The Limits of Victorian Federalism: E. A. Freeman’s History of Federal Government


For Europeans in the 1860s, federalism was a familiar idea. Federations had been proposed as possible solutions for both Italian and German unification. In 1858, at Plombières, Louis Napoleon had suggested reorganizing Italy as a federation of four princely states with the pope at its head. A Germanic Confederation had existed ever since the Congress of Vienna, and after the Austrian War in 1866, Bismarck established a North German Confederation under the presidency of Prussia. Federations might play a role in other parts of the continent as well. After the Crimean War, for instance, a federation of Balkan states seemed to offer an alternative to Ottoman dominion in southeastern Europe. But federal governments were not without their problems. Across the Atlantic, the American Civil War was testing the resilience of the world’s largest federation, and for a moment at least this conflict called into question the whole federalist enterprise.

English writers found the federal idea attractive in large part because it seemed to provide a solution to the problems posed by Europe’s emerging nationalities. John Stuart Mill, in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861), raised the issue in exactly this context. According to Mill, federations were most suitable in those regions where a number of small states possessed similar interests based on common language, religion, ethnicity and political institutions, but where traditions of independence prevented them from uniting in a single consolidated state. Thus for Mill federations facilitated nation-building, the process whereby small states sharing a common nationality were amalgamated into larger entities. The advantage of a federation, Mill went on, was that it would protect the member states from hostile neighbors, particularly when those neighbors were “feudal monarchs” who resented the liberal institutions that generally characterized federal governments. Here the image of a federally united Italy facing an autocratic Austria came most readily to mind. Indeed, Mill wondered whether a unified Italy might not be a perfect candidate for federal organization, though by the time Representative Government came out the creation of a consolidated Italian monarchy had all but answered the question.

Mill’s ideas were symptomatic of the age as other writers were drawn to federalism for similar reasons. In 1863, Edward Augustus Freeman published the first volume of his History of Federal Government, a study of ancient Greek federalism under the Achaean League. Though unknown today, Freeman was undoubtedly the most enthusiastic advocate of the federal idea that Victorian England produced. He is best considered a liberal nationalist who was drawn to federalism in large part because it spoke to the problems posed by continental nationalism. He regarded nationality as a linguistic and racial category, and he anticipated the day when large states, each representing the will of a single sovereign nation, would define the European state system. He endorsed nationalist movements in Italy, Germany and the Balkans, and opposed the Austrian and Ottoman empires on the grounds that they violated the principles of nationality and popular sovereignty. To help build these new nation-states, Freeman pointed to federalism, arguing that federations would enable populations of similar nationality to achieve independence, cohesion and security, while at the same time establishing liberal governments in which decentralization would curb the exercise of power.


Freeman’s History of Federal Government was the first—and, as it turned out, the only—installment of a much larger work. His original intention was to write four volumes. Ancient Greek federalism under the Achaean League, the Swiss Confederation from the thirteenth century to the present day, the United Provinces from their independence to the French Revolution, and the development of federal government in the United States were to have a volume each. But in the event, Freeman wrote only the first. Though it was never completed as originally intended, the History of Federal Government was still a substantial work, combining an introductory chapter on federalism in general with a lengthy discussion of the Achaean League and other Greek attempts at federation. In 1893, J. B. Bury oversaw a new edition of the book, adding to the original text a few fragments found among Freeman’s papers.

Freeman’s federalism—the way he defined it and the advantages he attached to it—spoke directly to contemporary European problems. Indeed, the numerous references to current events that peppered the History of Federal Government made it clear that present-day concerns were never far from his mind as he wrote the book. The American Civil War alone, he thought, had made the “origin” and “destiny” of federalism “the most interesting of all political problems.” But more than America, it was Europe he was contemplating: for in essence, federalism was Freeman’s response to the rise of nationalism, especially in Italy and the Balkans, the two areas of Europe most pressingly in need of redefinition. It was not accidental that Freeman began to write his History of Federal Government during the Crimean War, a conflict that placed the future of the Italian and the Balkan nations before the public. Federations, he suggested, would organize these emerging nationalities into viable political units, establish peace and stability in two troubled regions, guarantee political and intellectual progress, and promote the cause of freedom. As a rule, the Victorians favored large political units and Freeman was no exception. Only states of considerable size, they believed, would have the resources to support viable economies, provide for defense and play a stabilizing role in the balance of power. Most Victorian liberals, therefore, saw nationalism as a force leading to the creation of large nation-states, whether in Germany, Italy or the Balkans. The problem confronting these liberal nationalists was how to overcome the strong divisions that stood in the way of consolidation, and federalism seemed to provide the answer because of its respect for local customs and allegiances.

In presenting federal ideas in a favorable light, Freeman was pursuing goals that were actually more conventional and limited than might at first appear. He accepted the European state system as it functioned in his own day:  an arrangement of sovereign states, each independent, recognizing no higher authority and existing in competition with one another. He did not regard federalism as an alternative to this system, as some kind of supranational organization regulating relations between states and thus calling on its members to surrender a degree of their autonomy. He was not, in other words, a visionary dreaming of a federally united Europe. By the turn of the century, some English federalists would begin to think in these terms, but Freeman clearly did not. As a mid-Victorian liberal, he thought within prevailing assumptions and saw no need to replace the existing system with something new. Indeed, for him federalism was a way to make this system work more smoothly by reconstructing the messy parts of Europe—Italy, Germany, the Balkans, the Habsburg lands—on the basis of large, stable states. Nor did Freeman regard federalism as a solution to the constitutional problems that arose in Britain in the 1880s and 1890s over Irish home rule and imperial federation. Having derived his federalist principles from a continental context, he was reluctant to apply them to Britain. Because he saw federation as a means to build or preserve large states, he considered it applicable to those areas where large states did not exist. But such was not the case with Britain. To create a federal Britain by sharing sovereignty with Ireland or the colonies would only reverse the process of nation-building and weaken an already strong unitary state.

Freeman began his History with a definition: “A Federal Commonwealth,” he wrote, “…in its perfect form, is one which forms a single state in its relations to other nations, but which consists of many states with regard to its internal government.” Such an arrangement, he continued, usually arose when a number of smaller states united together and delegated authority to a central government, which then presided over their combined affairs. In joining a federation, however, member states did not relinquish all their former independence, but rather retained absolute sovereignty over their own internal affairs: they could determine their own laws and the forms of their own constitutions. In a similar manner, the central government, while not permitted to interfere in the internal affairs of the member states, was absolutely sovereign in those matters affecting the entire federation, especially its relationship with the outside world. “The making of peace and war, the sending and receiving of ambassadors,” Freeman wrote, “generally all that comes within the department of International Law, will be reserved wholly to the central power. Indeed, the very existence of the several members of the Union will be diplomatically unknown to foreign nations, which will never be called upon to deal with any power except the Central Government.”

In an effort to categorize this composite type of government, Freeman rejected the normal classification of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. A federal government, he pointed out, could actually fall into any one of these classes since a union of democracies, aristocracies, or even monarchies was each theoretically possible. Instead of using these conventional categories, Freeman proposed to divide governments by size into small or large states, a taxonomy that he believed would reveal the particular advantage of a federal system. As he explained: “A Federal Government is most likely to be formed when the question arises whether several small states shall remain perfectly independent, or shall be consolidated into a single great state. A Federal tie harmonizes the two contending principles by reconciling a certain amount of union with a certain amount of independence. A Federal Government then is a mean between the system of large states and the system of small states.” These small and large states, for Freeman, were also historically specific. The small state, which must be small enough for all its citizens to gather in one place for political purposes, had reached perfection in the independent cities of ancient Greece. The large state, which must be so large that the distances between citizens made such direct participation in politics impossible, had achieved perfection in the monarchies of modern Europe. A federal state was then a compromise between past and present: because it permitted small states to retain much of their independence while grouping them in larger political units, it would at its best combine the political freedom of the Greek city with the stability of the large European monarchy.

