Rousseau and Revolution
An analysis of Rousseau's ideological impact on French revolutionary pamphleteers

Denise Dawn Hubert

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According to this testimony, it would seem that Rousseau's influence extended through much of the popular and intellectual sphere. However, it also reached as high as the royal court. In a discourse before the Assemblée Nationale, Louis XVI goes as far as to attribute much of his difficulty in maintaining control of his empire to the wandering philosophe from Geneva:

Le bon ordre ne pourroit exister dans un vaste empire, tel que la France, si tous les habitans y devenoient soldats: cela ne peut être praticable qu'à Geneve, qui a vu naître l'agioteur, qui fait votre malheur & le mien. Cet homme faux a comparé mon empire à sa petite république; il a feint d'ignorer que si la France étoit gouvernée comme cette petite république ou comme les cantons suisses, que chaque jour verroit naître de nouveaux malheurs; alors les habitans de cette belle monarchie regréteroient ces tems sereins & calmes qui faisoient leurs délices & leur bonheur; mais il ne seroit plus tems, le mal auroit pris racine, & nous serions, nous & nos descendans, les plus malheureux de l'univers.(77)

Finally, it becomes clear that the use of Rousseau's thought in political pamphleteering may be at least partially the result of his own works. His powerful polemical style in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is coupled with his recognition of the power of critical writing in The Social Contract. Speaking of the four forces that regulate any state, Rousseau writes:

Along with these three kinds of law goes a fourth, most important of all, which is graven not on tablets of marble or brass, but on the hearts of the citizens. This forms the real constitution of the State, takes on every day new powers, when other laws decay or die out, restores them or takes their place, keeps a people in the ways in which it was meant to go, and insensibly replaces authority by the force of habit. I am speaking of morality, of custom, above all of public opinion; a power unknown to political thinkers, on which none the less success in everything else depends.(78)

How is it that this power, unknown to political thinkers, suddenly became standard fare for pamphleteers? By their very nature, their pamphlets served as appeals to public opinion. We must consider that it may have been the revolutionary study of Rousseau that brought the force of public opinion to their attention. While this is speculation, it could be said that their presentation, both of Rousseau's thought and adaptations of his thought, in political pamphlets, is a very deliberate and well-considered appeal to public opinion. The authors, then, must have been aware that some of the views they published on Rousseau's authority were not actually his views, but glossed, spin-doctored interpretations of his work. To understand why the pamphleteers felt they could adopt, adapt and re-publish in this fashion, and to analyze the impact of the pamphlets themselves in revolutionary France, we must look at the press culture of the era.

In her essay "Economic Upheavals in Publishing," Carla Hesse traces the economic impact of the freedom of the press in France, declared by the National Assembly in 1789. Hesse is a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and was curator of The New York Public Library's 1989 exhibition "Revolution in Print: France 1789." The declaration of press freedom, she says, sent a well-established, closely censored culture of book publishing into sudden and utter chaos for at least four years, as the market shifted drastically with the tides of revolution. Established book publishers and censors were unclear as to what the declaration meant for their rights and duties. They struggled to uphold the status quo until new laws were clarified, while new publishers with little expertise set up presses across France to challenge the old regime, taking the National Assembly at its word that all citizens can speak, write and print freely.(79) Therefore,

The freeing of the press was to entail the demise of the entire legal and institutional infrastructure of publishing under the Old Regime: the royal patronage of letters; the royal administration of the book trade and its army of censors and inspectors; the system of literary privileges that gave publishers and authors exclusive publication rights to texts; and, finally, the monopoly of the Book Guild over printing, importing, and selling printed matter in France. This ideological revolt was soon translated into legislative action.(80)

Hesse explains that printing privileges were abolished entirely -- no sooner than a work appeared in print, pirate copies became available. The notion that the public interest was more important than the economic interests of a handful of printers was prevalent, as was the attitude that works in the public domain quite literally belonged to the public. Of course, reinterpreting a work seen to belong to the public is much easier than engaging an author, who still holds legal rights to his published thoughts, in discussion. Thus, the view that Rousseau's works were fair game for republication contributed to the tendency of other writers to adapt his ideas to their own purposes. Indeed, Hesse addresses this issue, writing,

By legally consecrating and protecting the public domain, rather than the private authorial lineage, the French revolutionary laws on authorship shifted the legal basis of exclusive commercial claims on the majority of books from the manuscript to the edition, from the text to the paratext. As a result, the problem of determining the fate and meaning of a text shifted away from its source, the author, and toward its destination, its representation and reception by the editor and reader. [...] Not until the end of the nineteenth century would the legal recognition of the "moral rights" of authors put limits on how an author's works, once devolved into the public domain, could be edited or represented.(81)

