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The Republican Theories of Rousseau and the
CHARLES U. ZUG*
Leadership Studies and Political Science, Williams College, USA
For almost four decades preceding the 1787-88 ratiﬁcation debates —during which American
Federalists drew severe criticism from the Anti-Federalists —Enlightenment politics in Europe
had been undergoing equally severe criticism from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though largely
unaware of each other, both of these critics advanced distinctive republican theories based on
civic virtue and individual liberty. Rousseau argued for a republic which would require the
near-total alienation of retained natural rights, abstention from bourgeois commerce, and
complete conformity to the general will. The Anti-Federalists, by contrast, envisioned a
republic based on retained natural rights, one that would reconcile the communitarian spirit of
antiquity with the commercial values and individual rights of modernity. By comparing and
contrasting the most salient features of these contending visions, whose theoretical trajectories
are —I argue —crucially opposed, we can glimpse the inherent conﬂicting requisites of
republican government and therewith some of the enduring dilemmas of republican theory.
Contending Visions of Modern Republicanism
When Rousseau attacked the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century as corrosive to
morals, subversive of patriotism, and inhospitable to freedom; when the American
Anti-Federalists attacked the 1787 United States Constitution in the name of civic
virtue and education —these critics were contributing to what would become a lasting
debate over the scope and meaning of republicanism for liberal modernity.
best realized by an effective administration, or by a virtuous civil society of local
communities? Against the founders of the modern commercial republic who advanced
the former view, Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists defended their respective visions of
the latter. In so doing, they invoked a venerable stock of republican language dating
back to antiquity. Nevertheless, appropriation of language can be rhetorical; the same
words can connote radically different concepts. As Richard McKeon once cautioned,
“the discovery that philosophers have used the same words, the same phrases, the same
expressions of ideals as are found in a political document is not a sound basis for the
argument, even when an inﬂuence is probable, that the meanings are the same.”
Accordingly, the shared classical-republican vocabulary of Rousseau and the Anti-
Federalists presents a puzzle. Given their shared language, did the authors originally
The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback, as well
as Editor Matt McDonald. The author would also like to thank Jeffrey K. Tulis.
See, e.g., Jeffrey K. Tulis and Nicole Mellow, Legacies of Losing in American Politics (Chicago,
2018), esp. pp.29-67; Herbert Storing, “The Problem of Big Government”, in Joseph M. Bessette, ed.,
Toward a More Perfect Union (Washington DC, 1995), pp.287-306.
Richard McKeon, “The Development of the Concept of Property in Political Philosophy: A Study
of the Background of the Constitution”,Ethics, Vol. 48 (1938), p.298.
© 2020 The University of Queensland and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Australian Journal of Politics and History: Volume 66, Number 2, 2020, pp.181–199.
intend to address the same basic republican questions —What are the essential
demands of republican freedom understood as non-domination? Which political
institutions, and what relation between the state and civil society, are most likely to
realize freedom so understood?
Historians of political thought have followed different paths in resolving this puzzle,
though none have addressed it head-on and none have rigorously compared Rousseau
and the Anti-Federalists. Indeed, in the history of political thought literature, I am
aware of no Rousseau study which also discusses the Anti-Federalists; nor am I aware
of an Anti-Federalist study treating Rousseau. Cambridge historians Robert Shalhope,
J.G.A. Pocock, Philip Pettit, and Quentin Skinner have persuasively argued that
Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists should both (separately) be understood as
participants in the tradition of classical republicanism harkening back to Machiavelli,
Savonarola, and Aristotle.
Similarly, James T. Kloppenberg contends there was a
consensus among the American founders on both sides of the ratiﬁcation debate
regarding the importance of civic virtue, a classical-republican concept.
While it is
impossible to deny that Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists admired certain aspects of
the classical republic,
they also argued on the basis of the state of nature, the social
contract, and individual liberty —none of which the classical republicans (explicitly)
based their doctrines on.
How much theoretical ground Rousseau and the Anti-
Federalists shared with the classical republicans —and with each other —thus
To this end, Leo Strauss and scholars associated with his school have argued that
Rousseau rebelled from the early-modern philosophy informing the American
Founding, thereby initiating the “ﬁrst crisis of modernity”.
According to this narrative,
E.g., Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford and New York,
1997). Along these lines, Viroli offers a deﬁnition of republicanism capacious enough to encompass
what I will call republicanism’s basic concepts: Republicanism is “a theory of political liberty that
considers citizens’participation in sovereign deliberation necessary to the defense of liberty”.
Republicanism, Antony Shugaar, trans. (New York, 2002), p.4.
See, e.g., Philip Pettit, “Two Republican Traditions”, in Andreas Niederberger and Philipp Schink,
eds, Republican Democracy: Liberty, Law and Politics (Edinburgh, 2013), pp.171-173; Robert
E. Shalhope, “Republicanism and Early American Historiography”,William and Mary Quarterly
39, Vol. 3 (1982), pp.335-356; J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975), pp.xxiv,
186, 218, 369, 533; Quentin Skinner, “The Idea of Negative Liberty: Philosophical and Historical
Perspectives”, in Richard Rorty, J.B. Schneewind, Quentin Skinner, eds, Philosophy in History:
Essays on the Historiography of Philosophy (Cambridge, 1984), pp.193-221; Gordon Wood, The
Creation of the American Republic (New York and London, 1969), pp.11-28, 49-70, 114-124,
416-429; Johnson Kent Wright, A Classical Republican in Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford,
1997), pp.203-204; and Christopher R. Duncan, The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political
Thought (DeKalb, IL, 1995), pp.xxiv and 36-61.
James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American
Thought (New York, ), p.432. The Federalists by no means eschewed discussions of the need
for virtue in the Federalist system: see, e.g., Andrew S. Trees, The Founding Fathers and the Politics
of Character (Princeton, 2004), pp.75-106; Storing, Anti-Federalists, pp.72-73. What they changed
was the place of virtue in the hierarchy of republican concerns.
J. S. Maloy, “The Very Order of Things: Rousseau’s Tutorial Republicanism”,Polity, Vol.
37, 2 (2005), pp.235-261.
As Viroli observes, “[t]hough there have been republican political theorists of the social contract
(Rousseau, to name one), the doctrine is ill suited […] to republicanism”,Republicanism, p.60.
Leo Strauss, “Three Waves of Modernity”, in Hillel Gildin, ed., Introduction to Political Philosophy
(Detroit, 1989), pp.81-98.
182 Charles U. Zug
the early-moderns had themselves broken from the classical republicanism of Plato,
Aristotle, and Cicero.
Rousseau, in initiating the “second wave”of modernity, forged a
new vision of republicanism by re-founding participatory “classical”republicanism on
the distinctively modern basis of individual liberty.
Accordingly, within the
Straussian framework, the Anti-Federalist critique of modern commercial
republicanism appears unoriginal or “half-hearted”,
since unlike Rousseau, the Anti-
Federalists brought nothing philosophically new to the table in their critique of the
Federalists and the modern liberal philosophy informing them. By the same token, like
the Federalists and unlike Rousseau, the Anti-Federalists remained committed disciples
of the early-modern philosophers. Thus, the “classical republicanism”thesis tends to
emphasize the cohesion within —and consequently, to blur the lines between —the
republican schemes of the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists, Rousseau, and their
republican predecessors, such as Sidney and Harrington. The Straussian approach, by
contrast, views Rousseau as the ﬁrst meaningful critique of modernity, thereby
collapsing both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists into the “ﬁrst wave”that
Rousseau emphatically rejected. As a consequence, neither interpretation compares
Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists as advancing serious alternative theses that can
potentially inform contemporary debate over republican theory.