The greatest advantage of the small state was its ability to educate its citizens. By encouraging them to participate in politics, the ancient Greek city gave its residents an unprecedented opportunity to learn the skills and responsibilities of governing. A small state like Athens, Freeman declared with Victorian confidence, provided all its citizens with the kind of political education that the contemporary House of Commons gave to its several hundred members. The result was a people of the highest political sophistication. Praising in this way the participatory politics of the ancient city state, Freeman came forward as an enthusiast for Athenian democracy. No other political system “made a greater number of citizens fit to use power…,” he maintained: “…The Athenian citizen, by constantly hearing questions of foreign policy and domestic administration freely argued by the greatest orators that the world ever saw, received a political education which nothing else in the history of mankind has ever been found to equal.” Only in a city like Athens, he concluded, would “the average of political knowledge, and indeed of general intelligence of every kind, be so high….” But the small state had its drawbacks as well. The restricted size of the political field tended to intensify rivalries and create lasting political divisions. The absence of any overarching authority to which neighboring states could appeal for justice made it all but inevitable that disputes between them would be settled through war. Vicious internal strife and chronic warfare ensured that the life of the small state would be short and its history would be one of disorder and turmoil.

Providing peace and stability, however, was exactly what Freeman thought the large modern kingdom did best. A central government, presiding over numerous cities and treating each of its subjects impartially, would ensure that local disagreements were settled peacefully, thereby avoiding the constant warfare that had plagued the ancient city states.  When wars did break out between large states, they would also tend to be less disruptive and less costly than the wars between either ancient or modern cities. “A happily situated … nation may wage war after war, and spend nothing except its treasures and the blood of the soldiers actually engaged,” Freeman wrote with the optimism of one who had not yet experienced twentieth-century war: “The wars which we can ourselves remember, the Russian War of 1854–6 and the Lombard campaign of 1859, have been mere child’s play compared to the great internal wars either of Greece or of Germany. The scale of the powers engaged of course caused a tremendous loss of life among actual combatants, but the general amount of misery inflicted on the world was trifling in proportion to what was caused either by the Peloponnesian War or by the War of Thirty Years.” But large modern kingdoms paid a price for this peace and stability. More orderly than the ancient Greek cities, they were less able to engage their citizens politically, even when they were constitutional monarchies. Because of their size, these large states were inevitably governed by representative assemblies, a practice which limited the involvement of most citizens to the election of those who would represent them. Such a system, Freeman argued, removed the average citizen from the political process and contributed to his political debasement. Electors were often “ignorant and careless of public affairs.” They often cast their votes “blindly, recklessly, and corruptly.” Some did not even bother to vote, while others sold their votes. “Ignorance, carelessness, and corruption”—these, Freeman concluded, were the shortcomings of large-scale representative government.

Forced to choose between the vital but turbulent politics of the city state and the orderly but disengaged politics of the large monarchy, Freeman knew where his preference lay. The Greek city, he readily admitted, was a thing of the past and could not be recalled. The large monarchy, with its representative institutions, was the great Teutonic contribution to politics and it had brought a well needed stability to much of Europe. But the beauty of the federation, which combined the best of both the small and large state, was that one did not have to choose. A federal government, Freeman argued, would guarantee stability almost as effectively as a monarchy because, like the monarchy, it had the power to adjudicate peacefully any disputes that arose among its constituents. A federal government would educate its citizens almost as effectively as a city state because the principle of decentralization, which defined the federation, would foster a genuine respect for traditions of local self-government—and, for Freeman, nothing was more likely to improve citizens politically than the experience of governing themselves. In a federation, he wrote, “republican habits and feelings will cause appeals to the people to be far more common and far more direct than is usual in a monarchic state. Political meetings and regularly organized Conventions will be far more common and far more influential.” Above all, the principal that each member state should manage its own affairs without interference from above would naturally ensure that these states grant a large amount of municipal liberty to their own counties, cities and towns. “In the New England States,” Freeman noted, “where the true Federal model is best carried out, local Self-Government seems to have reached its fullest development.” There, amid the excitement of the New England town meeting, citizens received a kind of political education that was unavailable in the centralized monarchies of contemporary Europe.

Freeman’s History of Federal Government was the most sophisticated treatment of its subject to appear in England during the nineteenth century and it revealed the parameters that shaped most Victorian thinking about federalism. For Freeman, as for Mill and others, federation was a process of building nations, not of breaking them apart, and it was applicable therefore only to those areas where large states were lacking. The goal of federation was to achieve international stability within the existing state system and domestic freedom based on local self-government. As Freeman’s comments on war made clear, he did not envision a world free of conflict, but rather a system of independent states where the disruption, frequency and cost of war was lessened because the states involved were large. As his comments on New England made clear, he approved of federal government because it encouraged a decentralized but orderly democracy. Such was Freeman’s understanding of federalism, and his discussion of it placed him in the forefront of progressive thinking in England. In his Considerations on Representative Government, Mill had evaluated government on the same grounds as Freeman. For Mill, as for Freeman, the purpose of government was to foster “virtue and intelligence” among the governed and ancient Athens was the one place where this had been done most effectively. The experience of Athenian democracy, Mill wrote, anticipating Freeman, “raised the intellectual standard of an average Athenian citizen far beyond anything of which there is yet an example in any other mass of men, ancient or modern. The proofs of this are apparent in every page of our great historian of Greece….” The reference to George Grote’s History of Greece (1846–1856) is instructive: for by the mid-nineteenth century, ancient Athens had become a litmus test for attitudes to democracy, and Grote’s vindication of Athenian democracy, which Freeman and Mill both praised, was one of the great works of Victorian radicalism.


Freeman chose to illustrate the advantages of federalism for nation-building by turning to antiquity and writing a history of the Achaean League, a confederation of Greek cities whose leader, Aratus, united the Greeks and drove the Macedonians from the Peloponnese. That Freeman should have looked to ancient Greece was not surprising. The Victorians, after all, were immersed in the classical past. But they did not consider all periods equal, preferring the Athens of Plato and Thucydides to the later periods. Freeman, however, saw things differently. He was drawn to later Greek history precisely because of its modernity: “…it is the history of a complex political world, in which single cities, monarchies, and Federations, all play their part, just as they do in the European history of later times.” As Freeman told the story of the Achaean League, he drew an explicit parallel between past and present: the League’s rise was nothing less than a “national struggle of Greece against Macedonia” that resembled the campaigns for Italian unification, which he considered “the most glorious event of our own day.” Macedonia was a foreign power holding the Greeks in subjection, much as Austria had dominated Italy, and the League stood for unification. The lessons of ancient Greece were many. Athens gave the world philosophy, art, poetry. The Achaean League gave the world a different lesson: how to unite, throw off the oppressor, and achieve national freedom. “For a hundred and forty years,” Freeman concluded, “…the League had given to a larger portion of Greece than any previous age had seen, a measure of freedom, unity, and general good government, which may well atone for the lack of the dazzling glory of the old Athenian Democracy. It was no slight achievement to weld together so many cities into an Union which strengthened them against foreign Kings and Senates, and which yet preserved to them that internal independence which was so dear to the Hellenic mind.”

If, as Freeman wanted us to believe, the Achaean League fought the war of Greek independence, then Aratus was its Cavour: he was “devoted to the cause of freedom,” to extending “the area of free Greece,” and the League under his leadership became “a great Pan-hellenic power, the centre of Grecian freedom, the foe of Tyrants and the refuge of the oppressed.” But if Aratus achieved independence and unity, he did so at a cost. Sparta stood in the way of Greek unification. Just as Cavour would cede Nice and Savoy to France in order to secure Louis Napoleon’s support in the campaign against Austria, so Aratus restored Corinth to Macedonia as the price of Macedonian aid in the war against Sparta. Freeman drew out the parallel between the two rulers:

There is indeed much likeness in the character and career of the two men; each sought the noblest of ends, but neither was so scrupulous as strict morality could wish as to the means by which those ends were to be compassed. Each was, in his own age, unrivalled for parliamentary and diplomatic skill; each indulged in the same dark and crooked policy…. But the cession of Akrokorinthos was a deeper sin against freedom than the cession of Savoy and Nizza. Both the Achaian and the Italian statesman surrendered a portion of the land which he had saved into the hands of a foreign despot; one surrendered his own ancestral province, the other surrendered the scene of his own most glorious exploit. Each deed was equally the betrayal of a trust, the narrowing of the area of freedom.

So the parallel was imperfect—Freeman preferred Cavour to Aratus, finding Cavour’s crime less odious—but that was hardly the point. As an example of political rhetoric, Freeman’s juxtaposition of past and present, of Aratus and Cavour, served to establish ancient Greek federalism and the Achaean League as a paradigm for modern nation-building.

