VI. A CONSTITUTION FOR CORSICA

Perhaps at Rousseau’s prompting, Boswell, after visiting Voltaire at Ferney, went on to Italy, Naples, and Corsica. Corsica, under the leadership of Pasquale di Paoli, had freed itself from Genoese domination (1755). Rousseau, in The Social Contract, had hailed the birth of the new state:

There is still one country in Europe open to the Lawgiver. It is the island of Corsica. The valor and firmness with which this brave people has shown itself able to regain and defend its freedom richly deserve the aid of some wise man who will teach them how to preserve it. I have a premonition that some day this little island will astonish Europe.76

Voltaire would have thought Rousseau the last man in Europe to be invited as a lawgiver; but on August 31, 1764, Jean-Jacques received the following letter from Matteo Buttafuoco, Corsican envoy to France:

You mentioned Corsica, sir, in your Contrat social, in a way most flattering to our country. Such praise from a pen so sincere as yours … has suggested the strong wish that you could be the wise legislator who would assist the nation to maintain the liberties obtained at the cost of so much blood. I recognize, of course, that the task I dare press you to undertake needs a special knowledge of details.... If you deign to accept this charge, I would supply you with all the illumination necessary; and M. Paoli … will use his best endeavors to send you from Corsica all the information you may want. This distinguished chief, and indeed all my compatriots who have the advantage to know your works, share my desire, and the sentiments of respect that all Europe has for you, and which are due you on so many grounds.77

Rousseau’s reply (October 15, 1764) accepted the assignment and asked for material illustrating the character, history, and problems of the Corsican people. He confessed that the task might be “beyond my power, though not beyond my zeal”; but “I promise you,” he wrote to Buttafuoco on May 26, 1765, “that for the rest of my life I shall have no other interest but myself and Corsica; all other matters will be completely banished from my thoughts.”78 He began work at once on his Projet de constitution pour la Corse.

With the “social contract” in mind, Rousseau proposed that every citizen should sign a solemn and irrevocable pledge of himself—“body, goods, will, and all my powers”—to the Corsican nation.79 He hailed the braves Corses who had won their independence, but he warned them that they had many vices—laziness, banditry, feuds, ferocity—mostly derived from hatred of their foreign masters. The best cure for these vices is a completely agricultural life. The laws should give every inducement to the people to remain on the land rather than gather in cities. Agriculture makes for individual character and national health; trade, commerce, finance open the doors to all sorts of chicanery, and should be discouraged by the state. All travel should be on foot or beast. Early marriage and large families are to be rewarded; men unmarried by the age of forty should lose their citizenship. Private property should be reduced, state property increased. “I should wish to see the state the sole owner, the individual taking a share of the common property only in proportion to his services.”80 If necessary, the population should be conscripted to till the lands of the state. The government should control all education, and all public morality. The form of government should model itself on the Swiss cantons.

In 1768 France bought Corsica from Genoa, sent in an army, deposed Paoli, and subjected the island to French law. Rousseau abandoned his Pro-jet, and denounced the French invasion as violating “all justice, all humanity, all political right, all reason.”81

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