Perhaps there are good reasons for this, however. For one, the view that Rousseau
and the Anti-Federalists should be understood as republican theorists is not obviously
true. As Annelien de Dijn has observed, “contemporary republican theorists, most
notably Philip Pettit, have written [Rousseau] out of the republican canon”, insisting
that he was a “populist”rather than a “republican”.
Similarly, apart from the scholars
of classical republicanism discussed above, the Anti-Federalists are not reliably
included in the canon of republican theory; some scholars have suggested that they are
better understood as crypto-liberals than as republicans.
Accordingly, if the two
happened to differ on important questions of political theory, it might be due to their
having advanced different concepts altogether, and not —as I am suggesting here —to
their having advanced different interpretations of the same concepts. That is, rather
than differing over the meaning of republicanism, they might be better understood as
advancing distinct political doctrines which were themselves based on different
premises —say, a doctrine of populism in the case of Rousseau, and a doctrine of
confederation in the case of the Anti-Federalists.
Secondly, given their different socio-political contexts as well as their respective
positions within the history of ideas, Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists were clearly
motivated by different concerns and intentions. Is a comparison of their theoretical
positions even possible, then —let alone mutually illuminating? Rousseau qua
philosopher announced his point of departure at the beginning of the Second
and insisted that he was subjecting all “governments”to a “most
Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago, ), pp.120-164.
Herbert J. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists were For (Chicago and London, 1981), pp.46-47,
71-73, 83 n.7.
Annelien de Dijn, “Rousseau and Republicanism”,Political Theory, Vol. 46, 1 (2018), p.59; see
also pp.74-75 n1. Cf. Philip Pettit, On the People’s Terms (Cambridge, 2012).
Consider Storing, Anti-Federalists, pp.46-47.
In the notes to this essay, the following abbreviated forms of Rousseau’s titles are used:
“ID”=First Discourse, translated by Roger and Judith Masters, edited by Roger Masters (New York,
1964); “2D”=Second Discourse, translated by Masters; “LG”=“Letter to the Citizens of Geneva”,
183Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
wherein he proposed the constitution of the small republic of
Geneva “as an example to Europe”.
By contrast, and as historians of the founding era
have persuasively argued,
the American Anti-Federalists responded to a political
event not timeless and universal but immediate and particular, one that threatened the
political order under which they themselves lived, or which they sought to realize, or in
some cases, both.
Though it is certainly contestable whether Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists are
properly understood as republican theorists, there is a strong case to be made that their
writings are relevant to republican theory, irrespective of how exactly they understood
their own political doctrines —a case that has already begun to emerge in the scholarly
literature but has yet to be fully developed. De Dijn, for instance, maintains in the
that Rousseau understood himself and was long understood
by others to be a republican theorist; there is, therefore, “no good reason to exclude
Rousseau from the republican canon”on purely historical grounds.
for our present purposes, Rousseau’s theoretical insights stand up well against even
those of contemporary republican theory, since his doctrine of the general will
illustrates with remarkable clarity the tension between republicanism understood as
individual autonomy, on the one hand, and as collective responsibility, on the other.
Rousseau’s thought, concludes de Dijn, therefore deserves to be re-included in and to
be contrasted with others who occupy the republican fold.
Much the same can be said of the Anti-Federalists. Historian and political theorist
Rogers M. Smith, for example, in his path-breaking account of the “multiple traditions”
of American politics, includes the Anti-Federalists in the republican, as opposed to the
liberal, tradition of American political development. Summarizing the ratiﬁcation
debates between the defenders and critics of the 1787 constitution, Smith explains that,
“from the standpoint of the republican notions of small size and democratic governance
enshrined in the Confederation and repeatedly invoked by the Anti-Federalists [...] the
 Constitution was not genuinely republican”. Speciﬁcally, “Anti-Federalists saw
all the evils and corruptions to which governments were prone as more likely to occur
if republican state citizenship gave way to a less engaged membership in a vast national
polity ruled, inevitably, by a distant few”.
For the Anti-Federalists, as I elaborate
below, republicanism meant liberty for the individual; and the only reliable and
legitimate way to protect individual liberty was to keep the reins of government ﬁrmly
translated by Masters; “LWM”=“Letters Written from the Mountain”, Christopher Kelly and Judith
R. Bush, trans., in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, Volume 9 (Hanover and London, 2001);
“SC”=On the Social Contract, Judith R. Masters, trans., Roger D. Masters, ed. (New York, 1978);
“GP”=The Government of Poland, Willmoore Kendall, trans. (Indianapolis and New York, 1972).
References to individual Anti-Federalist authors are from Herbert J. Storing and Murray Dry, eds, The
Complete Anti-Federalist (Chicago, 1981). 2D 103.
Jackson Turner Main, The Anti-Federalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788 (Chapel Hill,
Not all of the Anti-Federalists, of course, were defenders of the Articles of Confederation. Brutus,
Centinal, and Federal Farmer, who were among the most intelligent critics of the 1787 constitution,
each called for reforms to the Articles.
See n12 above.
de Dijn, “Rousseau”, p.64. For the full argument, see pp.60-64.
Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conﬂicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven and
London, 1997), p.118. See also Storing, Anti-Federalists, pp.15-23.
184 Charles U. Zug
in the hands of a small, vigilant, civically-educated community, from whose control the
forces of government would be less likely to be wrested. To this end, Smith continues,
though “[t]he Federalist Papers makes a strong case for the Constitution’s republican
character”, it succeeds in doing so “only by proposing a different conception of
republicanism than the more traditional ones espoused by its critics”, the Anti-
Key here is to see that both sides of the ratiﬁcation debates of 1787-89
felt compelled to claim their conception of political order as genuinely republican.
While it is certainly a question how adequate the Anti-Federalists’defence is in light of
contemporary criteria of republicanism, the question is at least worth investigating
given that the claim of republicanism was made at all.
As to the objection that historical context precludes intelligible comparison along
republican lines, there exists already an extensive scholarly debate over the viability of
cross-historical comparisons of ideas —a debate to which this article is a contribution.
Following theorists such as de Dijn, Storing, and Tulis, I contend that historical-
contextual differences alone do not necessarily preclude fruitful comparison of
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, theoretically speaking, the writings of
past authors whose particular intentions and commitments may have differed
considerably can still be read in ways that make mutual comparison vis-à-vis enduring
questions illuminating. Not speciﬁc authorial intentions, but rather the plausibility and
potential coherence of what is written, is therefore fundamental in my analysis of these
historical texts. As Ronald Dworkin once explained, a past author’s commitment to a
particular objectionable conception —e.g., the view that popular sovereignty is
valuable primarily as a defence of slavery —does not itself preclude that the author’s
argument for that conception will be relevant to someone endeavoring to understand
and defend the general concept —e.g., the best theoretical argument for popular
sovereignty, irrespective of the fact that popular sovereignty has been invoked to bolster
Secondly, in regards to the speciﬁcally historical question, strong political
commitments do not necessarily prevent thoughtful political actors from recognizing
the theoretical or non-particular implications of their seemingly horizon-bound political
arguments. And even if they do, a strong argument for a particular political cause can
nonetheless be generalized in such a way as to be theoretically relevant. The Anti-
Federalist critique of the 1787 U.S. Constitution, for example, is also interesting as a
critique of large, centralized polities as such —as I will argue here.