Freeman intended his work as a piece of scholarship and in all fairness we ought to evaluate it as a contribution to classical historiography, not as a tract for the times. But scattered among the mind-numbing details that made up his description of the Achaean constitution were observations suggesting that he intended his work to speak to contemporary events. For example, his description of the League’s constitution emphasized its modern and liberal attributes, rendering it a suitable model for nineteenth-century nation-building. It was “strictly Federal” according to his definition: each city was independent regarding its internal affairs, a federal government determined relations with other states, and both city and federal governments were “democratic.” Freeman’s frequent comparisons of the Achaean and British constitutions, combined with his use of Victorian terminology, only reinforced the present-mindedness of his analysis. The Achaean federal assembly, he maintained, resembled the House of Commons, its magistrates acted as “Ministers” comprising a “Cabinet,” and there was a “Government” and an “Opposition.” His conclusion only perpetuated the confusion of past and present: “Altogether the general practical working of the Achaian system was a remarkable advance in the direction of modern constitutional government. And it especially resembles our own system in leaving to usage, to the discretion of particular persons and Assemblies, and to the natural working of circumstances, much which nations of a more theoretical turn of mind might have sought to rule by positive law.” Freeman’s ancient Greeks were Burkeans, eschewing abstract design and allowing precedence and circumstances to direct change, and their respect for constitutional procedures was English at heart.

Having asserted the suitability of the Achaean League as a model for contemporary nation-building, Freeman applied it to those areas in Europe where nationalism was forcing change: Italy, Greece, and the Balkans generally. Like so many English liberals, Freeman had been a longtime advocate of Italian nationality. As we have seen, Cavour assumed heroic proportions in his Federal Government as the statesman who unified Italy by liberating it from Austrian domination. But Italy in fact troubled Freeman because events there had not gone quite as he thought they should. He had always hoped that Italian unification would result in a federation rather than in a single consolidated monarchy. The conditions for federal government were all present: “The historic greatness of her cities, the wide diversities among her several provinces, the difference in feelings, manners, and even language, between Sicily, Rome, Tuscany, Venice, and Piedmont, all pointed to a Federal Union as the natural form for Italian freedom to assume. It seemed, on every ground, to be the form of unity under which Italy might look for the highest amount of internal prosperity and contentment.” But the Italians had decided otherwise, and with the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy all prospects for an Italian federation had vanished.

Freeman’s approach to Italy demonstrated the limitations of his historical rhetoric. By associating Aratus with Cavour, he had hoped to establish Achaean federalism as a viable model for nation-building. But this rhetorical strategy contained a flaw. The juxtaposition of Cavour and Aratus, rather than legitimating the Achaeans, could just as easily serve to discredit Cavour’s achievement. Whereas Aratus had gathered the Greek cities into a federation, Cavour delivered the Italian states to Victor Emanuel in the form of a consolidated monarchy. Cavour, it turned out, was not the kind of nation-builder that Freeman thought he was, and Italian unification had not followed the course that Freeman had marked out for it. In 1857, he had warned that Italian unification should not come about through the expansion of Piedmont because that would only undermine local liberties and lead to excessive centralization: “…No lover of Italy could endure to see Milan, and Venice, and Florence, and the Eternal City itself sink into provincial dependencies of the Savoyard.” And yet this was exactly what had happened. Even after unification was complete, Freeman continued to urge that Italy should pursue federal policies in order to avoid becoming centralized along French lines: “…It is not too late to say that the true policy of the Italian Kingdom will be to approach as near to the Federal type as a Consolidated state can approach. It should keep as far as possible from the deadening system of French centralization; it should give every province, every city, every district, the greatest amount of local independence consistent with the common national action of the whole realm. Naples and Florence and Milan must not be allowed for a moment to feel themselves in bondage to an upstart rival like Turin. It is only by establishing perfect equality, and therefore perfect local independence, through every corner of his realm that the King of Piedmont can grow into a true King of Italy….”

Greece was another troubled region that Freeman thought would have benefited from federal government. Late in life he described himself as a philhellene of fifty years, and throughout his career he was as passionate for the liberation of Greece as he was for the unification of Italy. But Greece had its problems as well: critics frequently accused the state of being one of the worst governed in Europe. Freeman admitted the charge, but placed much of the blame for this condition on interference by the great powers. Had Greece been left alone, he claimed, it would have developed into a federation: “Now all history tells me that a people winning its independence naturally adopts as its constitution the form of a Federal Republic. Instances two thousand years apart from each other all preach the same lesson. Achaia, Switzerland, Holland, America, all followed the same invariable impulse.” Conditions in Greece, he continued, were conducive to federation:  The country contained many geographically isolated communities that called out for local independence. The Ottomans had allowed the Greeks to retain “rude forms of municipality and self-government,” which could have provided the basis for a federal arrangement. A federal government would have accommodated the many minorities that fell within the borders of Greece: Albanians, Turks, Slavs, Wallachs, Jews. But instead of allowing Greece to develop in a federal direction, the great powers imposed a Bavarian monarchy which ignored these strong tendencies toward federation and established a centralized bureaucracy. A monarchy may have been necessary, but if Greece were to be governed well it should have been a monarchy that would have restored as much federal freedom as was consistent with a strong central authority.

But Freeman was thinking about the Balkans in general more than about Italy or Greece. His interest in federal government had coalesced around the time of the Crimean War, as the Russian advance into Wallachia and Moldavia, which forced the Ottomans to withdraw from the two principalities, raised the possibility of a new political arrangement in southeastern Europe. Freeman had always disliked the Ottomans: they were oppressors, the traditional enemy of Christian civilization, an Asian power encamped on European soil that would never assimilate to the West and therefore ought to go. In 1855, as the war drew to a close, he delivered a set of lectures on the History and Conquests of the Saracens that provided a historical justification for their removal. For Freeman, East and West had precise geographical boundaries. All lands that had fallen under the sway of either the Roman or Byzantine empires he considered European: their inhabitants had been Christian, had participated in Greco-Roman civilization, had at one time spoken either Greek or Latin, and had adhered to western political principles such as the rule of law. But the advance of Islam had eroded the edges of this European civilization. The Moorish conquest of Spain and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans were phases of a single movement that had taken from Europe lands that were rightfully its own. The burden of history, as Freeman felt it, was to reclaim Europe for itself and for Christianity. The ejection of the Moors from Spain had started the process and the liberation of the Balkans must now complete it. The question was how to accomplish this feat, and here federalism supplied the answer. Just as the Achaean League had united the Greeks and given them the strength to defeat the Macedonians, so a Balkan federation would provide the nations of southeastern Europe with the means to achieve their liberation. Searching for the common ground on which to build the federation, Freeman pointed to history and religion. It would be a federation of monarchies—Balkan political traditions were not republican—united by Orthodox Christianity, a common sense of having suffered for centuries at the hands of the Ottomans, and a reverence for the Byzantine Empire.

As this appreciation of Europe’s Byzantine past suggests, Freeman’s History of Federal Government was a very philhellenic work. It told the story of a heroic moment in Greek history, an early attempt to forge a Greek nation. It located the origin of the federal idea in the Greek past, appealed to the robust democracy of the Greek city-state as a remedy against excessive centralization, and pointed to the achievements of the Achaean League in order to demonstrate the value of federations for nation-building. As such it was a effective example of political rhetoric, making its case by appealing to ancient Greece, a civilization that enjoyed a privileged position in Victorian culture. The History of Federal Government was also a book with a purpose, as Freeman applied his federal thinking to those parts of Europe where the emergence of nationalism was making itself felt. He believed that Italy and Greece would have benefited from federal organization, and he urged the creation of a Balkan federation, hoping it would restore Europe by rescuing the region from Ottoman domination.


