LinkedIn tracking pixel

The Legacy of the French Revolution: Rousseau’s General Will and the Reign of Terror

Reign of Terror

The Legacy of the French Revolution: Rousseau’s General Will and the Reign of Terror

Alberto M. Piedra Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
The Institute of World Politics

Now, at the initial stages of the 21st century, it seems appropriate to consider without passion and with greater objectivity the revolutionary phenomenon that shook Europe in the 18th century. Under the banner of “Liberté, égalité, and fraternité,” traditional systems of government and social institutions were challenged and threatened with extinction. The first and foremost example is the case of France and the violent overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty. It is time for a reassessment of such events as the takeover of the Bastille and the Declaration of the Rights of Man of August 1789. They have been glorified to such an extent that they are now part of France’s national treasury. Something similar can be said of men like Robespierre, Diderot, Danton, Saint-Just, the Baron d’Holbach and Marat, leader of the Montagnard faction, not to mention the so called “heroes” known as the “sans culottes.” Hatred of religion was already manifested by these gentlemen at the early stages of the Revolution.1

In 1789, a disguised form of anti-clericalism began took place (laïcité).  As a result, the Constituent Assembly at Versailles enacted the Constitution of the Clergy, which deprived the Church of all its property and decreed that all salaries of the clergy would be paid by the State, but also forced the clergy under the pain of death to take the oath of allegiance to the Constitution.2 Approximately fifty percent of priests took the oath. Religion was de facto abolished and replaced with the cult of the Supreme Being, a deist state religion.

The revolutionary Marianne, wearing a Phrygian bonnet, would appear as an anarchist avenger.3 The revolutionary songs “La Carmagnole” and “Ça Ira” were sung all over France. The use of French revolutionary culture, including music, became an important means for propaganda purposes.4 Many a famous painter felt the euphoria of the revolution in their artistic work. Perhaps, Delacroix is the best example of a firm supporter of the French Revolution. He was a close friend of Robespierre.  His work of art, La Liberté guidant le people (Liberty Leading the People) is his masterpiece in which he commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 which brought down the crown under King Charles X.5 In Delacroix’s famous painting, Liberty and Reason appear as a female accompanied by various attributes including the tricolor, the cockade and the Phrygian bonnet, symbols of the French Revolution. Under the then prevailing circumstances in battered France the famous calls to liberté, égalité, and fraternité should have been renamed the Dogmatism of Reason and the Despotism of Liberty or, what is even a better term, the mythical Kingdom of the Social Contract created by the prolific mind of Rousseau.

Rousseau was not only a key figure in the Enlightenment, but probably the most popular and widely read intellectual revolutionary in France. Nevertheless, “La Volonté Générale” (the “General Will”), which appears in his  influential book Du contrat social ou principes du droit politique, (Social Contract) is nothing more than a utopian dream.6 He wants to create the creature that is in tune with the needs of modern society and follows the political path outlined in the General Will and established in the Social Contract. However, it must be stressed that the General Will does not represent the majority of the people but only that of the privileged few who supposedly know what is best for the welfare of the nation. Man voluntarily hands over his individual will to the General Will, which knows best what man’s priorities are.

The irony of the theory is that the General Will does not represent the majority of the people, but only of the enlightened few. The Social Contract is entirely premised and patterned on the belief in man’s natural goodness and that he has only been perverted by corrupt social institutions. According to Rousseau, everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man, including man himself. Once these institutions are eliminated, man will return to his natural state of goodness.  This is simply a utopian dream which, in the long run, can only lead to all sorts of oppression by the all-powerful, freely created General Will; the perfect excuse for the establishment of a totalitarian regime under the guise of “democratic” means.