Let me be clear, then, about what this article is not. By no means is it an attempt to
canvass the entire Anti-Federalist oeuvre so as to articulate their consensus views. Nor
is it a comprehensive statement about Rousseau’s political theory, of which there
remain too many loose ends to account for in a single article.
Nor yet is it a
Smith, Civic Ideals, p.121.
This is by no means to deny that awareness of and attention to such differences will further enrich
Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire (Cambridge, MA, 1988), Chapter 2.
Storing, Anti-Federalists, esp. p.6. Intelligent Anti-Federalists as well as the authors of The
Federalist occasionally state explicitly that they intend their arguments to have theoretical, non-
particular implications. See, e.g., Federalist No. 37 (James Madison) and Brutus 2.9.24.
Consider, e.g., Joshua Cohen’sRousseau: A Free Community of Equals (New York, 2010), p.12,
placing greater emphasis than others have done on Rousseau’s commitment to individual freedom:
“Rousseau aims […] to describe a form of social association that provides security without
demanding an alienation of our freedom”. Similarly, Ian Hampsher-Monk (“Rousseau and
totalitarianism —with hindsight?”in Robert Wokler, ed., Rousseau and Liberty (Manchester, 1995),
p.268) critiques those who categorize Rousseau as a state collectivist rather than as a liberal
185Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
normative evaluation of the two sets of writings; I am making no claim as to which I
prefer or which I think others should prefer. Rather, my aim is to give the most
intelligent possible construal of those ideas and arguments in each corpus which bear
on the basic concepts of republicanism, so as to show the enduring relevance of these
historical thinkers to contemporary political questions. As Herbert Storing put it, “we
are not tabulating the frequency of different arguments. We are looking not for what is
common so much as for what is fundamental.”
This is to say, rather than
comprehensively describing the many and complex iterations of their republican ideas,
I propose to “get inside”the ideas of Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists bearing on
republican questions, so as to understand whether those ideas are still tenable and why
someone conceiving of politics through the framework of such ideas would be
persuaded that doing so is plausible and persuasive. In this regard, I follow the
methodology of Storing, Tulis, and Mellow, which is neither to discover consensus
views (i.e., positions shared by all the Anti-Federalists), nor to give a comprehensive
survey of the range of their views, but rather to articulate the most intelligent version of
different arguments made. This necessarily entails abstracting from arguments which
diminish or undercut a more intelligent construal of their writings taken as a whole
(e.g., those Anti-Federalists who supported slavery). There is a better case to be made
for the Anti-Federalists as a group and for Rousseau as a single author, I believe, if we
abstract from weaker arguments and focus on developing stronger ones, than there is if
we insist on reconciling all of the former with the latter. To this end, I have endeavored
to trace only those strands of thought in each oeuvre which, in the aggregate, bear
directly on the core questions of republican theory as those questions have been
developed by scholars like Pettit and Skinner: What are the individual’s rights based on,
how do they relate to those of the collective, and what civic attitudes and dispositions
best sustain freedom as non-domination and non-coercion in practice? Further, and
more broadly, I have attempted to induce a fructifying dialogue between de Dijn, Pettit,
Storing, Smith, and others who have helped articulate the differing conceptions of
republicanism advanced by Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists.
Accordingly, this article maintains that the republican arguments Rousseau and the
Anti-Federalists used to critique aspects of the then emerging liberal modernity reveal
important tensions within republicanism itself. While Rousseau and the Anti-
Federalists overlapped in preferring the small republic to its large commercial
alternative, they differed respecting most of its essential features. Rousseau radicalized
the modern conception of individual liberty, paradoxically defending a theoretically
liberal and practically classical republic. Of course, to argue as I will that Rousseau
“radicalized”individual liberty might seem wrong prima facie. Given that Rousseau
was troubled by the excesses of commercial society, one might reasonably object, is it
not fair to conclude that he hoped to reconcile the solidarity characteristic of ancient
individualist. The point these scholars persuasively advance is that Rousseau was less committed to
the authority of the collective over the individual than other scholars have stressed. My thesis in no
way denies this point; it only differs in insisting, as Strauss does in Natural Right and History, that for
Rousseau, the attainment of true individual liberty in civil society paradoxically required a more
complete alienation of reserved or natural right to the collective than it did for any of Rousseau’s
predecessors in the social contract tradition, e.g., the Anti-Federalists. Individual liberty for Rousseau
was not protected by being withheld from state control, but rather, was realized through collective
Storing, Anti-Federalists, p.6. For a fuller articulation of this methodology, see Tulis and Mellow,
Legacies, pp.41-42; Charles U. Zug, “Toward a More Perfect Originalism: A Reply to Carson
Holloway”,Law and Liberty, 30 August 2018.
186 Charles U. Zug
republics with the personal liberty required of modern society —thereby achieving a
moderated synthesis of the two extremes? While it might appear that Rousseau’s goal
was limited to moderating individual liberty so that it could be reconciled with classical
republican virtue and civic solidarity, I argue that the opposite was in fact the case.
Rousseau is most coherently read as having radicalized liberty, by thinking through its
normative implications and demands more rigorously than other modern thinkers,
including the Anti-Federalists, had done. In my reading, Rousseau held that the
attainment of unalloyed individual freedom requires near-total alienation of natural
freedom by the individual to the sovereign people. This is in order that the state not
become an instrument of an individual’s or a faction’s will, thereby realizing true
freedom as non-domination for the individual in society.
Paradoxically, then, unalloyed political freedom in Rousseau’s framework required
near-total alienation of natural freedom —a radical theoretical step which the Anti-
Federalists did not take. Indeed, as I argue, such alienation by the individual would
have looked like auto-enslavement from Anti-Federalist perspective. In contrast with
Rousseau, the Anti-Federalists held the goal of a free republic to be that every
individual citizen must retain as much natural freedom as security and property permit.
It is therefore the Anti-Federalists who are best construed as the moderators of
individual liberty and republicanism; they aimed for a scheme of governance that
would synthesize the communitarian and participatory spirit of the classical republic
with the commercial spirit and “reserved”individual liberties of the modern state.
Attending to the Anti-Federalists’insistence on retained liberty and to Rousseau’s
radicalization of individual liberty thus exposes the most interesting and enduringly
relevant differences between the two with respect to republican theory.
My chief contention is that if we think of republican theory as consisting in tentative
answers to a series of core questions concerning freedom as non-domination, and how
to realize such freedom in a political collective, then we can think of Rousseau and the
Anti-Federalists as having much to teach us about republican theory, even if the authors
did not consider themselves primarily republican theorists and they have not been so
considered by the republican theory canon. Accordingly, the main thrust of my article
is that while Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists shared commitments to many of the
basic tenets of republicanism, they ended up going in radically different directions in
their interpretations of what those tenets demand. This observation is historically
interesting; as I have discussed, Straussians as well as Cambridge scholars have
generally obscured this point or missed it altogether. But it also suggests an inherent
tension within republicanism itself that is of theoretical interest, a tension illustrated by
the fact that republican thinkers like Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists can agree,
e.g., on the legitimacy of the concept of the social contract, while disagreeing
decisively on which conception of the social contract shows it in the best republican
light. Thus, by comparing and contrasting the most salient features of these contending
visions with their opposing theoretical trajectories, we can glimpse the inherent
conﬂicting requisites of republican government and therewith some of the enduring
dilemmas of republican theory itself.