Freeman never completed the History of Federal Government. The final three volumes languished, un-researched and unwritten. But his interest in federalism persisted all the same. He welcomed the formation of a unified Germany, seeing it as an interesting example of a federation of monarchies, and when the Eastern Question erupted in violence in the 1870s, he once again thought of applying the federal model to the Balkans. But when spokesmen for Irish home rule and imperial federation turned federalism into a domestic issue, he was less than enthusiastic. It was only natural that Freeman, an advocate of the rights of nationality in other parts of Europe, would be drawn to embrace home rule for Ireland, especially after Gladstone took up the cause. He also saw the attraction of creating stronger ties between Britain and its English-speaking colonies, including its former possession, the United States. But no matter how sympathetic he was to the cause of home rule, no matter how strong his desire to unite the Anglophone world, he seriously doubted whether the constitutional relationship between either Great Britain and Ireland or Great Britain and its colonies could be established successfully on a federal basis. Federations, he argued, repeating what he had already said in his History of Federal Government, were only suitable in certain circumstances. Whereas they had a role to play whenever a number of small states were amalgamating into a larger one, they were unlikely to work when a large state was breaking apart. This had been the lesson of history—“that the Federal relation is in its place when it tries to unite and not when it tries to disunite”—and he pointed to the formation of the Swiss and American federations as examples. In both cases, he noted, federalism had initiated a process of amalgamation that over time would probably result in consolidated states.

Freeman then applied this lesson to home rule. A truly federal solution to the Irish problem would require Britain and Ireland each to surrender a degree of sovereignty to a federal government that would then preside over their common affairs. A more thorough federalism would go even further: it would call for the establishment of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales as autonomous states, which would then surrender sovereignty to a federal parliament. But for Freeman such a solution was unrealistic because it would reverse the direction toward greater consolidation in which federations historically proceeded. The fact was, he concluded, Ireland was a British dependency, and the only practical way for it to achieve home rule would be for Britain to delegate it certain sovereign powers. Such a procedure would grant Ireland greater autonomy, but the relationship between the two countries would not be federal since Ireland would remain a dependency. A federal arrangement for the empire was equally unworkable, and for similar reasons. The colonies, he observed, like Ireland, were dependencies. For Britain to share sovereignty with them in a federation would require Britain to relinquish certain powers, most importantly control over foreign affairs, to a federal government. It was one thing for a number of small states to do this because in the long run they would gain from the added strength that federation would bring. But for a large, consolidated state like Britain to lose its independence by sharing sovereignty with its dependencies was historically unprecedented: “The proposal that a ruling state … should come down from its position of empire, and enter into terms of equal confederation with its subject communities, is a very remarkable proposal, and one which perhaps never before had been made in the history of the world.”

Freeman’s reluctance to extend federal ties to Ireland or the empire underscores the limitations of his federalist thinking, especially in its practical application. A reading of the History of Federal Government leaves the unmistakable impression that he admired federations most of all because of their military potential, their ability to bring fragmented regions together in a concerted effort to throw off a common oppressor. His book’s projected volumes, had he written them, would have all told stories of national liberation: the Dutch and Swiss defending themselves against Habsburg power, the American colonies battling for independence. Freeman was preoccupied with nation-building, with organizing Europe into large states that would bring peace and stability to the continent while extending its frontiers. The thought of using federations to create still larger entities out of the fully-formed states of Europe was more ambitious than he ever intended. Even the federation’s professed ability to promote liberal government took second place to its military capabilities. A suspicion of centralized authority may have troubled Victorian liberals, especially as the French Second Empire came to embody their worst fears. But it is hard to comprehend how a federation of Balkan monarchies would have extended the political benefits of the small New England town to that troubled region. Far easier to see how it would have united the Balkan nations in an offensive league aimed at putting an end to Ottoman domination.

© Timothy Lang | Amherst, Massachusetts


A footnoted version of this essay can be found at ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst.

Picture credit: The Balkan Peninsula. Warren’s Common-School Geography (Philadelphia: Cowperthwait & Co., 1879), 79.

Rousseau and the Paradox of the Nation-State

But what are nations? What are these groups which are so familiar to us, and yet, if we stop to think, so strange…?

Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics (1872)


The nation-state, especially as it took shape in Europe during the nineteenth century, was perhaps the most paradoxical political institution of its age. Its impact on the modern world has been tremendous. Nation-states are basic constituents of modernity, providing the framework in which most of us lead our lives, and nationality is one of the fundamental conditions shaping our personal identity. We live in a system of territorial nation-states and see ourselves as belonging to one or more of them. And yet, how problematic the institution seems when expectations are weighed against outcomes.

Nineteenth-century liberals endorsed the nation-state as a means to progress. It would promote peace and stability, they said, by bringing political and national boundaries into alignment. It would set the groundwork for prosperity by transforming small states into large markets and for popular government by establishing liberal institutions responsive to the national will. The nation-state would encourage the liberty of individuals and peoples, the free development of the human spirit through meaningful communion with like-minded citizens. In some places and at some times it did all of these. Walter Bagehot saw nation-building as a necessary step toward progress; John Stuart Mill suggested that nation-states were a precondition for democracy; Johann Gottlieb Fichte taught that only by living in a nation could an individual gain access to the “eternal and the divine.” But no one was as optimistic as Giuseppe Mazzini, for whom nations were God’s chosen way for men and women to work for the well-being of all humanity. Someday, he prophesied, Europe would conform to God’s plan: nations and states would become coterminous and then “harmony and fraternity” would prevail.

And yet, the nation-state was an institution born of conflict. The wars of Italian and German unification, which disturbed the long nineteenth-century peace, and the Balkan wars of the early twentieth century, which led to the horrors of World War I, make this abundantly clear. Despite what its champions might have thought, the nation-state was an abstraction confronting an intransigent reality. It could never have coalesced in its pure form because nationalities with unambiguous identities and borders simply did not exist in Europe, and attempts to create it encountered insurmountable obstacles. Under these conditions, nationalism became strident and exclusive. Its politics became authoritarian, as aspiring nation-states discriminated against minorities, waged war on their neighbors, and demanded sacrifices from their citizens that might reasonably be construed as antithetical to freedom. An institution that many liberals hoped would bring peace, prosperity and freedom to Europe had just as often yielded contrary results.

This essay contends that a reading of Rousseau’s Social Contract, set against the eighteenth-century state system, reveals one way in which political thinking at the end of the Enlightenment anticipated this paradox. Neither nationalism nor the nation-state were fully developed concepts at the time Rousseau was writing, though glimpses of them appear in his works, suggesting in hindsight just how problematic the emerging nation-state might be. Rousseau’s Social Contract is a complex work of political philosophy, and no one who has read it carefully can deny that it contains any number of ambiguities. Its purpose was to delineate the perfect republic, to indicate how people should organize themselves politically to bring about the maximum degree of human freedom. But the matter was not that simple. Rousseau did not confine his republic to an idealized setting. He placed it within an international order, one state among many, and knew that it would need to defend itself. He may have designed the republic for liberty and self-government, but he equipped it for war. In the process, he endorsed a model of human association that, while possibly suitable for defense, insisted on uniformity and was not afraid to use coercion in order to achieve it. Rousseau’s Social Contract was a work of philosophy discussing ideas, not lived experience. But to the extent that ideas reflect behavior, it provides insights into why the emerging nation-state was often accompanied by war, an emphasis on social conformity, and a tendency toward authoritarian politics.


Rousseau—if we believe his Confessions—began thinking about political institutions in 1743 or 1744, while serving in Venice as private secretary to the French ambassador. He worked hard at his job and studied the art of diplomacy, a profession he hoped to make his own. This preoccupation with foreign affairs suggests that war and international relations were never far from his mind as he began the train of thought that would lead eventually to the Social Contract of 1762. He began these speculations during the War of the Austrian Succession and finished them as the Seven Years War was coming to an end. To read Rousseau’s political thought, then, against the eighteenth-century state system is not out of place. For in the Social Contract, Rousseau described the self-governing association, or republic, and asked how it might survive in a world of predatory states. An answer to that very practical question formed part of the book’s original design.

This question was not new. Republican theorists, from the early Renaissance onward, had pondered the rise and fall of republics, paying particular attention to how the republic should defend itself in a hostile international system. Florentine civic humanism had made the republic’s survival depend on the ability of its citizens to fulfill their responsibilities and bear arms in its defense. Fifteenth-century Italy was a land of independent regional states, all potentially in competition with one another. By the end of the century, Europe’s great territorial monarchies had started to intervene on the peninsula as well. The struggle between Milan and Florence was paramount at the beginning of the fifteenth century; the involvement of France, Spain and the Empire in Italian affairs was crucial at its end. Confronted by rivals, the Florentines articulated a civic humanism that called on citizens to lead virtuous public lives, to meet their civic responsibilities, to sacrifice private ambition for the common good, and to bear arms in defense of the republic. Machiavelli in particular understood the problem as a contest between virtù and fortuna, between the spirit of the republic’s citizens and the blind forces of chance. Service in the militia became for Machiavelli the highest expression of republican virtue, as the citizen-soldier renounced private interests in order to defend the republic and impose order on recalcitrant fortune.

