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The People's Two Powers:

Public Opinion and Popular Sovereignty from Rousseau to Tocqueville

Book Project. Invited for Submission to Cambridge University Press. Expected completion date: Autumn 2023.

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.

To this day, numerous historical accounts of the birth of modern democracy have revolved around Rousseau and the French Revolution. These narratives usually interpret Rousseau as a prominent theorist of popular sovereignty. From this starting point, they seek to demonstrate to what extent French Revolutionaries and subsequent nineteenth-century political thinkers followed or disavowed Rousseau’s account of popular sovereignty. This book is driven by the conviction that once we take Rousseau seriously not just as a theorist of popular sovereignty, but also as a theorist of public opinion, we gain a different historical perspective on the advent of modern democracy during the French Revolution and its aftermath.

In addition to being a prominent theorist of sovereignty, Rousseau was one of the first francophone political thinkers to write about public opinion. His key achievement, according to the story presented in this book, was to distinguish the two kinds of power the people could enjoy in a given political regime. Popular sovereignty was binding power, enunciated by a vote. Public opinion was a power of influence, manifested via petitions and citizens’ associations. Although Rousseau identified multiple political roles for public opinion in his ideal political regime, he associated democratic politics with popular sovereignty exclusively.

Using actors’ categories, the book chapters explore how Swiss and French political thinkers who are often credited with laying the foundations of modern democratic thought, including Condorcet, Robespierre, Benjamin Constant, and Tocqueville, all turned to Rousseau to design competing representative systems based on how they understood the people's two powers, from the French Revolution to the February Revolution of 1848. The book's conclusion recalls how liberal democracy was invented in France in the 1860s, and how this development coincided with the crystallization of a corresponding French liberal tradition. In that context, the differences between Constant and Tocqueville’s views on popular power were erased, and their common source of inspiration, Rousseau, was cast as the nemesis of liberal democracy. 

While contemporary genealogies of democracy tend to conflate representative democracy with liberal democracy, the book reveals that, initially articulated in France, they were contending systems relying on distinct accounts of the people’s two powers. Representative democracy was first designed in 1793 by thinkers like Condorcet and Robespierre. This regime supplemented the pressure of public opinion on elected representatives with mechanisms of direct popular sovereignty, including referenda. Liberal democracy was a later invention, intended to block the route towards popular-sovereignty-based representative democracy as French revolutionaries understood it. In the 1860s, French liberals conceived it as a distinct mode of organizing the power of the people, where popular sovereignty was reduced to elections and extra-electoral power took the form of public opinion exclusively.


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

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