The Meaning of Liberty
Central to Anti-Federalist thought is the concept of retained or “reserved”individual
natural right, which borrows from the doctrines of Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu.
See, e.g., Brutus II 2.9.24.
187Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
As humankind’s natural condition is one of danger and scarcity, governments should be
understood as instruments for securing pre-political rights. Human beings so
understood allow themselves to be governed by others, not as subjects submitting to
naturally or religiously-authorized rulers, but as free and equal individuals voluntarily
subjecting themselves to government for the sake of their own interests. Accordingly,
the Anti-Federalists put greater emphasis than did Locke and Montesquieu —much
greater emphasis than did Hobbes and Spinoza
—on the individual’s retention of
natural freedom after the formation of society: “The foundations of government should
be laid [...] by expressly reserving to the people such of their essential natural rights, as
are not necessary to be parted with”.
By implication, even life in society is not worth
living without an adequate retention of original liberty —which implies that a return to
the state of nature would be preferable to life in society without adequate liberty. The
Anti-Federalists thus maintained an essentially instrumental view of the social contract:
“The constitution, or whole social compact, is but one instrument, no more or less […]
[t]he supreme power is undoubtedly in the people, and it is a principle well established
in my mind, that they reserve all powers not expressly delegated by them to those who
The Anti-Federalists emphasized this understanding of right because they
viewed the social-contract bargain from the perspective of individual freedom rather
than of security: “A people, entering into society, surrender such a part of their natural
rights, as shall be necessary for the existence of that society. [These rights]are so
precious in themselves, that they would never be parted with, did not the preservation
of the remainder require it.”
As Hampsher-Monk and Joshua Cohen have stressed,
Rousseau in a narrow sense
shared this position with the Anti-Federalists, and took their theoretical argument even
further than they had done, with the ironic result that his practical republicanism
differed considerably from theirs. Rousseau cut the Gordian knot of social contract
theory, so to speak, arguing that because civil society is in many respects actually
worse for man than nature is, this principle —rather than that of “reserved”right —
must become the standard for judging republican government.
Rousseau’s view thus
implies an alternative justiﬁcation for society. Since society is not obviously preferable
for human beings in the state of nature, human beings must have passed from nature to
society not voluntarily and deliberately but rather through historical circumstances
beyond their control.
For Rousseau, man in nature was basically self-sufﬁcient;
nature had provided him with adequate means to satisfy his natural desires.
same token, the natural needs and threats which the Anti-Federalists claimed compelled
man to ﬂee nature for society are, in Rousseau’s interpretation, the unnatural by-
products of life within civil society. Naturally solitary, free human beings develop
amour-propre through life spent with and dependent on other human beings. Amour-
propre induces humans —who, if left in nature, would be concerned only with
See, e.g., Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, Martin Yaffe, ed. (Newburyport, MA, 2004),
chapter 16; Hobbes, Leviathan, Edwin Curley, ed. (Indianapolis, 1994), pp.17 and 18, 21.
Brutus II 2.9.24 [my italics].
Federal Farmer 2.8.196.
John DeWitt 4.3.7; cf. Impartial Examiner 5.14.2.
Hampsher-Monk, “Rousseau and Totalitarianism”; Cohen, Free Community.
Bloom, “Rousseau”, in Allan Bloom, ed., Confronting the Constitution (Washington DC, 1990),
188 Charles U. Zug
themselves —to compare themselves and their own achievements with those of
Rousseau’s state of nature doctrine shaped his republicanism accordingly: “Man is
born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.
Whereas the Anti-Federalists regarded the
“chains”of law and custom as self-imposed restraints, Rousseau characterized them as
artiﬁcial, involuntary encumbrances which make humans miserable; their existence
therefore requires an entirely new theoretical justiﬁcation.
According to Rousseau’s
republicanism, human beings should not legitimize a polity which they regard as an
instrument; for in such a polity, individuals will wish to obey law when it is
advantageous, and to disobey them when advantageous —they will use law as a means
for private gain. This instrumental view of the polity stems, however, from precisely the
political theory that the Anti-Federalists emphatically endorsed: Human beings join the
republic for their own convenience, and once it inconveniences them, the rational
choice is to look elsewhere. The Anti-Federalist premise thus leads to the conclusion
that all citizens are contractors who reserve the right to exit the contract whenever it
exercises what they in their individual capacities regard as tyrannical authority.
Rousseau, in contrast, denied that individuals reserve their right to void the social
contract when it ceases to beneﬁt them: “[A]ll of these clauses [of the social contract]
come down to a single one, namely the total alienation of each associate, with all his
rights, to the whole community”.
With regard to Rousseau’s insistence on the
complete alienation of liberty, however, it is important to note that Rousseau qualiﬁed
his key statement by also insisting that citizens, in alienating their rights, put aside all
those things not essential to the social contract. Of course, this qualiﬁcation gains or
loses salience according to precisely which rights we think are “essential”for the social
contract’s attainment, and which ones we think can rightly be set aside. Nonetheless,
for purposes of comparison with the Anti-Federalists, it is crucial to note that while
Rousseau did concede that the individual may retain some of his or her rights, the
theoretical trajectory of Rousseau’s social contract argument is decidedly in the
direction of alienation. Rousseau positioned himself as a critic of those who interpreted
the relation between the community and the individual as ultimately adversarial, in
which the latter tries to retain as many of his or her individual rights as possible from
the former while still deriving the beneﬁts of civil society. For the state to be legitimate
in Rousseau’s view, the individual citizen must not be bound by calculations of future
proﬁt in alienating his or her rights, nor must they be coerced into alienating their
rights through the calculations of others. As Maurizio Viroli aptly summarizes, “[i]f the
whims of individuals (or factions) take over from the general will, sovereign authority
is no longer legitimate, which means that the unity of the body politic has been
sacriﬁced, as well as liberty”.
What, then, justiﬁed Rousseau’s insistence that the individual alienate all of his or
her individual freedom which is “essential”to the success of the social compact? Does
not the individual thereby enslave him or herself to the community? On the contrary:
[I]f some rights were left to private individuals, there would be no common superior who could
judge between them and the public. Each man being his own judge on some point would soon
2D 148-149, esp. 149.
SC 46; cf. ID 36.
2D 151-160, esp. 151. Cf., however, 155.
Federal Farmer 2.8.196.
SC 53 [my italics].
Maurizio Viroli, Rousseau and the “Well-Ordered Society”(Cambridge, 1988), p.9.
189Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
claim to be so on all; the state of nature would subsist and the association would necessarily
become tyrannical or ineffectual.
Rousseau tried to ameliorate the “mercenary”
relationship between citizens and
community through a republican theory in which the individual’s good is fulﬁlled by
and attained through the common: “[T]he fundamental problem which is solved by the
social contract”is to “ﬁnd a form of association that defends and protects the person
and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each
one, united with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before”.
