Sovereignity versus Liberty. The Societal Idea in the "Federalist Papers" and in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Philosophy

A Comparison

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Preface: Sovereignty and Liberty—two most important aspects in the political philosophy

2. Definitions
2.1 The meaning of sovereignty
2.2 The meaning of liberty

3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s societal idea
3.1 How Rousseau understands liberty
3.2 How Rousseau understand sovereignty
3.2.1 The legislative branch
3.2.2 The executive branch
3.2.3 The judicative branch

4. The societal idea in The Federalist
4.1 The understanding of liberty in The Federalist
4.2 The understanding of sovereignty in The Federalist
4.2.1 The sovereignty of the member states
4.2.2 The sovereignty of the citizens

5. Comparison of the ideas of sovereignty and liberty
5.1 Similarities of Rousseau and Publius
5.2 Main differences between Rousseau and Publius

6. Conclusion

7. Appendix
7.1 Literature and printed sources
7.2 Internet sources

1. Preface: Sovereignty and Liberty—two most important aspects in political philosophy

“Free people, remember this maxim: we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.”1

[Jean-Jacques Rousseau]

Regarding the news nowadays, the discussion on the relationship between sovereignty and liberty is obviously as up-to-date as it must have been in older times in the philosopher’s cast: What kind of personal data should be collected and supervised by the state? How much influence should the citizenship have on the daily business of politic? How should a governmental system be shaped to survive, especially in times of globalization? How far may liberty reach, especially in terms of criticizing politicians, religions, foreigners? Is it better to have a technocracy, as it is said about the European Union? Or should there be more basically democratic decisions as like in the case of Switzerland? There is no final answer to these questions.

Especially in the recent 300 years, philosophers have been thinking about the relation between liberty and sovereignty extensively. While some of them were pleading for a strong leader, as for example Thomas Hobbes in his philosophical work on the “Leviathan”. Others, like Publius, which was actually just a synonym for the three mentors of federalism in North America, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were counting on the advantages of an—to a certain extension—extensive system of government, in which the different institutions were checking each other and power was divided.

This seminar paper is focusing on “The Federalist (Papers)”2 No. 9 and 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard against Domestic Faction and Insurrection” and “The same Subject Continued” and on Rousseau’s “On the Social Contract”.

First, there will be definitions mentioned. The terms “liberty” and “sovereignty” are used in many different cases nowadays; therefore, it is useful to define them. Then I will give a brief overview of the ideas of man in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work and in The Federalist. As Rousseau died about ten years before these were published, I will start with his philosophy. Afterwards, there will be a detailed comparison between the most important aspects of the ideas of liberty and sovereignty in these two philosophical works. The conclusion will give a short summary and a comparison to the actual political systems nowadays.

Due to the prescribed shortness, the focus will be laid on the most important and obvious similarities and differences and neglect other aspects, e.g. the role of religion. That does not mean that it would not be necessary to have a more extended look into all of The Federalist respectively on Rousseau’s work to generate a detailed research that meets the requirements of such a huge topic as liberty and sovereignty.

2. Definitions

Because of the different ways of using the two most important terms “liberty” and “sovereignty”, they have to be defined.

2.1 The meaning of “sovereignty”

The English word sovereign comes from the medieval Vulgar Latin term superanus, which meant highest, supreme chief or principal.3 In French, it turned into soverain, in Italian into soprano.4 So, the prefix “sover” (from super) relates to the high, expositional standing of the person who is “reigning” a state, what means ruling. Therefore, the sovereign is the person or body (although the Latin term meant just one person), which is ruling the whole state, standing above all other institutions. That is, why in terms of political philosophy, sovereignty is defined as “the ultimate overseer, or authority, in the decision-making process of the state and in the maintenance of order.”5 In addition, especially the aspects of decision-making and maintenance of order are important in the work of Rousseau, what will be shown later on.

