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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Decline. It is clear that by the end of the
eighteenth century acceptance of the idea of Social
Contract was in rapid decline. It may seem strange
that the explanatory method of Locke and Rousseau
came under most serious attack just at the time when
the views they held were at their most influential. Such,
however, was the case. The hundred years separating
the English from the French Revolution contain the
most explicit arguments both for and against Social

Not that rejection of Social Contract was anything
new. An important body of opinion had never accepted
it. The publication of Hobbes' Leviathan had previ-
ously stimulated numerous hostile replies based on the
implausibility of supposing that men in a State of
Nature could ever have made a Social Contract. The
celebrated Sacheverell trial of 1710 was faced with the
tricky historical question of whether the original con-
tract was made before Magna Carta, and if so why
no mention of the contract was to be found within
it. Answers to questions such as these were increas-
ingly demanded, and decreasingly supplied, thereby
gradually reducing the value that could be derived from
the use of Social Contract theory.

The major eighteenth-century attack on Social Con-
tract appeared in David Hume's essay “Of the Original
Contract” (1748). Here it is suggested that we have
no evidence of a Social Contract ever having taken
place, and, in any case, the very idea is “far beyond
the comprehension of savages” in the State of Nature.
It was clear to Hume that the idea was spread by
philosophers, for the ordinary person does not usually
act as if his allegiance to government stems from con-
tract. In fact, “were you to ask the far greatest part
of the nation, whether they had ever consented to the
authority of their rulers, or promis'd to obey them, they
would be inclined to think very strangely of you.”
Government, Hume concludes, “was formed by vio-
lence, and submitted to from necessity.” Any legiti-
macy that may attach to it derives from gradual
acceptance, rather than from original explicit consent.
This criticism, of course, only applied to thinkers such
as Locke, who regarded the contract as a historical
event, and not to those who considered the contract
as an act that ought to take place. It was as a philo-
sophical inquiry of the way in which society should
be understood, or the structure it ought to have, that
the Social Contract method was best suited. Never-
theless an increasingly historical attitude towards soci-
ety was one of the main factors leading to the rejection
of Social Contract, even though not all of its propo-
nents had regarded the contract as a historical reality.

We might note that rejection of contract on grounds
of its historical implausibility did not immediately
result in a major attempt to find a historically accurate
account of the state's origins. Rather the question of
historical origins was deemed irrelevant to the problem
of political legitimacy and obligation. Philosophical
criteria, which had always been taken into account,
became, with the rise of utilitarianism, the sole stand-
ard. Such an approach had actually been near the
surface even with the most important Social Contract
theorists. Thus Hobbes passed lightly over the question
of the state's actual origins, merely pointing out that
men should behave “as if” a contract had been made.
Also his “commonwealth by acquisition” had exactly


similar claims to obedience as the “commonwealth by
institution”; a foreign conqueror was to be obeyed for
the same reasons as an indigenous monarch. In the last
resort the criterion of obligation was not so much that
of origins, as that of performance. If protection is
secured, then obedience is the only rational reaction.

Signs of emergent utilitarianism also occur in Locke's
justification of both property and political power ac-
cording to the criterion of beneficial use. Property can
be owned to the extent that it can be used—none must
go to waste. Political power can be rightfully exercised
only in accordance with the aims for which it was
supposedly instituted. Locke, therefore, is torn between
alternative modes of political legitimacy—the one
based on origins, stressing the importance of the correct
method of institution, and the other based on practice,
stressing that the rulers should govern in accord with
the purposes for which government was supposedly
first instituted.

We have already mentioned the way in which con-
tract was given a radical function by being used as
a means whereby conditional resistance to state power
could be justified. By the end of the eighteenth century
this usage was all but discarded, in response to the
gradual realization that the method's apparent radical-
ism had inherent limitations. The belief in contract
began to appear double-edged; radical when presented
in terms of an improvement, either as an old standard
to which society ought to return (Locke), or as a new
agreement that ought to be made in order to remedy
current deficiencies (Rousseau); but static when pre-
sented as an agreement that has been made, is in force,
and ought to be adhered to. Insofar as he used the
notion of contract, Burke employed it in this latter
sense. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France
(1790), we learn of a contract that is in no way a Social
Contract made by men. It has nothing to do with
historical origins, free choice, or individual consent to
government. Rather it is a kind of implicit under-
standing whereby the hierarchy of God, man, and
nature is perpetually maintained.

Society is indeed a contract... but between those who
are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be
born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause
in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking
the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible
and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned
by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral
natures, each in their appointed place.

In the panic engendered by the French Revolution,
Burke wished to stress obedience rather than resistance,
duties rather than rights. Being a Whig, Burke might
have found it useful to use Whig terminology, but he
did so without impairing his aim, for he turned the no-
tion of contract in a thoroughly conservative direction.

Burke's contemporary, William Godwin, was also
aware of the conservative twist that could be applied
to contract. The fact that it could be given this twist
was one of Burke's reasons for accepting it in highly
amended form, and Godwin's for rejecting it in any
form. What troubled Godwin was the notion that a
present generation could be shackled by decisions
taken long before their time. This would be to deny
the benefits of later knowledge. As such, a contract
is an absurdity, for it can only have been made with
the object of improving the human lot rather than
impairing it. Thus the contract method was considered
incompatible with the increasingly dominant Idea of
Progress. Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century op-
ponents of contract had been believers in divine right,
and had rejected the attempt to provide guarantees
against misuse of state power. By the late eighteenth
century it appeared that the form of these attempted
guarantees also acted against hopes of continual
improvement. Godwin criticized the contractualist
assumption that improvement could be brought about
by the immediate transformation of the unjust present
into the just future. To be successful, such an act would
have to be a miracle. Godwin saw as more likely a
steady and continual process, in which knowledge
always precedes novelty. This was the characteristic
basis on which radicals came to reject the Social Con-
tract. Improvement was desirable, but could only be
achieved gradually. Progress came to be based on
pseudo-scientific foundations, on apparent laws of
historical development, rather than on the sudden
decision of men totally to transform their society. An
additional factor is that the contract was further
discredited, at least in England, by its association with
Rousseau and the French Revolution. The panic
aroused served to create an atmosphere in which the
least spark of discontent was rigorously suppressed, lest
it flare into a conflagration beyond all human control.
Those who had the courage to advocate reform had
to do so without recourse to Social Contract or the
“Rights of Man,” for both were considered pernicious
notions which, having reaped such havoc just across
the English Channel, threatened to do likewise some-
where else.

By the nineteenth century the age of Social Contract
theory was virtually at an end. The one country in
which the idea remained current was that in which
it had the most recent historical roots, the United States
of America. Here we find it referred to in various
debates on the nature of the Constitution, and of the
relationship of the separate states to the central gov-
ernment. In 1831 John Quincy Adams suggested that


the Massachusetts Constitution was a social compact
and likewise the “Declaration of Independence was a
social compact, by which the whole people covenanted
with each citizen of the united colonies, and each
citizen with the whole people, that the united colonies
were, and of right ought to be, free and independent
states.” Final survivals of contract could be found in
various state constitutions, as in those of Arkansas, until
1868, and Texas, where it reappeared in 1876, but as
elsewhere, did not long survive the realization of its
historical implausibility.

In Europe there was no longer any pretense that
Social Contract had any historical reality, and yet there
was a reluctance to discard an idea that had served
the valuable purpose of emphasizing government by
consent. The best that could be done was to accept
contract merely as an idea expressing the moral rela-
tionship between ruler and ruled. Society could not
be held together entirely by force; it still needed a
kind of tacit contract, a feeling of moral obligation.
It is in this sense that we find the idea employed by
such diverse figures as Kant, the poet Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, and later by T. H. Huxley. T. H. Green also
ably defended this usage of contract by pointing out
that “The supposition that some events took place that
as a matter of history did not take place may be a
way of conveying an essentially true conception of
some moral relation of man.” It was for this nonhistor-
ical and nonlegal notion of contract that in 1896 the
French politician Léon Bourgeois resurrected the term
“quasi-contract,” which had already been employed
over a century earlier by Josiah Tucker, Dean of
Gloucester. Yet even this extreme modification of con-
tract theory was not enough to ensure its survival, for
the contractualist position had been eroded on both
flanks. First, there was the movement of thought which
saw man no longer as the creator of his own environ-
ment, but rather as a being determined by wider forces
operating according to inexorable historical laws. We
have already seen how the idea of progress undermined
Social Contract theory by its insistence that change
could only be gradual rather than cataclysmic. This
at least did not deny the role of human will in forming
society. Once the idea of human progress was regarded
as scientifically inevitable, laws of historical change,
whether based on natural selection, or economic
determinism, made the conscious role of human beings
less significant. Secondly, Social Contract theory be-
came redundant when its postulates of popular consent
to government became more of a reality. The assumed
consent of ancestors, or the assumed implicit consent
of contemporaries gave way, at least in western Europe
and North America, to the relatively frequent explicit
choice of governments by increasingly large sections
of the adult population. The general election thus
rendered contract theory unnecessary by explicitly
fulfilling its major demand.

The Social Contract, then, is no longer in favor. Its
relevance for us, however, stems from its historical
connection with the ideas of individual rights and
government by consent. Social Contract thus remains
of interest as the procedural mode which helped intro-
duce the set of ideas which form the basis of contem-
porary liberal democratic thought.