The individual human being is by nature a free individual; but living in a community
requires subordinating one’s own freedom to the community’s ends, which ostensibly
beneﬁts everyone else. To this end, Rousseau sought a republic in which each
individual would regard the public good as his or her own private good: “[O]ne cannot
harm one of the members without attacking the body, and it is even less possible to
harm the body without the members feeling the effects. Thus duty and interest equally
obligate the two contracting parties to mutual assistance”.
As expressions of the will
of the people so united, laws are more than restraints on natural liberty, as the Anti-
Federalists ultimately conceived them.
Rousseau’s republic aspires to achieve, for
man in society, the same degree of freedom that he enjoyed in the state of nature: true
freedom untainted by coercion.
This “fundamental problem”can be glimpsed most clearly in the differing ways
Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists answered the question of political revolution. For the
latter, members of the community can legitimately revolt only when some private, non-
general will has replaced the general will as authoritative —e.g., if some member of
the community has commandeered the state for their own private gain. Members
cannot revolt, as the Anti-Federalists would assert, if their reserved rights are being
violated, but rather, only if their individual rights as derived from their collective rights
are violated. Thus, if the general will requires, say, property conﬁscations or sacriﬁces
of life in war, members of the community cannot claim that such sacriﬁces are
violations of their reserved rights and therefore justiﬁcations for revolution: the liberty
such members derive from the collective demands that they submit to the general will.
In sharp contrast, members of a community in this situation could revolt in the Anti-
Federalist framework, on the grounds that their reserved rights, for whose ultimate
protection they entered the social contract in the ﬁrst place, were being violated.
Representation and the Sovereign People
Sharing the view that individual liberty is the desideratum of republican government
while differing as to the demands of liberty itself, Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
also differed regarding the governmental structure of the republics they respectively
envisioned. One signiﬁcant point of departure was the legitimacy of elected
representation. Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists both contended that the government
could consist in part of ofﬁcials undertaking public business on behalf of the sovereign
people, and also that such ofﬁcials must not distance themselves excessively from the
people, lest the former advance their own interests at the expense of the latter. Yet they
Bloom, “Rousseau”, pp.214-215.
SC 53 [my italics].
Albeit, civil instead of natural freedom.
190 Charles U. Zug
differed regarding the institutional scheme that would realize these republican
desiderata. The Anti-Federalist framework permitted representatives of the people,
empowered, as such, to legislate on the people’s behalf. In contrast, Rousseau’s
framework permitted “magistrates”whose task was formulating and proposing
legislation. However, Rousseau insisted that these magistrates were not to be
understood as representatives of the people’s sovereign will; only the people assembled
were permitted to express the general will by voting on discrete proposals. The Anti-
Federalists held that representatives with long terms of ofﬁce, residing for long periods
of time in a city distant from their constituents, would lose the affection of their
constituents and act against their interests. Practicing political diagnosis,
Federalists tried to remedy this illness of representative government within the
conceptual framework of representation itself, devising a republican remedy for a
There are three criteria a representative system must meet to
remain truly republican: (1) The people and their representatives must “know”each
other; (2) the latter must respond to the will of the former by representing it in the
assembly; and (3) the people must be able to replace representatives they are
Newport Man and George Clinton both described this vision in
some detail and predicted that representatives under the 1787 Constitution would
become alienated from their constituents through exposure to a capital city different in
character from that of their own homogenous and republican communities.
Though Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists shared a view as to a republic’s popular
a comparison of the Social Contract with Rousseau’s endorsement of
Charles U. Zug, “The Rhetorical Presidency Made Flesh: A Political Science Classic in the Age of
Donald Trump”,Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society (2018): doi.org/10.1080/
08913811.2018.1567983; Charles U. Zug, “Could Political Science Become Diagnostic? Restoring a
Forgotten Method”,Perspectives on Political Science (December 2017): doi.org/10.1080/10457097.
2017.1406266; Russell Muirhead, “Foreword”, in Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency 2nd
ed. (Princeton, 2017), pp.xi-xii.
Brutus 2.9.18. Cf. James Madison, The Federalist #10.
E.g., Patrick Henry 5.16.2; Newport Man 4.25.4.
Newport Man 4.25.3; George Clinton 6.13.2 [my italics]. See, however, Philadelphiensis 3.9.76.
On historical grounds, one might reasonably object here that Anti-Federalist arguments concerning
popular sovereignty must be viewed in light of the historical fact that many opponents of the 1787
Constitution were defenders of slavery. Though this is no small issue, one perhaps worth exploring in
a more historically-oriented project, I choose not to take it up in the present inquiry, because my
primary concern herein is to attend to the strengths and weaknesses of the most intelligent and
logically-coherent arguments put forward by the Anti-Federalists. Insofar as a reasonable case can be
made for enduring normative relevance of the most salient Anti-Federalist positions (i.e., those I am
attempting to articulate here), I choose to construe those positions in a favourable light, as opposed to
construing them in light of the particular political conceptions (e.g., slavery) which some Anti-
Federalists, and later their heirs, chose to defend by means of them. For example, just because some
Anti-Federalists chose to defend the institution of slavery as a tenable conception of state or local
sovereignty does not mean that the concept of state or local sovereignty must be defended insofar as it
is hospitable for slavery; the concept and the conception are not wedded. Indeed, as I have tried to
show by following many of the more intelligent Anti-Federalist authors, there are good reasons for
defending the concept of local government as indispensable for republican government —reasons
that are good despite the historical fact that the same concept was used by some to justify the greatest
atrocity in American history. For a fuller discussion of the democratic strain in Anti-Federalist
thought, see Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York,
2007); Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: “The People”, the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of
the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007); Storing, Anti-Federalists, p.17
Consider, e.g., LG 79.
191Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
democracy in his “Letter to the People of Geneva”reveals the institutional designs
which Rousseau held necessary for “tempering”democracy. It was over the institution
of the executive that Rousseau parted ways with the Anti-Federalists most decisively. In
the Social Contract, Rousseau separated the executive and legislative power. Since such
an arrangement is impossible in a pure democracy, however, Rousseau settled for a
mixed solution. In addition, as Kloppenberg has discussed, Rousseau also attended to
the practical difﬁculties of realizing a participatory democracy: its small size, simplicity
in mores, and equality among citizens.
Accordingly, we can derive two criteria which
Rousseau’s republic would have to meet: (1) an executive independent of the
legislature, and (2) size small enough that the people can assemble. Rousseau, like the
Anti-Federalists, held that a republic should be small: “Best is a society of a size
limited by the extent of human faculties —that is, limited by the possibilities of being
As the entire people of a small country can assemble as a whole to
determine which laws they are to live under collectively, best is “a country where the
right of legislation [is] common to all citizens; for who can know better than they
under what conditions it suits them to live together in the same society?”.
itself is “a public and solemn declaration of the general will, on an object of common
The need for assembly points in turn to the illegitimacy of representative institutions.
Rousseau held that “sovereignty cannot be represented for the same reason it cannot be
alienated. It consists essentially in the general will, and the will cannot be represented.