Rousseau’s Europe was as subject to fortune as Machiavelli’s Italy. The state system as it developed from the War of the Austrian Succession to the Seven Years War was essentially anarchic. There were no institutions capable of enforcing a lawful international order: the Empire and Papacy had lost whatever influence they might have once possessed, while the concert of Europe had not yet come into being. Contemporaries might have thought a balance of power regulated the system just as naturally as the law of supply and demand regulated the marketplace. But the balance of power, as the eighteenth century understood it, did not guarantee peace. War played an integral part in maintaining the balance because states had to make good on the threat of war in order to prevent hegemony. In practice, the period saw conflict as dynastic states competed for advantage and as statesmen employed war as normal policy, seeking to expand and acquire territory in compensation for gains made by rival states. Bellicose as it was, this reality would enable Rousseau to argue, without fear of contradiction, that the social state, as opposed to the state of nature, was distinguished by war.

Dynastic ambition characterized the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) from beginning to end. Frederick the Great desired to enhance Prussia’s power and prestige by seizing Silesia. Charles Albert of Bavaria hoped to capture Bohemia and the title of Holy Roman Emperor. Maria Theresa needed to defend her territorial inheritance and claim the imperial title for her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine. The Spanish monarchs, Philip V and Elizabeth Farnese, sought a suitable principality in Italy for Elizabeth’s youngest son, while Charles Emmanuel III desired to expand Piedmont-Sardinia’s power in Italy at the expense of Spain and Austria. These were the rivalries and ambitions plaguing Europe as Rousseau arrived in Venice in 1743. Behind them lurked the great struggle between Habsburg and Bourbon for dominance in Europe, and between England and France for control of the seas. When Rousseau complained that kings had only two functions, “extending their domination abroad and rendering it more absolute at home,” he knew what he was talking about.

These rivalries persisted into the next decade, laying the groundwork for the Seven Years War (1756–1763). Anglo-French competition led to war in the colonies, especially North America, while Austro-Prussian enmity—Frederick’s desire to hold on to Silesia, Maria Theresa’s determination to win it back—brought war to the continent. The intervention of Russia and the failure of the European states to defeat Prussia led to the consolidation of the great power system in which Britain, France, Austria, Russia and Prussia dominated continental affairs while the lesser powers played a subservient role. No wonder, then, that Rousseau, who wrote the Social Contract just as this system was coming into existence, asked of the ideal republic, “but if it is very small, will it be subjugated?” The question of the republic’s survival in an international order dominated by hostile powers was not simply one he inherited from the classic age of Florentine republican thinking; it was equally the question posed by the age of Frederick the Great.

Rousseau analyzed the European state system in a number of works that he wrote between 1743, when he arrived in Venice, and 1762, when he published the Social Contract. Some, like the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and the article on “Political Economy” that he wrote for Diderot’s Encyclopedia, touched on the subject tangentially. Others, like his synopsis and criticism of Abbé de St Pierre’s Plan for Perpetual Peace, dealt with it directly, but are usually considered minor works. A number of fragments on war and peace make up yet a third category. All of these writings date to the years between 1754 and 1756, just before the Seven Years War, and all regard warfare as the natural condition of civilization, the inevitable consequence of man’s departure from the state of nature and his entrance into civil society. War, for Rousseau, was endemic to the eighteenth century and a structural component of its state system.

In the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau made his case. Men and women in the state of nature were as a rule peaceful because a profound sympathy for all living creatures—what he called “pity”—tempered their propensity for self-preservation. The selfish passions that so often provoked conflict, he argued, famously controverting Hobbes, were simply not found there. But no matter how idyllic this natural state may have been, the human capacity for perfection eventually induced men and women to leave it behind and gather in society. This transition was crucial for Rousseau’s thinking about war. Now that a social state had coalesced in which individuals judged themselves against others, those Hobbesian passions emerged. Pride in particular turned voluntary wrongs into outrages which the injured party had to avenge in deeds that were as cruel and bloodthirsty as the outrage was humiliating. Property similarly divided people, unleashing ambition and driving them to compete with each other to see who could accumulate the most, not out of need, but simply out of a desire to raise themselves above others. Pride and property: here were two conditions that made war integral to human society as Rousseau understood it in the eighteenth century, when princes fought over parcels of territory in order to assuage slights to their prestige. “Nascent Society,” he concluded, “gave way to the most horrible state of war….”

This progression to the social state was soon replicated everywhere. Men and women formed associations for self-preservation and the protection of property. They renounced their natural freedom, departed from the state of nature, and subjected themselves to the laws of civil society. One such association inevitably gave rise to others, ensuring that the earth became populated with competing nations. With only “tacit conventions” to regulate their conduct—what Rousseau called the right of nations—they engaged in mutual slaughter. “Hence arose National Wars, Battles, murders, and reprisals which make Nature tremble and shock reason…,” Rousseau wrote in a passage conveying his disgust at what civilization often entailed. “The most decent men learned to consider it one of their duties to murder their fellows; at length men were seen to massacre each other by the thousands without knowing why; more murders were committed on a single day of fighting and more horrors in the capture of a single city than were committed in the state of Nature during whole centuries over the entire face of the earth.”

The character of the state, Rousseau continued, now approaching the subject from a different angle, also contributed to this condition of chronic warfare. In his article on “Political Economy,” he assigned the state a will, which he defined as an expression of sovereignty. In a republic, where the people were sovereign, the will was general. In a monarchy, where a prince was sovereign, the will was personal. In either case, the state was an active agent, exerting itself in the world, seeking to fulfill either the general will of the people or the personal will of the prince. Eighteenth-century Europe, where all the emerging great powers were monarchies, was thus a system of willing, active states, all in competition with each other, as their sovereign princes sought to protect their prestige and augment their territory. What is more, the state was an artificial body without natural limits. Its potential for expansion was practically endless. Rousseau pointed out in one of his fragments on war that states constantly tried to overcome their vulnerabilities by expanding at the expense of their neighbors. Any state system, he concluded, was therefore inherently unstable: as member states sought security through expansion, they inevitably threatened their neighbors, prompting retaliatory expansion in return.

Rousseau’s conception of the prince as a willful actor on the international stage informed his criticism of the Abbé de St Pierre’s plan for perpetual peace. The Abbé de St Pierre had suggested that Europe existed in a balance of power, a natural equilibrium that included a chronic state of war as one of its elements. This balance may have been natural and achieved without human effort, but it was flawed because it required war as the means of maintaining itself. The Abbé de St Pierre proposed to perfect this arrangement and achieve “a perpetual and universal peace” by organizing the states of Europe into a federation based on everything they held in common: religion, morals, customs, literature, institutions, laws, geography, commerce. The federation’s governing congress would guarantee peace by arbitrating disputes, enforcing treaties and making decisions with the authority of law and backed by armed force. Rousseau’s principal objection to this plan was that Europe’s princes would never consent to it because they were too independent and irrational to be bound by anything. As willing sovereigns, princes rarely pursued their real interests, which might be fulfilled by peace, but rather pursued their apparent interests, which were more often fulfilled by war. Princes would never renounce the opportunity to extend their boundaries and increase their prestige. They would never subordinate themselves to the decisions of a tribunal since doing so would diminish that prestige by admitting weakness. What does a prince who goes to war risk except the lives of his subjects, Rousseau asked rhetorically? If he risked little, he chanced to gain much, since princely reputations were based largely on the ability to wage war.

The fragments on war confirm this picture. There we find Rousseau’s well-known description of civilized Europe as a field of carnage: “I raise my eyes and look into the distance. I perceive fires and flames, deserted countryside, pillaged cities. Fierce men, where are you dragging those wretched people? I hear a frightful noise; what tumult! what cries! I draw near; I see a theater of murders, ten thousand slaughtered men, the dead piled up in heaps, the dying crushed under the hooves of horses, everywhere the image of death and agony. This, then, is the fruit of these peaceful institutions! Pity, indignation raise themselves at the bottom of my heart. Ah barbarous philosopher! Come read us your book on a battlefield.” So Rousseau rejected the Hobbesian notion that warfare defined the state of nature. Instead, war arose later, once men and women had entered the civil state and nations populated the world. These nations, however, existed in a condition of anarchy with little to restrain them: natural law, which had earlier tempered human behavior, spoke only to individuals, not to nations; and international law was meaningless because it had no sanction. In coming together as nations, then, humankind created conditions that made war all but inevitable.