To what use did the French put their press freedom? The abolishment of exclusive rights and the wave of new, unregulated printers made the market very competitive. Also, high illiteracy rates meant long texts limited readership within the book market. These two key factors led to the demise of book publishing (which years later required government intervention to revive), as a new market for short pamphlets and journals developed in tandem with the political events of the revolution. Hesse writes of Paris book publishers, "As incomplete and statistically small as these figures are, they nonetheless suggest that publishers declared nearly as many bankruptcies between 1789 and 1793 as there had been for the nineteen-year period from 1770 to 1789."(82) In sharp contrast, Hesse reports that while there were 47 printers and 179 booksellers/publishers active in Paris shortly before the revolution, by 1810, there were 157 printing shops and nearly 600 booksellers/publishers operating in Paris alone. An 1811 survey identifies 64 of the 80 richest printers by their specialization: 19 published journals and periodicals, 12 published administrative documents, 11 published literature and the remaining 22 were split between classics, theatre, religion, language, sciences, arts, almanacs, ephemera and law. Clearly, despite the bankruptcies of book publishers, the printing industry boomed as a result of the revolution, particularly its journals and pamphlets. Its long-term success was a result of an initial explosion of reading material. According to Hesse, four journals were in print in Paris in 1788. In 1790, 335 Parisian journals were in regular circulation.

This leads to the question of who was reading these publications. Jeremy D. Popkin is professor of history at the University of Kentucky and the author of several books about press culture in French history. In his essay, "Journals: The New Face of News," he explains,

The diverse and colorful array of newspapers created by revolutionary journalists and publishers never became a genuine mass medium. Social constraints like the literacy level and technological constraints like the continuing dependence on wooden handpresses made that impossible. Newspapers nevertheless became the main printed form in which the revolutionary struggle over political legitimacy was articulated.(83)

Other venues for discussion included the legislative assemblies and the political clubs. These clubs, which were driving forces behind revolutionary action, subscribed to many of the publications coming out of Paris on a daily and weekly basis, where they were often read aloud and discussed. Despite pockets of illiteracy throughout France, reading aloud also brought the revolutionary word to many average citizens. The format of many of the pamphlets, journals and newspapers contributed to this, especially in the first years of the revolution, when most of these publications used the same format, with a title and summary of contents of the first page, which could be cried aloud by street vendors. Meanwhile, "In the Feuille villageoise, a highly successful weekly aimed at a rural audience, the emphasis was on explaining the significance of the issues raised in the debates, rather than on transcribing them."(84) The Feuille villageoise had a circulation of approximately 15,000 in 1791.

Based on the obvious currency of Rousseau's thought in revolutionary France and on the press culture of the time, it is quite clear that Rousseau -- or rather representations of Rousseau -- held considerable ideological sway. Nevertheless, as we saw earlier, the ideological backbone he provides is but a popular propaganda tool to promote the drastic solutions of the revolutionaries for basic economic and administrative social problems.

Yet Rousseau was glorified nonetheless as a prophet, as the ideal man and as a grand ideological leader. Indeed, this is the image of him officially supported by the government. Joseph Lakanal was president of the Committee for Public Instruction in 1794, and presented a report to the National Convention recommending Rousseau's admission to the French Pantheon. The following is an excerpt from that report -- bear in mind that the National Convention endorsed the Committee's stance on Rousseau when it adopted the recommendations in the report. Quoting Rousseau, Lakanal writes,

Nous approchons de l'état de crise et du siécle des révolutions. Tout ce qu'ont fait les hommes, les hommes peuvent le détruire: il n'y a de caractères ineffaçables que ceux qu'imprime la nature; et la nature ne fait ni princes, ni riches, ni grands seigneurs.
Je tiens pour impossible, ajoutoit-il, (et déjà les triomphes de nos principes et de nos armes garantissent la vérité de cet oracle) je tiens pour impossible que les grandes monarchies de l'Europe aient encore long-temps à durer.(85)

Note that Lakanal editorialises in brackets, labelling Rousseau an oracle, and therefore implying that the Revolution is the product of destiny. Indeed, some passages from Rousseau, like when he describes his French contemporaries as "discontented with your present state, for reasons which threaten your unfortunate descendants with still greater discontent,"(86) allow us to speculate from the privileged position of hindsight upon his seemingly prophetic words. However, he is certainly selectively acclaimed, as the revolutionaries chose not to expound on more critical passages, such as:

