Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was an outstanding French writer and a revolutionary thinker, as well as a philosopher who gave a new interpretation to the theory of Social Contract in his work “The Social Contract”. Rousseau’s essay can be regarded as one of the greatest books dealing with political philosophy. Social Contract Theory, developed by such political philosophers as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, became a foundation of modern liberal democracy. Rousseau used the Social Contract Theory to expand and further develop his philosophical, political and social ideas and concepts.
The political theorist published “The Social Contract” in 1762, where he described the most fundamental principles regarding freedom, equality and liberty. According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the man is free only in the natural state, but within society he is more or less enslaved to that society. Passing from nature to the society is like passing from a place, where a person is free to a place, where he is constrained by others. However, it makes sense to band together to form a society to protect the rights of everybody. That is how society first came into being to assure and guarantee freedom, equality, liberties and rights. The main point of Rousseau’s theory of general will is that state and law can come into existence only by people’s general will. Each individual is not subject to any other individual, but to the general will. An outstanding representative of the Enlightenment based his theory of the social contract on the principle that all men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains. “Liberty” is the central concept in Rousseau's essay, and he shows how humans are forced to give up their liberty. Basing on the idea of the “social contract”, government is the mutual contract between the authorities and the governed. It means that individuals agree to be ruled only when their rights, property and happiness are protected by their rulers. French political theorist explains that a country’s government will only remain powerful as long as the people who are governed support it. Once rulers cease to protect the ruled, the social contract is broken, the citizens may unite and withdraw their support of the government (Of the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right 7).
The political theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a significant influence on Thomas Jefferson. In 1776 he wrote the Declaration of Independence, asserting America’s independence from Britain and forming a new society. Jefferson’s justification for independence rested heavily on the theories of European philosophers. He claimed that people endowed with such rights, as liberty, life and happiness, as well as the right to property, that should not be violated by the British government. Thomas Jefferson also used Rousseau’s social contract theory to justify his assertion of independence. Jefferson stated that the government is instituted, deriving its powers from the consent of the governed. This idea stems from Rousseau’s “social compact”, who also believed that a government can be formed when people give their consent to such formation. The author of the Declaration of Independence justified the American call for independence using the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Americans decided to rebel against Britain feeling that the existing government is hindering their rights and liberties, abusing their powers. In such a case, they have a right to alter or abolish it.
Few political documents have affected the world quite like the American Declaration of Independence, but it is worth remembering that it has its roots in the ideas of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. The only legitimate political authority can exist which is consented to by all the people, who have agreed to such government by entering into a social contract for the sake of their mutual preservation.