Rousseau prefaced his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality with a dedication to the Republic of Geneva in which he expressed his wish to live in a country whose government was based on popular sovereignty. But he knew that such a republic would always be precarious in a world of predatory states. It would have to be so small, he warned, that it would not feel the temptation to conquer and so fortunately situated as to have friendly neighbors. Only in such favorable circumstances could a self-governing body of citizens hope to survive, and the likelihood of finding such circumstances in the Europe of Frederick the Great was all but impossible. Like Machiavelli, then, Rousseau realized the precariousness of the republic, and like Machiavelli, he would call on its citizens to bear arms in its defense.


In the Social Contract, Rousseau presented his conception of the ideal republic. His argument was notoriously complex—even ambiguous—and these qualities have ensured that it has given rise to any number of competing interpretations. Without attempting to resolve these controversies, I simply want to point out a correlation between Rousseau’s awareness of the republic’s international precariousness and his understanding of its essential character: for the republic was admirably suited for the task of defense. The model that Rousseau had in mind as he wrote the Social Contract was the classic republic with its emphasis on civic virtue. No wonder: previously, in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, he had revealed a strong preference for the martial values associated with ancient republics: warlike Sparta, he proclaimed, was a “Republic of demi-Gods rather than men, so superior did their virtues seem to humanity.”

According to Rousseau, the republic originated in a voluntary act of incorporation whereby a number of people freely chose to submerge their individual wills beneath a general will. Here is how he first described the process:

If, then, we set aside from the social pact everything that is not essential to it, we will find that it can be reduced to the following terms: Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body we receive every member as an indivisible part of the whole. Instantly, in place of the private person of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as there are voices in the assembly, which receives from this same act its unity, its common self, its life, and its will. This public person, formed by the union of all the other persons, formerly took the name City, and now takes that of Republic….

In his account of the republic’s origin, Rousseau borrowed from Roman law the concept of incorporation, which he found in Hobbes and which established how a number of individuals come together to form a single public person. Rousseau then made several claims regarding this act of incorporation. To begin with, it created an association that was more than a simple aggregation of people held together by force. It was an association with a common good, with a genuine source of internal unity, with the kind of cohesion that animated a living organism. Because the republic was a single person, it had a single will, which Rousseau called the general will.

This act of incorporation also produced an association that respected the freedom of each individual member. Since all citizens participated in the deliberations of the assembly, the general will came to represent their own best interests, and this responsiveness to the voice of every citizen was what Rousseau meant by popular sovereignty. In order to preserve the generality of the will, the decisions of the assembly had to be binding on all its members, regardless of whether they were of the majority or not. Regarding those cases where private interests deviated from the general will, Rousseau’s judgment was chilling: “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that he will be forced to be free….” Only within an association of this sort, Rousseau continued, did people acquire a moral sensibility. As they departed the state of nature and entered the republic’s civil society, they became rational agents, acting according to their sense of public duty rather than listening to their instincts, impulses or desires. The ideal republic was thus an association of free and equal citizens, responding to a common will and working for a common good.

But in the real world, Rousseau acknowledged, the republic was vulnerable. Threatened by internal corruption and external conquest, it depended for its survival on the virtue of its citizens. Following the lead of his republican predecessors, Rousseau defined virtue as the propensity to place the public good above private interests: “Nothing,” he wrote in the Social Contract, “is more dangerous than the influence of private interests on public affairs…,” because whenever they dominate, the state is corrupted in its very essence. As the main source of corruption, Rousseau pointed to luxury, a condition all healthy republics should avoid. Luxury divided citizens into social classes, thereby undermining the republic’s cohesion, and bred indolence, enticing citizens to neglect their social responsibilities. As soon as they “serve with their pocketbooks rather than with their persons,” Rousseau warned in true republican fashion, “the State is already close to its ruin. Is it necessary to march to battle? They pay troops and stay home. Is it necessary to attend the Council? They name deputies and stay home. By dint of laziness and money, they finally have soldiers to enslave the country and representatives to sell it.”

Only virtuous citizens, then, had the ability to preserve the republic. They valued the public good above all else and participated directly in civic life so as to secure it, attending the assembly and bearing arms in the republic’s defense. Their manners and morals were simple; they were immune to the enticements of luxury, seeking neither comfort nor profit; they were forever vigilant, keeping watch on their governors and neighbors. They were free, equal and independent: “no citizen shall be so opulent that he can buy another,” Rousseau stipulated, “and none so poor that he is constrained to sell himself.” Here were unmistakeable echoes of the republican ideal as found in the works of Machiavelli and the other Florentines. Rousseau’s republic may have been small—and a small republic was preferable because it was uniform, cohesive and easy to administer—but no matter how small, it could defend itself by mustering the collective strength of its members, and since it had the coherence of a single person, it could direct this strength with a single will in order to achieve a single aim.


Rousseau’s speculations were not all theoretical, and on at least two occasions he turned his attention to practical matters. In 1764, Matteo Buttafuoco, a Corsican soldier serving in the French army, invited Rousseau, now famous for the Social Contract, to design a political system that would preserve Corsica’s freedom and independence. Several years later, around 1771, a convention of patriotic Polish aristocrats seeking their country’s independence from Russian interference, invited Rousseau to frame the best constitution possible for Poland. Both invitations provided him with an opportunity to comment on real-world situations. His Considerations on the Government of Poland in particular addressed explicitly the problem of how the small republic should defend itself in a world of hostile states. At times Rousseau pointed to federalism as a possible solution: republics could keep their more powerful neighbors at bay by uniting in a federation as the Swiss had done to protect themselves from Habsburg aggression. He recommended, for example, that the Poles divide their country into numerous small republics and then unite them in a federation for defense. Unfortunately, we know little more than this. Rousseau either destroyed, lost, or never wrote those sections of the Social Contract dealing with federalism. Alternatively, republics could establish defensive alliances with more powerful neighbors. But Rousseau advised against this policy, noting that treaties rarely worked to the advantage of small states. “Alliances, treaties, the faith of men, all these can bind the weak to the strong and never bind the strong to the weak,” he warned the Corsicans: “Thus leave negotiations to the powers and do not count on anything but yourself.”

This last phrase—“do not count on anything but yourself”—epitomized the republican ideal: instead of relying on others, the republic should call on the virtue of its citizens. It should foster their patriotism, encouraging them to put country before self, and organize them in a people’s militia for defense. This was his explicit advice to the Poles, and he pointed to the Social Contract for its theoretical justification. Poland was in a precarious position, surrounded by powerful and aggressive neighbors, all of whom had large armies at their command. Instead of trying to match these armies, which would only bankrupt the state, Poland should model itself on the Roman and Swiss republics and create a citizen’s militia: “This militia will cost the Republic little, will always be ready to serve it, and will serve it well, because in the end one always defends one’s own possessions better than someone else’s.” In true republican fashion, Rousseau pointed out that a people’s militia, unlike a standing army, would pose no threat to liberty. The militia’s strength would reside in patriotism, in its “love of the fatherland and of freedom…. As long as this love burns in hearts it will perhaps not protect you against a temporary yoke; but sooner or later it will explode, shake off the yoke and set you free. Work then without relaxation, ceaselessly, to carry patriotism to the highest degree in all Polish hearts.” Rousseau finally indicated how to foster this patriotism through proper education: “Upon opening its eyes a child ought to see the fatherland and until death ought to see nothing but it. Every true republican imbibes the love of the fatherland, that is to say, of the laws and of freedom along with his mother’s milk. This love makes up his whole existence; he sees only the fatherland, he lives only for it; as soon as he is alone, he is nothing: as soon as he has no more fatherland, he no longer is, and if he is not dead, he is worse than dead.”