We should see the magistrates fomenting everything that might weaken men united in society, by promoting dissension among them; everything that might sow in it the seeds of actual division, while it gave society the air of harmony; everything that might inspire the different ranks of people with mutual hatred and distrust, by setting the rights and interests of one against those of another, and so strengthen the power which comprehended them all.(87)

Certainly, they might prefer not to draw attention to passages like this, which might be used to describe their own role as instigators of a violent civil conflict. However, their praise for Rousseau as a prophet is mild by comparison with the impassioned acclamation that follows:

Hâtez-vous donc, citoyens, d'arracher ce grand homme à sa tombe solitaire, pour lui décerner les honneurs du Panthéon, et le couronner de l'immortalité. Honorez en lui le génie bienfaiteur de l'humanité; honorez l'ami, le défenseur, l'apôtre de la liberté et des moeurs: le promoteur des droits de l'homme, l'éloquent précurseur de cette révolution que vous êtes appelés à terminer pour le bonheur des peuples; honorez en lui les travaux et les arts utiles pour lesquels il brava le rire insultant de la frivolité; honorez l'homme solitaire et champêtre qui vécut loin de la corruption des villes, et loin du faux éclat du monde, pour mieux connoître, mieux sentir la nature, et y ramener plus puissamment ses semblables; honorez en lui le malheur....; car il est douloureux et peut-être inévitable que le génie et la vertu soient en batte à la calomnie, à la persécution des hommes, lors même qu'ils s'occupent des moyens de les rendre heureux; et Rousseau paya plus qu'un autre cette dette du génie et de la vertu..... Honorez-vous enfin vous-mêmes en honorant l'homme de génie qui fait le plus éloquent de vos instituteurs dans l'art sublime de policer les peuples, et justifiez cette autre prédiction de ce grand homme non moins infaillible que la première.(88)

Not only is Rousseau an infallible oracle, and an ideal man, but he is very nearly a god -- an immortal, who is identified as an apostle, and as one who is likely to suffer persecution -- in other words, he is portrayed as the Christ-figure of revolutionary France's newly declared Cult of the Supreme Being. Finally, Lakanal sets up the pretence that there may be some aspect of Rousseau's thought left open to criticism. He draws his concerned readers in, then proceeds to enthusiastically defend the genius of the philosopher, and attacks all those who might disagree:

Nous n'avons pas oublié, citoyens, que c'est un examen et non un panégyrique que vous nous avez chargés de de [sic] vous présenter; nous n'avons pas oublié que Rousseau a accusé les sciences d'une partie des maux qui ont affligé l'espèce humaine. Un écrivain, dira-t-on, qui appuie de semblables paradoxes a-t-il donc tant de droits à la reconnoissance des peuples libres? Ingrats! vous n'ignorez pas quelle en fut la cause! L'abus que vous en avez trop souvent fait, a été si funeste aux hommes, que, dans l'aliénation de sa douleur, il auroit voulu les replonger dans l'ignorance et dans l'état de sauvage; respectez cet heureux décline; il n'appartient qu'à l'ami de l'humanité d'en éprouver de semblable.(89)

Thankfully, 'criticism' of Rousseau hasn't remained quite so biased in the present day. Modern critics would agree with his revolutionary supporters that: "Il est vrai que dans ces immortels ouvrages, et sur-tout dans le premier, il développa les véritables principes de la théorie sociale."(90) His impact on modern notions of the government's duty to the people in democratic nations is also undeniable. However, Rousseau is now more aptly viewed as an important philosopher, whose thoughts, once released into the public domain, were appropriated by others and reconstituted to create a spectacular propaganda campaign, serving as ideological fuel in the fire of the French Revolution.

Rousseau is variously considered the father of revolution and of anarchy, as an innovator and charlatan, and not as a liberating force but a destroyer of individual freedom. He has been considered from various aspects, the most obvious being political and educational (for Emile). However, he is also considered an early psychologist concerned with the human drive toward society. William H. Blanchard, who has written several books on the nature of revolution, argues that Rousseau himself was:

Driven by impulses he did not recognize. In his favorite image of himself he was a rebel who despised all authoritarian personalities. He detested those who would force him to conform to social convention or place him under an obligation. He resisted all efforts on the part of his friends to influence his opinion or his actions, and he strongly believed in the right of the individual to this for himself. Yet there was another side to this independent personality, a side that loved not only to dominate others, but to submit to the commands of a great lady, to crawl before her power.(91)