The French historian Pierre Gaxotte goes as far as writing: “that never has so frightening a power fallen into the hands of a more revolutionary despicable people craving for power.”7  Rousseau is also the author of the controversial book Émile ou De l’Éducation, a treatise on the nature of education which became a new method of teaching. In it, he tells man that only reason teaches him how to differentiate good from evil.8

Paul Hazard, the French scholar, professor, and historian of ideas, examines in his book La Crise de la conscience Européenne (1680-1715) the existing conflict between 17th century Neo-Classicism and the ideas of the Enlightenment. He offers an account of the birth and development of the European mind and the revolutionary expectation of a future uncertain glory. The utopian expectations of glory believed by the revolutionaries soon turned into the Reign of Terror and the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The French critic and national historian Hyppolite Michelet, author of the Histoire de France, holds a very positive view of the French Revolution. He considers it as a climax, as the triumph of Justice over Grace, by which he means Christian dogma and the arbitrary power of the monarchy. The famous historian was one of the most appreciated exponents of 19th century French positivism.

Thomas Paine was an English born American activist, philosopher, and political theorist. He was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He became deeply involved in the French Revolution, defending it from its critics and published the derogatory pamphlet on Marie Antoinette, in which it was alleged that she had said:  “S’ils n’ont pas de pain, Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”9 Among Paine’s writings, the following can be mentioned: The Age of Reason (1794) regarding the place of religion in society where he challenged institutionalized religion and the legitimacy of the Bible. He followed the common deistic arguments of the times, advocating that reason should replace revelation. In the Rights of Man (1791), he defends the French Revolution. Very much in favor of the thirteen colonies in America, he published the pamphlet Common Sense (1776) setting forth arguments in favor of their independence from the British crown.

The highly respected British statesmen Edmund Burke in his book Reflections on the Revolution in France not only condemned the French Revolution, but called it “a digest of anarchy.” He valued tradition rather than the shattering of state culture and religion that had taken place in France. Many attempts have been made to refute the ideas of Burke and his criticism of the French Revolution, but none as well known as the one by Thomas Paine.10

Today, it is possible to celebrate the French Revolution as a historic moment in the history of France, but, at the same time, there is nothing wrong or anti-patriotic in analyzing new documentation that has appeared related to the reality of the events of 1789.

Therefore, no objective student of the French Revolution should avoid reading the Memoires Pour Servir A L’Histoire du Jacobinisme.11 Its author was the Abbe Augustin Barruel (1741-1820), a Jesuit priest mostly known for his theory involving the Bavarian Illuminati and the Jacobins in the overthrow of the French monarchy. He took a very anti-revolutionary position, strongly criticizing the anti-religious views of the “philosophes” and their revolutionary followers. He blamed the bloody upheaval of the revolution on four major factors:  1) the unbelievers who wanted to destroy religion, 2) the republicans, 3) the franc-macons (freemasonry), the traditional enemies of the throne, and 4) the illuminati who, supported by the first two, wanted to overthrow the throne and foster godlessness and anarchy in order to overthrow religion and all authority.

For many years and only during the regime of the Third Republic in France, some writers began to admit the reality and correctness of Barruel’s analysis of the factors contributing to the French Revolution. The role played by the Francs-Macons, the Illumilati,12 and their allies finally came to light. This served to alert counter-revolutionary sectors of society of the threat they posed to the prevailing traditional political systems.  It was no longer a question of “salon gossip” among the French elites, a phenomenon that tends to characterize the privileged upper classes in all countries who refuse to see the danger that faces them. The reality was that France’s entire social and political structure was on the verge of collapse. Barriel’s warning was not only left unheeded, but he was accused by future generations of open falsehoods. Nevertheless, he is a must-read by all those who want to have a better grasp of the causes and consequences of the French Revolution. It provides a scholarly work which is essential for understanding the origins of the events that led to the death of Louis XVI and the political ideas of the 19th century.13

The French historian René Sédillot in his book Le coût de la Révolution française (The Cost of the French Revolution) claims that if it remains plausible to celebrate the ideals of the revolution, it is also appropriate to remember the high price that the French nation had to pay in order to reach the misunderstood and badly interpreted Christian principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.14

To compare the so-called American Revolution with the French Revolution is not only ludicrous but false.  The Founding Fathers of the United States were not avengers seeking revenge and the destruction of all past institutions, including religion.  Men like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams were men of honour void of any feeling of hatred, who did not want a total break with the mother country but only respect for the basic English principles of the Common Law and the Magna Carta;  principles which were ignored by the Parliamentary dictatorship prevailing in London and  rejected in the British colonies.