Here we see the importance of patriotism for Rousseau’s thinking. The virtuous citizen must be a patriot, and the need to cultivate this patriotism placed certain conditions on the republic. In the first place, it required homogeneity. The republic emerged from an act of association in which all citizens surrendered their individuality to the general will. If the republic was a collective person with a single will, then there could be no factions within it. There could be no self-governing associations within the republic, for that would divide the general will, would divide sovereignty, and would deprive patriotism of its object. The republic must be uniform—on this he was adamant: “For the same reason that sovereignty is inalienable,” he wrote in the Social Contract, “it is indivisible. Because either the will is general or it is not. It is the will of the people as a body, or of only a part.” For Rousseau, a divided will meant a fragmented republic:

…when factions, partial associations at the expense of the large one, are formed, the will of each of these associations becomes general with reference to its members and particular with reference to the State…. When one of these associations is so big that it prevails over all the others,… then there is no longer a general will…. In order for the general will to be well expressed, it is therefore important that there be no partial society in the State….

Uniformity, then, was the precondition for patriotism: citizens must be loyal to the republic, not to particular sections within it. The republic required that all other loyalties be erased. Patriotism, like sovereignty, could not be divided.

This need for homogeneity also explained in part Rousseau’s preference for small states. He objected to the regional divisions that inevitably developed in large republics and that detracted from their unity. Different regions, he noted, each with their own environments and customs, created different kinds of people with different characteristics. “The same laws cannot be suited to such a variety of provinces, which have different morals, live in contrasting climates, and cannot tolerate the same form of government.” Thus large states would require several different legal systems. But “different laws only produce discord and confusion among peoples who, living under the same leaders and in continuous communication, move and get married in each other’s areas, and, being subjected to other customs, never know whether their patrimony is really theirs.” No one, we might add, would feel patriotic toward a patrimony that was not one’s own. Instead, it was small groups of people, those who were “already bound by some union of origin, interest or convention,” that provided the most suitable material for a republic.

But most important, the people must be malleable, for Rousseau knew that nations had to be made. When individuals joined the republic, they acquired the positive freedom to become part of the social whole, to merge into that single corporate entity we call the nation. It was the operation of the republic’s institutions and laws that carried out this transformation. Education, Rousseau had advised the Poles, provided one way to shape a pliable citizenry into a nation, and the operation of the laws provided another. The process of ascertaining the general will brought into focus the common interests that united the people and pushed to the margins those that did not. Finally, Rousseau envisioned a civil religion animating the entire republic and generating the highest form of patriotism. Each republic, he wrote in the Social Contract, should have its own religion, with its own gods, dogmas and rituals defined by law. This religion, “by making the fatherland the object of the Citizens’ adoration,… teaches them that to serve the State is to serve the tutelary God. It is a kind of Theocracy in which there ought to be no other pontiff than the Prince, nor other priests than the magistrates. Then to die for one’s country is to be martyred, to violate the laws is to be impious….”

This patriotism, as Rousseau conceived it, was distinct from nationalism. Whereas patriotism involved loyalty to the republic founded on citizenship and participation in the general will, nationalism entailed loyalty to a nation, often defined by a common language, ethnicity, culture, history and so on. Whereas patriotism demanded loyalty to a small republic, nationalism called for a large nation-state coterminous with the entire nation. These distinctions are important, as neither the concept of nationality nor the idea of a nation-state were prevalent at the time Rousseau was writing. But Rousseau was clearly heading in their direction: when he advised the Poles to organize their country as a federation of small republics, he was adapting his political theory to the emerging world of nationalism. For Rousseau, the general will expressed what was common to all members of the republic, it represented the will of the whole. To move from this notion of popular sovereignty to nationalism required only a small step. Once the nation was equated with the people, the general will expressed the national will. It followed that the nation must be as unified as the republic, without sections or divided loyalties. It, too, must be a public person with a single will.


If Rousseau brought western political thinking to the verge of the nation-state, Fichte crossed the line. His Addresses to the German Nation ranks as one of the classic texts of European nationalism. Much of Fichte’s political thinking, by way of Rousseau, came out of the republican tradition and established a unique political language for discussing the nation-state. Although Fichte largely abandoned the vocabulary of civic humanism, overlaying it with notions of soil, race and language, he retained enough of the earlier tradition for the republican contours of his thought to remain visible. He envisioned the nation, much as Rousseau had envisioned the republic, as a uniform body animated by a single will in which private interests yielded to the common good. Also like Rousseau, he recognized that the nation would be vulnerable because it was part of the international system, and that its best defense would be to call on the patriotism of individual citizens. The reason for drawing these parallels is not to reduce Fichte’s Addresses to a replica of Rousseau’s Social Contract—the Addresses are far too original and complex for that—but rather to demonstrate the suitability of republican discourse for articulating the aspirations of the emerging nation-state.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte delivered his fourteen Addresses to the German Nation in Berlin, between December 1807 and March 1808, as Prussia suffered under Napoleonic occupation. The state system in the early nineteenth century, just like its eighteenth-century predecessor, was subject to aggression, and Napoleon was every bit as intent on conquest as Frederick the Great had been. Control of the German states played a crucial role in Napoleon’s foreign policy. Revolutionary armies had already extended French domination as far as the Rhine, and Napoleon continued the process, defeating Prussia decisively in the battles of Jena and Auerstedt (October 1806). For Germans like Fichte, Prussia’s humiliation was palpable: Frederick William III had taken flight to East Prussia as French armies entered Berlin and the Prussian kingdom and its army were reduced to shadows of their former selves. Fichte, who had escaped eastward with the king, later returned to occupied Berlin in order to deliver what he knew would be a set of subversive lectures. His Addresses, then, can be read as a response to the Napoleonic conquest. The question they posed and the answer they gave both echoed Rousseau: how could the German people defend themselves in a world of predatory empires? Fichte’s answer: they must become a nation.

Germans at the time, especially younger intellectuals, were fascinated by Rousseau as a philosopher of alienation, and Fichte was no exception. His origins were modest: his father made a living by weaving and farming. He owed his education to an act of upper-class charity, when a passing nobleman noticed his talent and took charge of his schooling. As a young tutor, with little chance of meaningful employment, Fichte felt estranged from the bourgeois and aristocratic society of his patrons. This sense of marginality, of being an outsider in Germany’s society of orders, drew Fichte to Rousseau, especially to his indictment of the corruption blighting modern society. When the French Revolution broke out, Fichte became a supporter and published in its defense a Contribution toward Rectifying the Judgment of the Public on the French Revolution (1793), a work that drew inspiration from Rousseau’s Social Contract. Whereas German opponents of the Revolution had routinely vilified Rousseau, Fichte set out to vindicate him, declaring that he had already “awakened” the “human spirit” and suggesting that Kant’s philosophy had completed the work that he had begun. From that moment on, Rousseau’s Social Contract became a point of departure for much of Fichte’s political thinking.

The French Revolution set the groundwork for Fichte’s proposed revitalization of the German nation. Before the Revolution, Germany had been a congeries of some three hundred independent states, some large, some small. Germany’s fatal weakness, Fichte told his audience, lay in this political and moral fragmentation. Individualism and self-interest, what he called “material self-seeking,” had characterized the old order, as princes cared only about their own states, not the whole of Germany, and as citizens turned their backs on their neighbors. But this entire edifice had now collapsed before the French—“self-seeking” had been “destroyed by its own complete development”—and on its ruins Germans would create a new nation. The Revolution, in defeating the old Germany, had in effect cleared the ground for Germany’s recovery. Fichte aimed his Addresses at all Germans, despite their apparent divisions, and he declared in true republican fashion that they must not look to outsiders for help, but must learn to help themselves. The means he proposed for doing this entailed the “fashioning of an entirely new self.” He wanted “to mold the Germans into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by a common interest.” So, in response to the French invasion, Fichte called on the German speaking peoples to come together as a single nation through a process of incorporation that would subsume individual self-interest in the general will and give meaning to all its members by directing their efforts toward something larger than themselves. Here was Rousseau’s idea of the social contract applied to the nation.

Fichte insisted on the same degree of uniformity for the nation as Rousseau had demanded for the republic. A German essence, he said, rooted in race and language, had endured despite the calamities befalling the German people and would provide the source of this uniformity. Germans were a Teutonic people, a “branch of the Teutonic race.” They were distinct from other Teutons because they had remained in their ancestral “dwelling places,” and because they had “retained and developed the original language of the ancestral stock.” The role of language was absolutely crucial here, for it provided the instrument that created and sustained nations. “Men are formed by language,” Fichte said, “far more than language is formed by men.” Languages, according to Fichte, existed independently of the people who spoke them, and the ideas they contained deep within their fabric made their speakers the people they were. Ancestral languages, developing continuously and without foreign accretions, had the power therefore to perpetuate nations. An idea of German nationality—what Fichte described as the “sum total of the sensuous and mental life of the nation”—had been “deposited” in the German language, transforming all who spoke it into Germans and guaranteeing the uniformity that would allow the nation to form a single corporate body with a single will.

