Rousseau and Jefferson


“The Declaration of Independence,” written by Thomas Jefferson, is a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. “The Origin of Civil Society” is an article written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Jefferson writes about human rights because all men shall be equal and free; Rousseau writes about social contracts because by understanding the concepts of social contracts, the people will live with better security and significance.

Understanding the concepts from previous generation of writers

By analyzing these two articles, readers can see how important it is for a writer to understand the concepts from previous generation of writers, how much Rousseau’s ideas have influenced Jefferson’s statement, and how Jefferson has expanded Rousseau’s concepts.

In the opening of “The Declaration of Independence”, Jefferson writes several statements that are influenced by Rousseau’s concepts.

Jefferson mentions about equality and freedom; he writes, “people hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”(Jefferson 78).

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On the other hand, Rousseau, in “The Origin of Civil Society”, says that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, and that “many a man believes himself to be the master of others who is, no less than they, a slave”(57).

Rousseau also uses the rhetorical method metaphor, by comparing “fathers” to “rulers” and “children” to “people”, to emphasize his ideas; he states, “once that need ceases the natural bond is dissolved, the children, freed from the obedience which they formerly owe, and the father, cleared of his debt of responsibility to them, return to condition of equal independence”(57).

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Rousseau further mentions about equality by arguing the ideas of Grotius, Hobbes, and Aristotle; these men believe that “human race” belongs only to a small group of special people.

Rousseau writes, “according to Grotius, therefore, it is doubtful whether the term ‘human race’ belongs to only a few hundred men, or whether these few hundred men belong to the human race” (58).

How Rousseau has influenced Jefferson

Therefore, readers can see how Rousseau has influenced Jefferson regarding human rights. Rousseau provides a sturdy foundation for Jefferson to write “The Declaration of Independence”; moreover, Jefferson further expands Rousseau’s ideas regarding the “agreement” between people and rulers. Rousseau says, “no man has natural authority over his fellows, and since Might can produce o Right, the only foundation left for legitimate authority in human societies is Agreement” (60). Therefore, readers can understand that there is no natural slave or ruler, and it is people who select their rulers after they have had “agreements” with their rulers. On the other hand, Jefferson writes, “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (78).

At this passage, Jefferson explains that governments are established by people who are “governed” based on their agreements with the governments.

Moreover, he adds, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” (78). At this point, Jefferson has expanded Rousseau’s ideas and states clearly that once the “agreements” between the people and rulers are broken, the rulers can be overthrown, and people have rights to select a new ruler.

Jefferson later supports his expansion by presenting twenty-six examples of the actions done by British Empire that is against the “agreement”; Jefferson restates that “a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of free people”(81).

How Rousseau’s ideas are expanded by Jefferson

Therefore, readers can see how Rousseau’s ideas are expanded by Jefferson. Jefferson also indirectly expands Rousseau’s ideas regarding whether a ruler shall use his might. Rousseau says, “however strong a man, he is never strong enough to remain master always, unless he transform his Might into Right, and Obedience into Duty” (60).

At this point, Rousseau explains that in order for one to govern well, being mighty will never be “enough”; more importantly, he must understand the “rights” that people can trustfully depend, and uses that “rights” to govern his people. Jefferson, on the other hand, writes that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government” (78).

At this point, Jefferson expands that if the government is constantly using its might to compel people, this government will only become overthrown. Jefferson further adds, “the history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States”; Jefferson later lists the twenty-six actions done by British Empire, which represent how the king of Britain has been using his might to compel people (79). Therefore, Rousseau’s ideas are expanded by Jefferson again.

Cite this page

Rousseau and Jefferson. (2021, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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