Either it is itself or it is something else; there is no middle ground.”
judgment in this regard was harsher than that of the Anti-Federalists; he denied the
possibility of legitimate representation —not on the grounds of the Anti-Federalists,
that representatives will tend to acquire a will of their own separate from their
constituents, but on the grounds that representatives as such have a will of their own to
begin with. This is not to say Rousseau thought the sovereign people should execute all
State affairs; in fact, he explicitly separated the sovereign people and “government”,
which “executes, that is to say, reduces the Law”—which the sovereign people
legislated —“into particular actions”.
Similarly, for Rousseau all legislation must
remain general; all the speciﬁcs must be left to the government, which formulates,
proposes, and executes what the assembled people votes on. The government must
therefore be “merely [the sovereign people’s] agents”.
Thus, in the republic described
in the “Letter”, these agents, called the “magistrates”, meet with the sovereign people
in the assembly to propose legislation.
The sovereign people’s“right to legislation”
consists in authorizing laws proposed by the executive —which means that the people
cannot put their will directly into law, as the Anti-Federalists would have wished.
“Legislation”and republican governance thus mean something considerably different
in the two republican theories, reﬂecting their differing prioritizations of republican
principles and concerns. For the Anti-Federalists, though representatives must be
directly answerable to the people’s will, they are permitted to formulate as well as vote
Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy, pp.229-235.
LG 81 [my italics].
LWM 237-238; SC 78-79. LWM 232.
LG 82-83. LG 82.
192 Charles U. Zug
on legislation on behalf of the people.
Rousseau, by contrast, denied that the
sovereign people could give away their right to legislate (i.e., vote on legislative
proposals) without also giving away their collective and individual liberty. Thus,
Rousseau gave the authority to propose laws to the magistrates on the grounds that
excessive replacement of old laws with new ones by the assembled people would
destabilize the republic: “The people soon scorns those laws which it sees change
daily”; thus, “the great antiquity of laws [...] makes them holy and venerable”.
Rousseau envisioned “a happy and tranquil Republic, whose antiquity was in a way lost
in the darkness of time”.
Accordingly, the people and magistrates would “mutually
honour each other”,
evidently by referring to each other as Rousseau referred to the
citizens of the republic of Geneva: “Magniﬁcent, Most Honoured, Sovereign Lords”.
The sovereign people should be democratic, the government, aristocratic.
would be politically equal as citizens, whereas the Government of magistrates must be
made up of the best: The people must “elect from year to year the most capable and
most upright of their fellow citizens”.“The virtue of the magistrates”would be
“evidence of the wisdom of the people”;“both sides”would therefore “mutually honor
Whereas the Anti-Federalists sought responsive, transparent
representatives —“a full and equal representation, is that which possesses the same
interests, feelings, opinions, and views the people themselves would possess were they
—Rousseau exhorted the Genevans to give their magistrates, who
“give you the example of moderation, of simplicity of morals, of respect for the laws,
and of the most sincere reconciliation”,“without reserve, that salutary conﬁdence
which reason owes to virtue”.
The Need for Education and Virtue
Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists both maintained that authentic republicanism
requires that the people not abdicate the task of self-government. Yet this injunction
means something different in the two conceptions. For the Anti-Federalists, collective
law-making is not needed; representation remains legitimate so long as the people
refrain from becoming overly dependent on administration; the people must remain
collectively industrious and enterprising, for authentic self-government precludes
dependence on the government administration. Indeed, it should be the reverse: “A free
republic [...] must depend on the support of its citizens”. In turn, the government “must
rest for its execution, on the good opinion of the people, for if it was made in heaven,
and had not the conﬁdence of the people, it could not be executed”.
To work well, a
government requires the people’s cooperation and consent to be executed: “The body of
the people being attached, the government will always be sufﬁcient to support and
execute its laws”.
By the same token, active government undermines its citizens’
capacity to exercise self-government, depriving them of the tasks that elicit republican
Storing, Anti-Federalists, p.84n14.
LG 82; cf. Madison in The Federalist #49.
2D 78, 83, 86, 87, 90.
LG p 82-83 [my italics].
Federal Farmer 2.8.15; see also Storing, Anti-Federalists, 84 n.16, n.18.
LG 85 [my italics].
Melancton Smith 6.12.10 [my italics].
193Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
virtues of restraint, moderation, industry, and frugality: “Men no longer cultivate, what
is no longer useful —should every opportunity be taken away, of exercising their
reason, you will reduce them to that state of mental baseness, in which they appear in
nine-tenths of this globe [...] give them power and they will ﬁnd understanding to use
Similarly, Newport Man feared that in an “efﬁcient”republic, ruler and citizens
would become preoccupied with conquest.
Effective government leads to ease, and
then to concern with superﬂuous things, such as a conquest-driven military and luxury.
On these grounds, Maryland Farmer recommended banishing “men of fortune and
reputation [...] aristocrats whose pride disdains equal law [...] people of fashion and
pleasure who are corrupted by the dissipation of the French, English, and American
armies, and a love of European manners and luxury”.
Institutionally speaking, then, republican government as conceived by the Anti-
Federalists should not be powerful enough to administer effectively unless it has the
people’s support. Instead, the people should be sufﬁciently self-sufﬁcient vis-à-vis
government to decide whether it deserves their cooperation and sanction: “the great
object of a free people must be so to form their government and laws, and so to
administer them, as to create a conﬁdence in, and respect for the laws; and thereby
induce the sensible and virtuous part of the community to declare in favor of the
Without the consent of the virtuous, even an effective administration would be
illegitimate and therefore undesirable. At the heart of the debate is a moral question,
whether the sovereign people authorize the present government, regardless of the
conveniences it is able to provide. Accordingly, if the government were unable to
administer a task, then the sensible and virtuous part of the community could be relied
upon to help the government complete its work —if the task in question were merited.
The discrimination of the virtuous is the ultimate check and bulwark against tyranny.
By the same token, the most urgent task of government is to foster virtue, not to ensure
effective administration. Hence, Agrippa praised “our government”—the Articles of
Confederation —which “is respected from principles of affection, and obeyed with
The government of the Articles deserved praise because it was worthy of
respect, not because it accomplished desirable tasks expediently. Since “government
operates on the spirit of the people, as well as the spirit of the people operates on it —
and if they are not conformable to each other, the one or the other will prevail”;
therefore “government”should be “friendly to liberty and the rights of mankind, which
will tend to cherish and cultivate a love of liberty among our citizens”.
be taught to cherish and love liberty so as to preserve it for themselves, rather than to
depend on an effective government to preserve it for them. Teaching citizens, not
strengthening government, is the highest concern of republican theory.
Insofar as the Anti-Federalists did give government authority, they charged it with
regulating the community’s morals: “Sumptuary laws, permitting the use, but
prohibiting the abuse of wealth, might be interposed to guard the public manners”.
Maryland Farmer 2.8.190.
Newport Man 4.25.4 [my italics].
Maryland Farmer 3.2.
Federal Farmer III 2.8.24 [my italics].
Agrippa 4.6.50 [my italics].
Melancton Smith 6.12.20.
Maryland Farmer 5.1.82. There is some evidence for this distinction between the Federalists and
the Anti-Federalists, as well; and it manifested itself when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander
Hamilton proposed to retire federal debt at par, assume the states’debt, and establish a national bank.