Much like Rousseau, Fichte emphasized the importance of education for refashioning the German self. The process of molding the German people into a nation would require “a total change of the existing system of education.” Whereas the old system had been suitable for an age of material self-seeking, the new system would transform this self-seeking into an quest for the common good. It would teach its students that freedom did not consist in doing as they pleased, but rather in pursuing the interests of the nation as a whole. Education, in other words, would compel them to be free, now that freedom was properly understood as conforming to the national will. Whereas Rousseau had simply stated that citizens of the republic who refused to obey the general will would be “constrained to do so,” Fichte specified the means for ensuring obedience: “The education proposed by me, therefore, is to be a reliable and deliberate art for fashioning in man a stable and infallible good will.”

We can read Fichte’s Addresses as an expression of what Isaiah Berlin has termed positive liberty: the freedom to live a meaningful life by developing one’s best self according to the standards of the community to which one belongs. Though he did not use the term, Fichte articulated the concept in his discussion of the need to educate the will. For Fichte, doing as one pleased was not exercising freedom, but rather responding to earthly appetites. True freedom, on the contrary, meant living according to one’s essence; and in the context of the Addresses, this meant living as a German. So, when Fichte proposed his new system of education and called on the rising generation of Germans to discipline their collective will, he was asking them to exercise their freedom in a positive sense by awakening their German essence. In the process, they would give their lives meaning. Outside the national community, they would remain isolated as individuals; but within it, they would become one with the ever-flowing stream of national life. At times, Fichte gave this thought a mystical rendering. The German nation, he said, existed eternally as a transcendent idea that became real as each generation disciplined its will and directed it toward the common good. This process of bringing the German nation to life was never ending, as each new generation picked up where the previous had left off, and it provided access to the divine. For Fichte, nations were earthly reflections of the divine order, they were a “totality of men” arising “out of the divine” and embodying it in their “national character.” As Germans labored to create their nation, they exercised their freedom by bringing the divine to bear on earth.

Fichte’s understanding of the nation as the embodiment of the divine order might appear far removed from the more worldly republican traditions with which we began this essay. And yet, Fichte was convinced that the German nation would express itself politically in republican institutions. Germans would succeed, he predicted, where the French revolutionaries had failed: they would create the perfect state. Whereas the French were mired in the age of self-seeking, the Germans would undergo Fichte’s rigorous system of education and readily embrace republican institutions. “Only the nation which has first solved in actual practice the problem of educating perfect men will then solve also the problem of the perfect state,” he told his audience. History had demonstrated that republican institutions, though alien to the French, were natural to the Germans, whose past abounded with republics. The imperial cities of the Hanseatic League had developed “civic constitutions and organizations which, though but on a small scale, were nonetheless of high excellence….” The German burghers had been true republicans, exercising civic virtue, sacrificing self-interest for the common weal. The Germans, Fichte concluded, were the only modern European nation “that has shown in practice, by the example of its burgher class for centuries, that it is capable of enduring a republican constitution.” For Fichte, then, the nation and the republic were opposite sides of the same coin. The nation became synonymous with the republic, an association in which individuals put self-interest aside, submerged themselves in the general will, and worked for the common good.

Now that he had embraced republican institutions, Fichte faced the same question as Rousseau: how was the republic to defend itself? For Fichte, the international order was just as predatory as it had been for Rousseau. It was an aggressive system in which Germany had historically served as the chief battleground and German unity had been the chief victim. Just think of the Thirty Years War or the wars of Frederick the Great, in which the European powers had used the German states as pawns in their quests for supremacy. So, how was the German nation, organized as a republic, to defeat its enemies? His answer: patriotism, or what he called love of fatherland. “…He to whom a fatherland has been handed down … fights to the last drop of his blood to hand on the precious possession unimpaired to his posterity. So it always has been.” This was especially true when the fatherland was understood as an emanation of the divine order and its survival as the citizen’s best guarantee of eternity on earth. The ancient Romans, the original Teutons, and the German Protestants at the Reformation had all fought for that sense of eternity. As before, Fichte’s language often crossed into the mystical, but his conception of patriotism fell right into line with classical thinking. Like Machiavelli and Rousseau, he called on the republic’s citizens to abandon their selfish impulses and provide for its defense. An armed people would accomplish what no standing army had. Fichte may have started his lectures with the observation that individual self-seeking had allowed Napoleon to conquer, but he ended them with the prediction that a love of fatherland, aroused by his new system of education, would enable Germany finally to achieve its independence.


This discussion of Fichte’s Addresses has demonstrated just how easily Rousseau’s republican discourse could be adapted to the new nationalism. Whereas Rousseau had conceptualized the republic, Fichte applied this conceptualization to the nation, an institution that would shape so much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The parallels between the two were quite profound. Both Rousseau and Fichte envisioned a political community based on an act of incorporation in which private citizens merged their individual wills into a general will, creating a single public person. This act of incorporation was preserved through education, through shaping the individual will, through coercion even, since neither Rousseau nor Fichte allowed deviance from the general will. It ensured that the community achieved unity and pursued a common goal. What individuals lost in terms of personal freedom—the ability to do as they pleased—they gained in terms of moral sensibility. Citizens, now partaking in the general will, became moral agents, leading meaningful lives, an integral part of their community. This insistence on uniformity played an even greater role when the republic or nation was contemplated not abstractly, but as part of the international system, which both theorists recognized as predatory. Both Rousseau and Fichte appreciated the republic’s precariousness, and drawing on a long tradition of republican thinking, called on the patriotism of citizens—patriotism inculcated and strengthened through civic education—to defend the republic.

Right at the center of their thinking, however, lay a disturbing paradox: Rousseau and Fichte both argued that individuals, in placing themselves under the general will, suffered no loss of freedom. For Rousseau, the citizen gave himself to no one when he gave himself to everyone. For Fichte, the German did nothing more than renounce his lower self when he submitted to the demands of the nation. This surrender of the individual will was crucial for both because it created the unity that the republic or nation required if it were to survive as a community capable of providing its members with purposeful lives. And yet, it is not at all clear what they meant when they claimed that the individual suffered no loss of freedom. This lack of clarity did not escape contemporaries. Benjamin Constant, writing in 1810, just a few years after Fichte delivered his Addresses, considered Rousseau’s theory a rhetorical sleight of hand. He was absolutely certain that it assigned tremendous power to the agents who implemented the general will: “…in handing yourself over to everyone else, it is certainly not true that you are giving yourself to no one,” he wrote in his Principles of Politics. “On the contrary, it is to surrender yourself to those who act in the name of all. It follows that in handing yourself over entirely, you do not enter a universally equal condition, since some people profit exclusively from the sacrifice of the rest.” If Rousseau conceived of the republic as a public person, then Constant warned that this public person had the power to oppress those who stood in its way; and as an illustration of how this power could be abused, he demonstrated just how easy it would be for such a government to persecute an unwanted minority.

Constant also questioned the relevance of Rousseau’s Social Contract to the emerging nineteenth century. Rather than speak to the modern world, it appeared to share far more with the ancient Greek and Roman republics, which were small, culturally uniform, and outfitted for war. “Our world is precisely the opposite of the ancient one,” Constant observed in his Principles. “Everything in antiquity related to war. Today everything is reckoned in terms of peace. In former times each people was an isolated family, born hostile to other families. Now a mass of people lives under different names and diverse modes of social organization….” The state system whose beginnings Rousseau had sketched in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality resembled closely the age of Frederick the Great, when princes went to war to conquer territory and defend their reputations. Within this context, a warlike republic that was compact, uniform, and animated by a single will might have made sense. But if applied to the new nationalism—and we have just followed its traces through Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation—then it might easily have conduced to politics that were belligerent, exclusive, and authoritarian.

© Timothy Lang | Amherst, Massachusetts


A footnoted version of this essay can be found at ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst.

Picture credit: Canaletto, “Venice: Entrance to the Cannaregio” (1734–1742). The National Gallery, London. The French embassy, where Rousseau was employed as private secretary to the ambassador in the early 1740s, was located along the Cannaregio.