontaneity and the “will of the moment.”

[1] Thomas Jefferson, “Response to the Citizens of Albemarle,” 12 February, 1790 in Jefferson Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc, 1984), 491.

[2] Jefferson, to William Green Munford, Monticello, 18 June, 1799, in Jefferson Writings, 1064.

[3] Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, Monticello, 24 April, 1816, in Jefferson Writings, 1387.

[4] Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, Monticello,  12 July, 1816, in Jefferson Writings, 1400.

[5] Jefferson to George Wythe, Paris, 13 August, 1786, in Jefferson Writings, 859.

[6] Jefferson  to James Madison, Paris, 20 December, 1787, in Jefferson Writings, 918.

[7] Charles Maurice Wiltse, The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), 67.

[8] Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris, 10 August, 1797, in Jefferson Writings, 904.

[9] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Social Contract,” in Basic Political Writings, ed. and trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 156.

[10] Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, Paris,  13 March, 1789, in Jefferson Writings,  904.  It is therefore ironic that Jefferson became the principle founder of the oldest political party in the world, and would become an intensely bitter partisan for most of the remainder of his political life.

[11] Claes Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life: A Philosophy of Politics and Community, Second Edition  (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 186.

[12] David Mayer, Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994), 323.

[13] Ibid., 324.

[14] Jefferson to Thomas Law, Monticello,  13 June, 1814, in Jefferson Writings, 1337.

[15] Rousseau, “Discourse on Inequality,” in Basic Political Writings, 53.

[16] Jefferson to P.S. Dupont de Nemours, Monticello, 24 April, 1816, in Jefferson Writings, 1387.

[17] Jefferson, John Taylor, Monticello, 28 May, 1816, in Jefferson Writings, 1392-3.

[18] Ibid., 1393.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, Monticello, 18 August, 1799, in Jefferson Writings, 1067.

[21] Rousseau, “Social Contract,” 148.

[22] Ibid., 150.

[23] Mayer, “Holy Cause of Freedom: The Libertarian Legacy of Thomas Jefferson,” in The Noblest Minds: Fame, Honor, and the American Founding, ed. Peter McNamara (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 100.

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 2:59 pm  Comments (7)  


  1. Absolutely fascinating Paul. I never had made a connection between Jefferson and Rousseau, a philosopher I have the utmost disdain for. ( A man who would turn over five of his newborn infants to foundling hospitals where they likely would die miserably isn’t worth the effort to spit on in my opinion.) Is there any evidence of contact between Jefferson and Rousseau’s devotees during Jefferson’s sojourn in France?

  2. Not that I am aware of, Don. The connection between Rousseau and Jefferson is not often made today, and was probably not a big one even then. Jefferson never specifically cited Rousseau in any of his writings, and in fact it’s possible he only barely read him. That’s what is so interesting about the two – they share similar viewpoints, but Jefferson was almost certainly consciously aping Rousseau in any way.

    The famous “meeting of the minds” was when Benjamin Franklin met Voltaire. The two supposedly embraced, and much was made of their connection.

  3. I think you need to read Rousseau’s Second Discourse again because I’m not quite sure where you are getting the idea from that he thought man was a social animal. I realize you attribute all the quotes about man as a social being to Jefferson, but from what I gather from your post you are trying to show how the two men were similar. For Rousseau, man is a solitary being and he thinks that “most of our ills are our own work, and that we would have avoided almost of them by preserving the simple, uniform, and solitary way of life prescribed by nature.” For Rousseau, society and private property are the source of all the evil and wickedness found in the world and in order for man to live in society he must be “denatured.”

    And Donald, I would recommend that you overlook your prejudice about Rousseau because all modern political philosophy is rooted in Rousseau’s objections to the Liberalism of Locke and Hobbes. I’m not trying to defend his personal life, but you cannot simply overlook his important insights just because he was a bad father.

  4. You are quite right that Rousseau and Jefferson were not in perfect accord on all matters, and I did not mean to imply that Rousseau believed that man was a social animal. In fact, at another point in my dissertation, obviously not quoted, I especially noted how Rousseau and Jefferson diverge on key concepts, including sociability. Rousseau was also much more anti-science than Jefferson, who based much of his philosophy on his belief in progress.

    But when you break down their respective philosophies to their essential core, both are in total agreement on the major issues, particularly the need to ignore tradition and build a democratic society based largely on the popular will.

    I’d have more to say about Rousseau’s views on society, but I need to quit for the day.

  5. All you just said is true, but that is a major point of contention and implies drastically differing conceptions of human nature and the means by which society is to be ordered.

    I happen to disagree with Rousseau and agree with Jefferson on this point that man is a social being, which would lead back to Aristotle’s assertion that by nature man is a “Political Animal.” And this disagreement is the reason that, in your words, “Jefferson does not have quite as extreme a view” about the means by which to compel men to participate in society and fulfill their civic duty.

    But if you look around today at the conspicuous lack of civic participation, you begin to wonder if maybe Rousseau was right and that extreme self-abnegation is required for society. Or perhaps, maybe the fact is, is that Locke and Hobbes were wrong and they are the ones who have “denatured” us and made us into the solitary beings and radical individualists that make up our society today.

    Good article though comparing the two men. I had just happened to be wondering about the amount of influence Rousseau had upon Jefferson (because of the immense similarities of their views) and randomly came across your blog.

  6. Thanks, and I appreciate the comments. It really helps me focus and ponder some of the difficulties with my thesis. As you pointed out, there are fundamental differences in their outlook, and yet I believe that ultimately they are of a similar bent.

    It is odd to think that two men could have such different approaches to society, with Jefferson being the more “sociable” (though he was kind of an introvert himself) in terms of his outlook. And yet despite those differences, in the end they came to share the same basic philosophy. What intrigues me about this connection is how did this come to be so? Jefferson was not directly influenced by Rousseau – indeed he didn’t even really read him. So what draws them together?

    I guess that in the end I share Irving Babbitt’s sentiment: “One may, therefore, without being fanciful, regard the battle that has been in progress in the field of political thought since the end of the eighteenth century as being in its most significant phase a battle between the sprit of Burke and that of Rousseau.” In putting Jefferson in the Rousseau camp I’m hoping to say a little bit more about our origins. That’s probably something I should have emphasized in my opening to this post (and series of posts).

  7. I have recently divided in my mind the world (or at least the US) into Lockeans (Conservatives) and Rousseauns (Liberals)– at least in regards to socio-economic theory and outlook–but you are right, there is definitely a strong element of Burke in there as well in the areas of religion, authority, and history. He’s not called the “Father of Modern Conservatism” for nothing. Of course, it’s really Marx and his followers, not Rousseau, but Rousseau is the one who laid the foundation for Marx, so I give credit where credit is due.

    Rousseau and Jefferson’s theories had a very short life here, though–especially since Jefferson was absent from the Constitutional Conventions. And, as you are well aware, the idea of the large commercial republic won out in the end and over came the simple agrarian, Jeffersonian Democracy.

    Tocqueville, channeling Rousseau in his praise for the New England township, obviously saw a glimmer of hope for his more direct form of democracy here, but now even the Left who supports Rousseau’s social theories are willing to live with the “Soft Despotism” and large, administrative state that has replaced real politics in this country because, as Tocqueville put it, “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: