On Sovereignty (VI)

Monument commemorating the first centenary of the approval of the Constitution of 1812 in Cádiz. Wikiwand.

***La versión original en español del artículo se puede encontrar en este enlace. La traducción al inglés la ha realizado uno de los miembros del Círculo Camino Real de Tejas con la supervisión de los traductores del Gremio San Jerónimo***

Here we publish the sixth in a series of articles originally published between late 1854 and early 1855. In this one, we analyze the ultimate consequences of the so-called “Social Compact” that Rousseau envisioned as the foundation of political society. The reader will find that, despite the time in which they were written, the words reproduced below are still very relevant.


Far from predating the formation of nations, the compact supposed by Rousseau could not possibly have existed anywhere. Indeed, nowhere on earth have all the individuals of a State, however numerous, been able to express their will immediately, freely, and legally, in full knowledge of the facts, on any matter concerning their government; either because, as we have already indicated, it is impossible for them all to assemble in a single meeting; or because, even if they were divided into several, it is necessary to exclude women, minors, the insane, transients, the bankrupt, etc. Either because, having reduced the number to the adult males who enjoy the right of citizenship, they would still have to delegate their faculties to a very few persons, that is to say, to an imperceptible minority compared to the whole; or because, if half plus one were sufficient for there to be agreement, it would ultimately result that only a few would be those who, by general will, would give their own consent in order to formalize the contract and determine its terms.

Now, suppose the majority of the delegates, or a considerable portion of them, disapprove of what the other delegates have done: what then is to be done with the dissenters? Are they to be left at liberty to make another compact, and to agree to other terms, if they please? Poor society, if this were to be done! Very soon these dissenters would be followed by others, and the social compacts would become as numerous as the religions of those who have separated from the Roman Pontiff. Should they be coerced by force of arms to go through with what the representatives have agreed upon? No, because the oracle of Geneva says that not only a considerable part of the society, but each of its individuals has the natural and indefeasible right to leave it if the circumstances of the compact do not suit him. What do our readers think? Is such a social compact not the greatest absurdity that has come out of the human mind?

Let us make as many concessions as possible. Let us take it at face value that such a covenant is possible, that it is really being made, and that the present generation is willing to accept it: has it advanced anything? No, because the sovereign can always say that circumstances have changed and that it is therefore necessary to modify the compact and adapt it to the new demands of the people. Assuming that the present generation does not say anything, will the next generation do the same? It is impossible to imagine. Naturally, it will say that the laws, that is, the fundamental compact of its ancestors, do not suit it; that they were barbarians and that it is a waste to follow their system. We have misused the adverb «naturally»; we should have said that it must necessarily be so, because from generation to generation the circumstances of countries vary, the state of the enlightenment varies, and everything varies, and it is impossible that the compact which is acceptable and advantageous today will be so in thirty or forty years. Hence the necessity of continually renewing the social contract, from which it would result that nothing was stable in the nations and that in each generation it would be necessary to change the form of government, its public law, its legislation and even its geographical demarcation.

To avoid such inconveniences, it will be said to us, the individuals of the first generation, that is to say, the first contracting parties, may, as the famous legislators of Cádiz did, insert into the fundamental compact which they make, the condition that it shall not be touched, nor can it be touched, until a certain number of years have elapsed, thus making these frequent changes impossible. To those who would say such a thing, it might be answered by asking them the same question as Jeremy Bentham: «What right has the present generation to fetter the will of the coming generation?» If the men of today, as sovereigns, are arbiters to determine the terms of the compact, why should not the men of tomorrow and all those who will come after them be equally so? There is no solution to this argument.

Moreover, if we look at any epoch, we will see that it is not possible for all the individuals of a nation to be so dissatisfied with the state of the society in which they live that they agree to destroy it in order to rebuild it. On the contrary, history teaches us that all the revolutions that have taken place in the world have always been the work either of unforeseen coincidences or of the daring of a small number of individuals who, with good or bad intentions, have wished to overthrow the established order and have succeeded in doing so. The regeneration of a people has never come, and will never come, from a mutual, unanimous and general decision of its inhabitants. With every change, so that some gain, others lose, and those who live by abuses will not want to be reformed. Special interests are diverse, complicated, and even conflicting. Consequently, it is impossible that all the individuals of a nation should ever agree to make and carry out new contracts affecting these interests. If this were possible, who doubts that the very attempt to do so would be the source of great calamities? What else produced the terrible revolution of France in 1789, and the perpetual unrest and state of war in which Spanish America lives? Who else has caused the ruin of its agriculture, industry, and commerce, the increase of its debt, the corruption of its public morals, and the other calamities it suffers? Who else has caused the disorders that have befallen the peninsula, the sad situation to which it has been reduced, and the hardships that afflict its inhabitants?

It is not only the perpetual civil war, with its deplorable consequences, that makes the frequent change of compacts so terrible, but also the well-founded mistrust of a foreign war, the success of which is the conquest of the State and the loss of its independence. What happened to France in the final decade of the last century, because she had dared to make innovations in the existing order of things? That she suffered incalculable horrors, an almost continuous war for twenty-five years and the loss of four million of her children; that her territory was twice occupied by foreign powers; and that, if she retained her independence, it was only because it was impossible to dismember her without destroying the European equilibrium. What has become of our former American possessions? That they live in a terrible anarchy, and if they have not been conquered, it is because their misery and demoralization cannot excite the ambition of any State. And finally, what has become of unhappy Spain? That she has become so exhausted and lifeless that she will scarcely be able to resist an army of 20,000 men.

Tell us now, impartial and sincere readers: is this immense accumulation of evils preferable to the very small one that can be found in leaving things as they have been since the beginning of the world, except that societies, by the hand of their governments, make the reforms whose necessity has been demonstrated by experience, something that has always been done and will be done without resorting to imaginary contracts that could not be achieved without tremendous revolutions? Is the feverish and anxious life to which these unworkable compacts have brought us preferable to the calm and happy life of our grandparents?



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