Blanchard goes on to investigate Rousseau's own psychology as the source for his ideas. He determines that, "The myth of primitive innocence was based on a false image of primitive man, and the myth of the general will was based on a distorted memory of his [Rousseau's] own childhood. It was based on a morphological similarity rather than a direct structural analogy with the psychological facts of life."(92)

Approaching Rousseau's work from this perspective, viewing him through his own psychology and as a psychologist, Blanchard ultimately reached the same conclusions about Rousseau's impact on French Revolutionary thought as I have through my investigation of his relationship with the pamphleteers. Blanchard writes, "While the myth persists in many circles that Rousseau's ideas brought about the French Revolution, recent research has tended to discount this notion. His actual political proposals were quite conservative. Yet there is no question regarding his popularity among those who believed in violence, and in many respects his name is associated with the inspiration of revolutionary enthusiasm."(93) He explains that "Rousseau's capacity to reify such abstractions as the general will and clothe them in the form of myth accounts for the hold his doctrines have had on many generations of followers."(94) This ability for myth-making, according to Blanchard, is what allows Rousseau to become separate from his ideas, lending malleability to both. Blanchard turns to another scholar, Joan McDonald, to support his argument. McDonald concludes her book, Rousseau and the French Revolution 1762-1791, noting that "the actual contents of the Social Contract were for a very large number of people immaterial; the Social Contract itself was part of the myth, and it was the myth of Rousseau rather than his political theory which was important in the mind of the revolutionary generation."(95)

However, I believe I have illustrated that Rousseau's function as a myth-maker, and as a creature of myth, must be considered only part of the reason the revolutionaries were so quick to adopt, and more importantly, adapt, his ideas to provide an ideological foundation for a course of action that suited their own objectives. There is an undeniable link between Rousseau's ideals, as presented in The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract, and revolutionary representations of them in the pamphlets. While the revolutionaries were aware that Rousseau might have encouraged the French Revolution in principle, as the Sovereign power removing a poor government, they also certainly recognized that in practice, the bloody course of the Revolution would have been unacceptable to his mind and senses. They appeal to him nonetheless as an authority on matters of principle. As I noted, their actual concerns were with practical issues like effective administration, providing food for the population and improving the economy. It is clear that not only is Rousseau's image as a man of myth responsible for the tendency to appropriate his texts and reinterpret them, but also that the print culture in revolutionary France and the practices of publishing themselves encouraged this practice.

The evidence permeates Rousseau's world. Whether we analyze his influence on revolutionary thought through political pamphlets, or we consider his psychological profile and his efforts as a psychologist, we come to the same conclusions. Rousseau wrote in the right place at the right time for the revolutionaries. His thought fell in line with their cause, and had all the characteristics that would make it a readily available tool in their propaganda campaign. Perhaps ironically, as a tool to power, Rousseau's political thought fell prey to the political corruption he argued against.

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#77. Louis XVI, "Discours du Roi," 15 -- #78. Rousseau, "The Social Contract," 228 -- #79. From the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen -- #80. Hesse, "Economic Upheavals in Printing," 70 -- #81. Hesse, Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1810, 123 -- #82. Hesse, "Economic Upheavals in Printing," 84 -- #83. Popkin, "Journals: The New Face of News," 141 -- #84. Popkin, "Journals: The New Face of News," 158 -- #85. Lakanal, "Rapport sur J.J. Rousseau," 8 -- #86. Rousseau, "A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality," 51 -- #87. Rousseau, "A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality," 113 -- #88. Lakanal, "Rapport sur J.J. Rousseau," 9 -- #89. Lakanal, "Rapport sur J.J. Rousseau," 10 -- #90. Lakanal, "Rapport sur J.J. Rousseau," 5 -- #91. Blanchard, Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt, 133 -- #92. Blanchard, Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt, 139 -- #93. Blanchard, Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt, 144 -- #94. Blanchard, Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt, 142, 143 -- #95. McDonald, Rousseau and the French Revolution, 173

Works Cited:

