Rousseau and the representants: The politics of the lettres ecrites de la Montagne

Modern Intellectual History 3 (3):385-413 (2006)
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Rousseau's Lettresécritesdelamontagne have traditionally been cited as evidence of the influence on his thinking of Genevan traditions of democratic republican political argument, on the grounds that the Lettres were written on behalf of those members of the citizens and bourgeois in the city who were critical of the growing powers of the magistracy, the co-called représentants. This essay proposes a different reading. It argues that the Lettres confirmed long-standing Genevan suspicions about Rousseau's politics and theology which were held both by the représentants and the magistrates. The reason was that Rousseau had composed the Lettres as a critique both of représentant plans for democratic reform and of magisterial usurpation of the sovereign rights of the citizens. The Lettres underscored Rousseau's commitment to the distinction between sovereignty and government outlined in the Contratsocial. Rousseau believed that Geneva deserved to be a model for European states because the distinction between sovereignty and government characteristic of its constitution had such clear historical roots. He also recognized that growing uncertainty concerning the relative powers of the General Council, the smaller executive committees of leading magistrates, and the Consistory had created a political impasse. Accordingly the Lettres argued for a new political settlement, that would redefine the constitutional relationship between citizens and magistrates, as well as between church and the state. Rousseau emerges as a dedicated enemy of democratic political innovation in Geneva, and an advocate of renewed Reformation which would make religion the foundation of an anti-commercial morality. Rousseau's singular and heterodox perspective on Geneva and its history is outlined in the essay, which places Rousseau's Lettres in the broader local context of republican and magisterial reform politics



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