General will

Term in political philosophy

In political philosophy, the general will (French: volonté générale) is the will of the people as a whole. The term was made famous by 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


  • Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established.
    • Jefferson Davis, inaugural address as president of the Confederate States of America, Montgomery, Alabama (February 18, 1861); in Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist, His Letters, Papers and Speeches (1923), vol. 5, p. 50.
  • My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.
    • Gerald R. Ford, remarks on taking the oath of office (August 9, 1974). Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Gerald R. Ford, 1974, p. 2.
  • Here, sir, the people govern; here they act by their immediate representatives.
    • Alexander Hamilton, remarks at the New York convention on the adoption of the federal Constitution, Poughkeepsie, New York, (June 27, 1788); in Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution… (1836, reprinted 1937), vol. 2, p. 348. Hamilton was referring to the House of Representatives.
  • The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.
    • William Henry Harrison, inaugural address (March 4, 1841); Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States from George Washington, 1789, to John F. Kennedy, 1961 (1961), p. 72. House Doc. 87–218. This sentence is one of many quotations inscribed on Cox Corridor II, a first floor House corridor, U.S. Capitol.
  • The people who own the country ought to govern it.
    • Attributed to John Jay; in Frank Monaghan, John Jay, chapter 15, p. 323 (1935). According to Monaghan, this "was one of his favorite maxims." Unverified in the writings of Jay, although the essence of this is expressed in several passages.
  • The genius of Republican liberty, seems to demand on one side, not only that all power should be derived from the people; but, that those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people, by a short duration of their appointments; and, that, even during this short period, the trust should be placed not in a few, but in a number of hands. Stability, on the contrary, requires, that the hands, in which power is lodged, should continue for a length of time, the same. A frequent change of men will result from a frequent return of electors, and a frequent change of measures, from a frequent change of men; whilst energy in Government requires not only a certain duration of power, but the execution of it by a single hand.
    • James Madison, Benjamin F. Wright, ed., The Federalist (1961), no. 37, p. 268.

See also