Let me conclude this short essay by stressing Rousseau’s misleading conclusions in his Contrat Social and his erroneous revolutionary belief in the attainment of a perfect “democratic” society. The greatly praised Contrat Social was the product of the fruitful and imaginative mind of the 18th century “philosophe,” the popular author of Emile and the epistolary novel La Nouvelle Héloïse. His ideas of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, void of any objective moral foundation except the natural goodness of man, quickly turned into the Despotism of Liberty, the Dogmatism of Reason, and the much feared egotism of Adam Smith.15These ideas of Rousseau not only influenced the revolutionaries of 1789, but also the development of socialist theory in general.16 Contrary to Rousseau’s expectations, the end result of his most praised Social Contract was the Reign of Terror and the dictatorship of Bonaparte. Glory was replaced by the infamous guillotine. Rousseau’s Social Contract, together with his General Will, will go down in history as another utopian dream.


1. Voltaire, another hero of the French Revolution, claimed that: “Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.”

2. The Constitution on the Clergy passed on July 12, 1790 had a clause stipulating that the clergy had to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution.

3. Marianne is a national symbol of the French Republic and personifies liberty and reason. It portrays the Goddess of Reason and is displayed in many places in France, holding a place of honour in law courts.

4. See: C. McKinley, Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Volume IV ,Number 2, 2008. Pp. 1-33.

5. The painting is proudly exhibited today in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Many other of his excellent paintings and frescoes can be admired in the Church of St. Sulpice at the capital’s Rive Gauche.

6. See: Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Major Political Writings, The Two Discourses and the Social Conract. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012.

7. Pierre Gaxotte, La Revolution Francaise, Paris, Librairie Artheme Fayard, 1970.  Pp. 367-368.  Among other books written by the French historian, the following can be mentioned: Le Siecle de Louis XV and Frederic II of Prussi.

8. “La raison seule nous apprend a connaitre le bien et le mal.”  See: Rousseau, Emile ou de l’education, Paris: GF Flammarion, 1966, p.77. Rousseau’s ideas have had a tremendous influence on the philosophical and educational views of the American philosopher and social reformer John Dewey. The well known social reformer was the founder of the philosophical movement known as pragmatism and a leader of the progressive movement.

9. It is estimated that the first person who put this phrase into print was Jean Jacque Rousseau (Book IV of his Confessions).

10. See: Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke and The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine, New York, Dolphin Books, 1981.  See also: Christopher Dawson, The Gods of Revolution, New York: Minerva Press, 1975.

11. The Jacobins were the most radical and ruthless of the political groups formed in the wake of the French Revolution. Together with Robespierre, they constituted the terror of 1793. See: Abbe Augustin Barruel, Memoires Pour Servir A L’Histoire Du Jacobinisme, Diffusion de la Pensee Francaise, 1973.

12. The Illuminati was the name given to several groups, both real and fictitious. The name usually refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment era secret society founded in 1776.

13. The French Revolution claims Gaxote: “Les doctrinaires de 1789 avaient voulu regenerer l’humanite et reconstruir le monde. Pour echapper aux Bourbons, les doctrinares de 1799, en etaient reduits a se donner a un sabre.” See: Pierre Gazxotte. La Revolution Francaise, op.cit., p.503.

14. See: Rene Sedillot, Le Cout de la Revolution framcaise, Paris: Librairie Academique Perrin, 1987.

15. See Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments , London: 1790 or any later edition.

16. The unrealistic social pact that Rousseau wrote, far from destroying natural inequality, substituted a “moral and lawful equality” for whatever physical inequality nature may have imposed on mankind. Consequently, unequal in strength and intelligence, men would become equal by covenant and by right.


The Institute of World Politics is a graduate school of national security, intelligence, and international affairs, dedicated to developing leaders with a sound understanding of international realities and the ethical conduct of statecraft, based on knowledge and appreciation of the founding principles of the American political economy and the Western moral tradition.

About IWP