194 Charles U. Zug
“Manners”are “public”because, in the republic envisioned by the Anti-Federalists, the
public good depends on the commitment of the people, and the people’s commitment in
turn depends on their manners: “If there are advantages in the strong and manly habits
of the people, we ought to establish governments calculated to give duration to
Instead of equipping the government for taking on administrative tasks, the
Anti-Federalists sought to involve it in the people’s civic education; for “[i]t is
EDUCATION which almost entirely forms the character, the freedom or slavery, the
happiness or misery of the world”. The States therefore depend on “such means of
education, as shall be adequate to the divine, patriotic purpose of training up the
children and youth at large, in that solid learning, and in those pious and moral
principles, which are the support, the life and SOUL of the republican government and
liberty, of which a free Constitution is the body”.
Rousseau shared this view to an extent, maintaining that a genuinely free republic
depends on four speciﬁc conditions: “a very small state”,“great simplicity of mores”,
“great equality of ranks and fortunes”, and “little or no luxury”. And these conditions,
in turn, “could not subsist without virtue.”
Civic virtue in the sovereign people is thus
the republic’s foundation, true liberty being the republic’s aspiration. Rousseau
accordingly admired the “precious freedom”of the citizens of Geneva, “which in large
nations is maintained only by exorbitant taxes, but costs [the Genevans] almost
For its security and independence, a small republic like Geneva could rely
on the virtue of its citizens, who (in Rousseau’s idealistic description) voluntarily
performed the tasks necessary for the preservation of freedom.
emphasized to an even greater degree than did the Anti-Federalists that a republican
way of life is a delicate state preserved with difﬁculty: “Freedom is like those solid and
rich foods or those hearty wines, which are proper to nourish and fortify robust
constitutions habituated to them”. Unlike that of the Anti-Federalists, Rousseau’s
account of virtue as the political sustenance of a republic stands on his psychology of
amour-propre, according to which virtue is attained through the “de-naturing”of man:
Civic education consists in “transforming each individual, who by himself is a perfect
and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole from which this individual receives, in
a sense, his life and being”, as well as “substituting a partial and moral existence for the
physical and independent existence we have all received from nature”.
At that point, Madison, decided to oppose his erstwhile ally during ratiﬁcation, apparently concluding
that such an alliance of government with commercial interests threatened republican government more
than majority faction: Cf. Federalist #10 with James Madison, Letter to Thomas Jefferson (August
8, 1791): “since the unanimous vote that no change [should] be made in the funding system, my
imagination will not attempt to set bounds to the daring depravity of the times. The stock-jobbers will
become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool & its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, &
overawing it by clamours & combinations.”(I would like to thank the second anonymous reviewer for
this helpful observation.)
Federal Farmer V 2.8.59.
Charles Turner 4.18.2.
See, however, Strauss, Natural Right and History, p.253. In the seventh of his “Letters from the
Mountain”, Rousseau implicitly acknowledges that his depiction of Geneva in the “Letter to the
Citizens”which prefaces his Second Discourse is ﬁctionalized, when he states, regarding Geneva,
that: “Nothing is more free than your legitimate state; nothing is more servile than your actual state”
195Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
In his unpublished manuscript, The Government of Poland, Rousseau gave a more
detailed account of the kinds of republican institutions he felt were necessary for
successful de-naturing. By contrasting —at times, somewhat hyperbolically —the
republican virtues of ancient Greece and Rome (as well as those of ancient Israel) with
the pettiness of modern bourgeois Europe, Rousseau drew attention to the importance
of elaborate civic “institutions”
—almost always based on religious rites —carefully
calibrated to elicit among the people an earnest devotion to the common good. What
the “legislators of ancient times”succeeded in, explained Rousseau, was to base “their
legislation on the same ideas. [They] sought ties that would bind the citizens to the
fatherland and to one another. [They] found what they were looking for in distinctive
These “distinctive usages”or “institutions”are distinctive primarily because
they exist solely for the purpose of civic character formation, what constitutional
theorist Gary Jacobsohn might call the formation of a “constitutional identity”.
is to say, these usages, which would appear arbitrary in the utmost degree to anyone
outside the community for whom they have civic signiﬁcance, serve no rational
purpose or public-policy goal apart from binding the republic together. Thus, in
characterizing ancient Hebrew institutions, Rousseau asserted that Moses, “[d]
etermined that his people should never be absorbed by other peoples [...] devised for
them customs and practices that could not be blended into those of other nations and
weighted them down with rites and peculiar ceremonies. He put countless prohibitions
on them, all calculated to keep them on their toes.”
Rousseau’s point is that lawgivers
(e.g., Moses and Numa) must create arbitrary customs which have no other purpose
than giving those who share them a sense of collective or constitutional identity. They
need to be byzantine and arbitrary rather than utilitarian because they need to be
completely unique to the community in question, i.e., something another community
will not develop for itself. Of course, these customs will not seem arbitrary to the
nation that is accustomed to them; otherwise they would not be accustomed. They will,
however, seem arbitrary to the lawgiver who originally comes up with them. They will
be arbitrary from the perspective of the creative genius who arbitrarily selects them.
Whereas more moderate republicans like the Anti-Federalists would likely have
balked at Rousseau’s glowing description of such “institutions”, Rousseau himself gave
the impression that true republican unity could not be realized by any measures less
arbitrarily demanding. Indeed, whereas the Anti-Federalists appreciated local customs
as sources of civic education, they also expressed wariness of capricious governmental
impositions on the grounds that they are despotic. Rousseau, in contrast, insisted on the
more radical and paradoxical view that unalloyed civic freedom requires total unity of
civic vision, which in turn demands arbitrary “distinctive usages”. In this respect, the
institutions Rousseau described in Government differ decisively from the sorts of laws
that would have characterized and still characterize modern commercial or bourgeois
polities. As Rousseau explained in contrasting the former with the latter, “[i]f these
moderns have laws, it is only because they must be taught to obey smartly when their
masters command them, to refrain from picking people’s pockets, and to hand over
large amounts of money to brazen scoundrels”.
In Rousseau’s pejorative description,
Rousseau distinguishes between such “institutions,”which seem to consist primarily in ancient
rituals and traditional customs, from “laws”understood as public ordinances. See esp. GP 7.
Gary J. Jacobsohn, Constitutional Identity (Cambridge, MA, 2010).
196 Charles U. Zug
the conception of law which characterizes “limited government”as understood by the
Anti-Federalists —law as a contract from which all parties expect to proﬁt, and which
therefore imposes no robust duties on anyone —has the effect of fostering unfree
human beings. Instead of viewing the law as an end-in-itself which binds the citizenry
in solidarity, the bourgeois sees it as a contrivance for getting the better of other
bourgeois. Law, in this perspective, is a contract that exists for the sake of the
contractors; if the latter can obtain greater proﬁt by breaking the law, the logic of this
perspective would sanction it. By contrast, the ancient laws or “institutions”which
Rousseau highlights in Government exist solely to foster a common identity: Such
“mildly restrictive institutions”as would have been found in Numa’s Rome “bound
each of [the Romans] to the rest and all of them to the soil; [these institutions made]
their city sacred in their eyes by means of those rites, apparently idle and superstitious,
whose strength and inﬂuence so few people have understood”.
For Rousseau, failure to transform naturally isolated human beings into complete
republican citizens through de-naturing institutions would result in the profound
unfreedom which characterizes commercial-bourgeois, contract-based society. The
transition from natural isolation to society invariably activates human amour-propre:
the latent felt-need to compare oneself with others and to seek their esteem in order to
In turn, luxury inﬂames amour-propre by signifying one’s rank, thus
one’s worthiness of respect, to everyone else in society.
