When teaching the history of political philosophy to undergraduates, I always strive to find a way to make old texts seem relevant to the politics of the moment. Sometimes this can be a challenge, but on other occasions, it almost feels as if the past is whispering into their ears. Such is the case right now as Nancy Pelosi and the House of Representatives is preparing to forward its articles of impeachment to the Senate for its decision on whether or not to convict Donald Trump for “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” I speak foremost here of the House’s first article of impeachment, the abuse of power, which stresses that “President Trump abused the powers of the Presidency by ignoring and injuring national security and other vital national interests to obtain an improper personal political benefit.”
The article encapsulates many of the debates leading up to the president’s impeachment — that it is grossly inappropriate for presidents (but presumably any government officials) to prioritize their own personal or private interests above the national interest. In impeaching Trump on this count the House emphasizes that while a president may be understood to have private interests, he can in no way use his office to advance those interests. His job as president is exclusively to promote the national interest. In using his office in an attempt to undermine his political rival while withholding Congressionally approved funds to aid an ally engaged in a difficult war, the House has determined the president has failed in precisely this respect — sidelining the national interests to promote his own. It is simultaneously being argued in lawsuits related to the pursuit of Trump property profits suggests a pattern of the president privileging his private interest over the national interest. The underlying problem in both instances is a failure on the part of the president to serve the national interest, or inability to resist the urge to prioritize his own interest.
For this student of Rousseau, the president’s behavior evokes the 18th century Genevan’s distinction between the general and the private wills, most associated with his celebrated Social Contract. According to Rousseau, every citizen has both a private and a general will. The private will corresponds to our personal interests — our own pleasures, profits, preferences, and the like. The general will, by contrast, corresponds to our interests as citizens — namely, what serves the interest of all citizens, or the common good. Rousseau acknowledges that a citizen’s natural preference typically tends toward the private will:
His absolute and naturally independent existence can lead him to look on what he owes the common cause as a gratuitous contribution” and further that “he may want to enjoy the rights of a citizen without being willing to fulfill the duties of a subject, an injustice that would lead to the ruin of the body politic.
Our natural tendency, in other words, is to prefer ourselves above the interests of our community and fellow citizens. This is why it is essential that the government compel citizens through the force of law, on occasion, to live according to the general will, even and especially when their private interests incline them to do otherwise. A simple example of this would be that even when it may be in a corporation’s private interest to disregard environmental regulations, it can and must be compelled by the government to adhere to the regulations, and hence the general will. This is the essential logic of Rousseau’s theory of the general will as applied to individuals.
There is often a confusion about Rousseau’s general will — one that results in casual readers associating the general will with tyranny. Namely, some have alleged over the years that Rousseauvian government can create the general will whole cloth itself and then use it as a cudgel against citizens in order to support authoritarian regimes. “Along these lines, some might worry that the president’s claims to unique intellectual powers and further his claims to a “massive landslide victory” represents a strategy to subsume Rousseau’s general will into the president’s own will, claims that could foster a slide from republicanism into authoritarianism. Yet such arguments typically fail to consider two important elements of the general will as Rousseau describes it. First, they fail to acknowledge that the government has no role to play whatsoever in the derivation and articulation of the general will. Rather, the general will can only legitimately issue from the people in their sovereign legislative capacity. Second, the “government” or “prince,” by which Rousseau means “executive branch” in modern American terms, must be absolutely faithful to that general will, as a servant of the legislature and the citizens themselves. In Rousseau’s own words:
the dominant will of the prince is not or should not be anything other than the general will or the law. . . . As soon as he wishes to derive from himself some absolute and independent act, the links of the whole begin to loosen. If it should come to pass that the prince has a particular will more active than the will of the sovereign, and that he uses the public force in his hands to obey [his own] particular will, so that one has, as it were, two sovereigns, one by right and the other by fact, at that instant the social union would vanish and the body politic would be dissolved.
In other words, if the executive privileges the particular will over the general will, Rousseau expects the state to collapse. Maybe not immediately, but inevitably all the same.
Such was the express logic of the French in the late 18th century who forged the Revolution against King Louis XVI, a ruler who was popularly understood have subordinated the general will to his family’s own private will. Much blood was infamously shed in the process, including that of the king and queen. The Americans perceived the same danger as the French, yet sought a more moderate solution: impeachment and removal. It is this kind of fear of political violence and upheaval expressly that led Benjamin Franklin to make his case for the Congressional powers of impeachment and removal as an alternative to said violence. Without this constitutional and lawful remedy, “recourse [in Western Europe] was had to assassination in which he [the king] was not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way therefore to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal where he should be unjustly accused.”
It is infrequently noted, but the American founders evoked both the general will and the related concept of the “general good” in The Federalist. And like Rousseau, they understood the role of the executive branch to be to carry out the laws and the general good — not to subvert them in favor of the executive’s private interests. Unlike the French of the 18th century, however, they offered the relatively dignified removal from office, as opposed to the Continental fashion of removing heads. Both strategies, however, were conceived as a means of protecting against the dissolution of a republic from executives who no longer cared to subordinate their private will to the general will. We should be grateful to the Founders for having the foresight to have conceived this moderate option, expressly conceived to save the republic. It is now up to the Senate to play its role in understanding this distinction between the general and private will and to act accordingly.
David Lay Williams is Professor of Political Science at DePaul University and author of Rousseau’s Platonic Enlightenment, Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction, as well as co-editor of The General Will: The Evolution of a Concept, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Fundamental Political Writings.