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The People's Two Powers:

Public Opinion and Popular Sovereignty from Rousseau to Liberal Democracy

Book Manuscript. 

Here's an overview of the argument of the book. A table of contents is available for consultation here.

Feel free to contact me if you want to read parts of the manuscript.

Public opinion and popular sovereignty are two core concepts in contemporary political discourse and political theory. In the past decades, historians of political thought have investigated the genealogy of each notion. Many have turned to the French Revolution era – a crucial period to understand the development of the vocabulary and practice of democratic thought. Despite its considerable merits, the existing body of literature on public opinion and popular sovereignty in modern French political thought tends to focus on one of the two concepts.


Yet thinkers like Condorcet, Robespierre, Pierre-Louis Roederer, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Constant, Madame de Staël and Alexis de Tocqueville all wrote about public opinion and popular sovereignty, considering them to be distinct notions. This raises several further questions. What was the nature of this distinction? How did they articulate public opinion and popular sovereignty? Did some see public opinion or popular sovereignty as more important? And, most fundamentally, is there something to be learned from drawing such a distinction over time? 


This book is an attempt to answer these questions. It is driven by the conviction that when we study past  conceptions of public opinion and popular sovereignty together, we can gain a renewed historical perspective on the genesis of modern democratic thought during the revolutionary period. Subsequently, we can gain new insights into how liberal thought took shape in reaction to this development. What this book offers, thus, is a history of the successive rise of democracy and liberalism in modern France, based on how key political actors understood public opinion, popular sovereignty, and the relationship between the two in shifting political contexts.


The book begins with a back-story, which traces the distinction between public opinion and popular sovereignty to Rousseau. I then examine how that distinction paved the way for key French revolutionaries and then Bonapartist theorists to design competing accounts of democracy. The rest of the book charts how successive generations of French liberals reacted to the emergence of modern democracy, from the early nineteenth century to the 1860s.

As I hope to demonstrate, analysing Rousseau, the revolutionaries, and the Bonapartists’ successive conceptions of public opinion and popular sovereignty allows us to better understand the representative systems that, from the beginning of the nineteenth-century onwards, French liberals designed based on their interpretation of the Revolution and Napoleonic rule. Further along the way, we can better comprehend how, when, and why the term “liberal democracy” was introduced into our political vocabulary.


Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Coup d'oeil du théâtre de Besançon (1804).

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