Needless to say, Rousseau
regarded the fanning of amour-propre’sﬂames by commerce, luxury, and inequality as
inimical to authentic republicanism. Luxury and the desire to distinguish oneself
undermine citizenship, which, as Rousseau makes clear in the Social Contract and the
Government of Poland, consists in a desire to advance oneself through advancing the
whole republic, not in advancing oneself at the expense of the republic. The desire to
distinguish oneself causes one to delight in triumphing over one’s fellow citizens,
thereby undermining the sense of “friendship”and “sweet society”which Rousseau
regarded as necessary for making the people believe that they are part of a genuinely
common enterprise, and that their will is inalienable from the general because both will
the common good. Hence, Rousseau praised the Genevans for not being “rich enough
to enervate [themselves] by softness and lose in vain delights the taste for true
happiness and solid virtues”.
Rousseau held that the modern obsession with trade and
money dissolves the virtues necessary for sustaining and preserving a small republic,
the non-luxurious home of equality and simple taste.
The fostering and preservation
of virtue among citizens depends on the republic’s preserving these four elements; if
one element is removed, the ediﬁce collapses. In a commercial society, however, there
must also be luxury: “Either luxury is the result of wealth”—i.e., the result of
commerce, which requires much wealth —“or it makes wealth necessary. It corrupts
both rich and poor, the one by possessing, the other by coveting.”
Thus, the Anti-Federalists and Rousseau articulated different civic educations which
they believed would sustain their respective conceptions of republicanism. In the case
of the Anti-Federalists, however, it is easy to overlook what is unique to them for what
they seem to share with Rousseau; as noted above, contemporary theorists of classical
LG 84; see also LG 90.
Strauss, Natural Right and History, p.253.
197Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists
republicanism posit that the Anti-Federalists shared the educational ideals of the
ancient republicans, which Rousseau shared, as well.
Yet the central place of
commerce in the framework of several key Anti-Federalists draws this view into
question. As Herbert Storing remarks, the Anti-Federalists “accepted the need and
desirability of the modern commercial world while attempting to resist certain of its
tendencies with rather half-hearted appeals to civic virtue”.
True, while many of the
Anti-Federalists did embrace commerce —as I will shortly indicate —it is going too
far to conclude they merely resisted the effects of commerce through appeals to pre-
commercial notions of virtue. Their solution was more robust than Storing’s summary
suggests, and deserves some discussion as an important consequence of their
republican theory —a consequence which further exposes the opposing trajectories of
the two republican theories we have been attempting to understand.
In contrast with Rousseau, the Anti-Federalists theorized an innovative solution to
remedy the corrosive effect of commerce on republican public spiritedness —a
solution that bears a striking resemblance to the economic and social policies
advocated by contemporary “free-market”conservatives in the Anglosphere, who
cherish hard work and other “traditional values”while defending (nonetheless
passionately) a consumer-oriented economic model. To see how novel the Anti-
Federalist understanding was, especially in view of Rousseau’s, consider Storing’s
observation that, for the Anti-Federalists, “commerce itself [...] seemed to threaten
republican simplicity and virtue. Commerce is the vehicle of distinctions in wealth, of
foreign inﬂuence, and the decline of morals.”
As suggested in the last section, while
this critique of commerce is indeed Rousseau’s, several of the most articulate Anti-
Federalists took a markedly different path, seeking a republican theory that would
detach the human faculties necessary for commerce from the qualities that tend to
result from the enjoyment of the fruits of commerce. Indeed, notwithstanding his
generalization above, Storing himself alludes to a different construal of the Anti-
Federalist position when he quotes Charles Turner: “As people become more luxurious,
they become more incapacitated to governing themselves”.
Note that Turner did not
condemn “commerce itself ”, as Storing implies, but rather luxury and the preference
Turner was sketching a view of civic life and education that could
mitigate the emphatic condemnation of commerce which, as we have seen, Rousseau’s
republican theory made necessary. Given the right education, the Anti-Federalists seem
to have thought, citizens could come to see for themselves that a luxurious way of life
(bad for republicanism) and the qualities of soul that produce luxuries through
commerce (good for republicanism) are actually inimical to each other, and to prefer
These faculties could be held up as ends in themselves —i.e., as virtues
—and in turn could help sustain the Anti-Federalist vision of republicanism. As
Maryland Farmer contended,
instruction in the private enterprises of “agriculture,
commerce, the management of farms and household affairs”would result in public
virtue: people so instructed and committed to the community’s prosperity would risk
their lives in defense of that community. Indeed, the study of practical affairs goes
See, e.g., Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic (Chapel Hill, 1980).
Storing, Anti-Federalists, p.46.
Charles Turner 4.18.1.
See, e.g., Warren 6.14.145; Patrick Henry 5.16.10.
See esp. Patrick Henry 5.16.10.
See esp. Maryland Farmer 5.1.82.
198 Charles U. Zug
together with studying “the principles of free government”; as Agrippa maintained,
“every new sale excites that manly pride which is essential to national virtue”.
this score, Maryland Farmer went so far as to re-baptize trade schools as “seminaries of
useful learning”, evidently envisioning a new kind of educational institution where
citizens would develop virtues necessary for real-life prosperity. Accordingly, he
proposed that Americans “descend to teach our citizens what is useful in this world”.
By the same token, citizens would no longer orient themselves by what their spiritual
superiors promised them about the next world, learning instead how to exploit their
faculties, to dedicate themselves to tasks whose fruits they would experience for
themselves, and thereby to learn the rational basis for commitment and service to one’s
Future studies in republican theory might well beneﬁt from the contrasting theoretical
frameworks outlined in this article. In particular, de Dijn’s critique of Pettit is deepened
by the account offered here of Rousseau’s preoccupation with individual freedom as
something that must not merely be protected by civil society —as the Anti-Federalists
insisted —but rather, as something to be attained through the general will in a way that
approximates humankind’s original, pre-societal freedom. In terms of contemporary
republican theory, then, Rousseau interpreted through this lens would transcend the
familiar republican category of non-domination.
And yet, as other scholars have
Rousseau also did not unqualiﬁedly embrace a political model based on
collectively-realized liberty; instead, he limited himself to articulating the principles of
such a model through a rigorous critique of the retained-rights model of republicanism
forcefully argued for by the Anti-Federalists. That Rousseau, in contrast with later
socialistic and communitarian thinkers, observed such limits for the reasons brought
out in this article should signal to contemporary republican theorists —perhaps those
inclined to communitarianism themselves
—that individual liberty so radicalized
invariably (and paradoxically) threatens to collapse into unalloyed collectivism. This
possibility further evidences the difﬁculty of achieving a perfectly coherent republican
theory based on individual freedom and civic solidarity —that is, a republican theory
that would entirely transcend the admittedly frustrating limitations of the Anti-
Federalist “reserved rights”model without obliterating the very desiderata it most
earnestly seeks to vindicate.
Pettit, “Two Republication Traditions”.
Hampsher-Monk, “Rousseau and totalitarianism”.
E.g., Viroli, Republicanism, pp.57-67; Michael Sandel, Democracy’s Discontents (Cambridge,
199Rousseau and the Anti-Federalists