  1. "Adresse de plusieurs citoyens françois au peuple françois," 15 pages. Londres. 22 Novembre 1792.
  2. "Avis aux bons patriotes, par un ami de la constitution; au sujet des injustices que commettaient les Aristocrates envers le Peuple," 16 pages. Marseille: l'Imprimerie de Jean Mossy, Père & Fils.
  3. Blanchard, William H. Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt: A Psychological Study, pages 126-146. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 1967.
  4. François de Neufchatel, Nicolas Louis, comte. "Dix épis de bled au lieu d'un, ou, la pierre philosophale de la République française," 16 pages. Paris: l'Imprimerie de Crapelet. 1794.
  5. Hesse, Carla. "Economic Upheavals in Publishing," pages 69-97, from Revolution in Print, The Press in France 1775-1800. Darnton, Robert; Roche, Daniel, editors. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 1989.
  6. Hesse, Carla. Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1810. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press. 1991.
  7. Hindie Lemay, Edna. "«Inégalité» et vote par tête au printemps 1789," pages 195-205, from Studies on Rousseau's Discourses, Proceedings of the Ottawa Symposium (15-17 May 1985). Terasse, Jean, editor. Ottawa: North American Association for the Study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1988.
  8. Kelly, Christopher; Masters, Roger D. "The Coherence of his System: Rousseau's Replies to the Critics of the Second Discourse," pages 21-31, from Rousseau and Criticism. Clark, Lorraine; Lafrance, Guy, editors. Ottawa: North American Association for the Study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1995.
  9. Lakanal, Joseph. "Rapport sur J.J. Rousseau, fait au nom du Comité d'instruction Publique, par Lakanal, dans la séance du 29 fructidor," 14 pages. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale. 1794.
  10. Louis XVI, King of France. "Discours du Roi, prononcé aux États-Généraux," 16 pages. 1790.
  11. Masters, Roger D. "Rousseau and the Attacks on the First and Second Discourses," pages 163-177, from Studies on Rousseau's Discourses, Proceedings of the Ottawa Symposium (15-17 May 1985). Terasse, Jean, editor. Ottawa: North American Association for the Study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1988.
  12. McDonald, Joan. Rousseau and the French Revolution 1762-1791. London, Beccles: The Athalone Press, University of London. 1965.
  13. Mercier, Louis-Sébastien. De J.J. Rousseau, considéré comme l'un des premier auteurs se la révolution, 2 volumes in 1; Vol 1, 259 pages; Vol 2, 343 pages. Paris: Buisson, Imprimeur-Libraire. Juin 1791.
  14. Popkin, Jeremy D. "Journals: The New Face of News," pages 141-164, from Revolution in Print, The Press in France 1775-1800. Darnton, Robert; Roche, Daniel, editors. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 1989.
  15. Robespierre, Maximilien. "Discours de Maximilien Robespierre, prononcé dans la séance du septidi 7 prairial, an deuxième de la République une & indivisible," 8 pages. France: l'Imprimerie Nationale. 1794.
  16. Roosevelt, Grace G. "Self-Love and Self-Defense: Amour de soi, Amour-propre, and Rousseau's Responses to Criticism," pages 109-123, from Rousseau and Criticism. Clark, Lorraine; Lafrance, Guy, editors. Ottawa: North American Association for the Study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1995.
  17. Rosenberg, Aubrey. "The Discourse on Inequality: A Primer for Anarchists?" pages 141-151, from Studies on Rousseau's Discourses, Proceedings of the Ottawa Symposium (15-17 May 1985). Terasse, Jean, editor. Ottawa: North American Association for the Study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1988.
  18. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality," pages 31-126, from The Social Contract and Discourses. Cole, G.D.H, translator. Brumfitt, J.H.; Hall, John C.; Jimack, P.D., editors. Vermont, London: Everyman. 1993.
  19. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "The Social Contract," pages 179-309, from The Social Contract and Discourses. Cole, G.D.H, translator. Brumfitt, J.H.; Hall, John C.; Jimack, P.D., editors. Vermont, London: Everyman. 1993.
  20. Servan, Joseph Michel Antoine. Réflexions sur les Confessions de J.J. Rousseau; sur le caractère & le génie de cet écrivain, sur les causes & l'étendue de son influence sur l'opinion publique; enfin sur quelques principes de ses ouvrages, insérées dans le Journal encyclopedique de l'année 1783, 110 pages. Paris: chez les Libraries qui vendent les Nouveautés. 1783.
  21. Thibeaudeau, Antoine Claire, comte, et membre de la Convention Nationale. "De la division du territoire," 14 pages. Paris: l'Imprimerie Nationale. 1792?
  22. Un ami de l'homme et de la vraie liberté. "Examen de la déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen, ou, Observations sommaires sur la déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen; suivies de quelques réflexions relatives au même sujet," 64 pages. Paris: l'Imprimerie d'un royaliste. 1789.


  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau Association
  • Philosophy Pages: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • The French Revolution: The Moderate Stage 1789-1792
  • French Revolution

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