2.2 The meaning of “liberty”

When it comes to liberty, finding a definition is much more difficult. First, the origin of the word should be considered, which is the Latin word libertas. That means “freedom, condition of a free man; absence of restraint; permission.”6 Therefore, liberty is something that is not restricted, where no narrow borders are drawn. Someone can have the liberty to do something, e.g. to perform an action (negative liberty). Positive liberty instead, is defined like this: “A person is positively free when she is autonomous, master (mistress?) of herself, when she determines herself by her own judgment of what she should do.”7 However, Rousseau differentiates between types of liberty in another way: natural liberty, civil (conventional) liberty and moral liberty.

3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s societal idea

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the most important philosophers from the time before the French Revolution started. His works were interpreted in many different ways. “Modern commentators go to great lengths to discover various levels of meaning in Rousseau's statements and try to reconcile the apparent contradictions among his various pronouncements.”8 While some of the revolutionist of the French Revolution in 1789 used Rousseau’s work as legitimation of their intention to throw over the state, there were some critics, as for example Joseph De Maistre, a conservative French statesman and political philosopher, who contradicted Rousseau instantly.9

3.1 How Rousseau understands liberty

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”10 (Book I, Chapter 1) Obviously, Rousseau is complaining about the arrangement of society in his times. To explain his view on liberty, he starts with a comparison to the setup of a family: The father has to take care about the children, while the children have to obey. When the children still want to stay with their parents, after they have grown up, it is just because of a voluntary agreement.

“This common liberty is an upshot of the nature of man. His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those he owes to himself; and as soon as he can think for himself he is the sole judge of the right way to take care of himself, which makes him his own master.” (I, 2)

But this agreement between father (in a larger understanding: the ruler of a state) and children (citizens) do not just burden one party of this contract, “because they were born free and equal don’t give up their liberty without getting something in return.” (I, 2)

By the way, his view on slaves is quite different. “Every man born in slavery is born for slavery—nothing is more certain than that. […] So if there are slaves by nature, that’s because there have been slaves against nature. Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice kept them as slaves.” (I, 2)

Here we can speak about moral liberty, which means that you are not someone’s slave. In a state, as Rousseau suggests it, only citizens would have a moral liberty. In this case, we could also call it positive liberty, because as a citizen, you are master of yourself. “We could add on the ‘profit’ side the fact that in the civil state a man acquires moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the drive of sheer appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law that we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” (I, 8)

For Rousseau it is very important to set up a social structure that consists of equal members (only citizens, not slaves). Having an order in society is, due to Rousseau, the only way to survive. “Rousseau’s political doctrine, in particular his doctrine of the social contract, can be viewed as a quest for a rational to the problem of disorder.”11 Thus, it needs a Social Contract to establish a state, where every single man12 can be free. The difficulty in setting up such a state, is, that every single member should put as much into this transaction—and later into the state—as he can. While doing this, he “still obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” (I, 6) So, even if a member of the state loses his natural liberty, “which is limited only by the individual’s powers” (I, 8), by joining the community of a state he gains civil liberty, which is a conventional liberty.

So what is Rousseau solution to bring all these different types of liberty together in a single state? The answer is the Social Contract and the general will. “As long as a number of men gathered together regard themselves as a single body, they have only a single will, which is concerned with the survival and well-being of all of them.” (IV, 1) The idea of the general will will be discussed more intensively in the following chapter on the sovereignty of people. But what has to be mentioned in this chapter, is the following: It is the general will, that leads to the liberty of all, Rousseau says.

“The fact is that each individual as a man can have a particular will that doesn’t fit, and even conflicts with, the general will that he has as a citizen. His individual self-interest may speak to him quite differently from how the common interest does. […] To protect the social compact from being a mere empty formula, therefore, it silently includes the undertaking that anyone who refuses to obey the general will is to be compelled to do so by the whole body. This single item in the compact can give power to all the other items. It means nothing less than that each individual will be forced to be free.” (I, 7)


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Sovereignity versus Liberty. The Societal Idea in the "Federalist Papers" and in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Philosophy
A Comparison
Venice International University
Venice and the Republican Tradition
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sovereignity, liberty, societal, idea, federalist, papers, jean-jacques, rousseau’s, philosophy, comparison
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Thomas Klotz (Author), 2015, Sovereignity versus Liberty. The Societal Idea in the "Federalist Papers" and in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Philosophy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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