The Levée en Masse as a Revolution in Military Affairs

Conscription Douglas Fergusson French Revolution Idea of Liberty War & Weaponry War and Society

“Every citizen owes his services to the fatherland and to the maintenance of liberty, equality, and property whenever the law summons him to defend them.” — Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1791

By Douglas Fergusson

Originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 vol. 12 no. 2 print edition of The Dorchester Review.

The French Revolution, in strategic terms, represented the birth of a new order that defined the nature of political violence for two centuries. Put on the defensive by the First Coalition — Great Britain, Holland, Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, and Spain — the revolutionaries decided to enact the Levée en Masse,1 a mass levy, or conscription. This legislation would marshal the entire resources of the State, both human and industrial, to the French war effort. On the back of the levée, the revolutionary régime would bring a tenuous peace to Europe by 1797, and by the time of the great Napoleonic campaigns of 1805-1807, the real military effects of mass conscription and national mobilization were being felt across the continent.2 The French had distinguished themselves among the continental powers and nearly achieved outright hegemony over continental Europe over the course of seventeen years. Citizen-armies, a by-product of the French Revolution, came to define the great conflicts and tragedies of the 20th century. Indeed, in strategic terms the ideological or ideational effects of the French Revolution were the cause of this corresponding revolution in military affairs.

In adopting mass conscription, the French Revolutionaries succeeded in enacting a military concept which since Antiquity had claimed patronage from some of the finest strategic and political theorists but which had not yet been implemented in the Modern Age.3 The Anglo-Saxons understood the concept of citizen-armies, but their fyrds remained small and limited. Machiavelli famously expounded in The Prince that a wise sovereign avoids resorting to mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed forms of armies and instead relies on native armies, but this remained a theory. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army perhaps came closest in terms of using a military force to propagate a distinct ideology; however, its conscripts came not from England as a whole but from amongst Puritans in particular, and Charles II abolished it upon the Restoration.4 But Rousseau’s political philosophy in combination with the French Revolution made a true universal, republican, and secular citizen-army possible for the first time in Europe.


The revolutionary logic enacted in the Levée en Masse depends upon political concepts developed first and most fully by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The constitutional documents of the Revolution drew heavily from the Social Contract, which, in turn, justified the levée en masse as a policy and made it politically conceivable in the first place. The levy created a corresponding revolution in warfare, where citizen-armies of conscripts bound together as equals through the “general will” replaced both the concept of aristocratic warfare and the warrior class itself in a stratified society bound by authority and tradition. 

A Revolution

On the defensive, and in a state of acute crisis in the summer of 1793, the revolutionary institutions of France enacted the Levée en Masse, a piece of legislation that broke completely with the martial traditions of 18th-century Europe and which would change the face of war into the middle of the 20th century. Within the year, France had taken the offensive; from 1794 onward, the Revolutionary army lost battles only on foreign soil.5 By 1797, the French had dislodged the major powers from the First Coalition, and as the Directory régime teetered in 1799, Napoleon was named First Consul of the French Republic,6 confirmed by popular referendum early in 1800. In 1802, Napoleon’s ten-year consulate was made permanent, and he was elected Emperor of France for life by plebiscite in 1804. After seizing complete and “permanent” control of the French state Napoleon embarked on his major campaigns in continental Europe and demonstrated most fully the utility of the citizen-army against its aristocratic and professional peers. With a comparatively limitless access to mass in both manpower and the national economy, Napoleon and his armies were situated to radically alter the defensive, maneuver-based strategies typical of 18th century warfare, and adopt aggressive, mobile, and offensive campaigns utterly foreign to its competitors.7 

In a way similar to the Blitzkrieg over a century and a half later, Napoleon in 1805 overtook Austria in a matter of months, capturing General Mack’s Army in November, marching into Vienna, and crushing the combined forces of Austria and Russia at the battle of Austerlitz on Dec. 2, 1805.8 The rapidity of Napoleon’s advance created such confusion that within the following two years the French swiftly routed the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstadt, and brought themselves to the doors of Russia. In strategic terms, the adoption of mass conscription, enabled decisively by the Levée en Masse and its constituent democratic logic “produced a great increase in the number of soldiers, which lent new weight to French foreign policy, and enabled French commanders to fight more aggressive and costly campaigns, and to fight more of them.”9 Napoleon demonstrated that the fundamental principle of warfare in the 19th and early 20th centuries would be premised on the “fusion of the government and the people, a principle which most other European states would later adopt.10 In layman’s terms, the “wars of kings were over; the wars of people had begun.”11 Although many militaries would not immediately adopt the idea of the mass levy, the military utility of conscription and an army premised on co-identification of the people and the State offered such radical increases in power that it would become the standard, ultimately leading to the great “total wars” of the first half of the 20th century.12 It all started with Rousseau. 



Enter Rousseau 

The influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Revolution is a familiar theme,13 and the political cult around Rousseau was in part the product of the French Revolution itself.14 Indeed, between 1790 and 1791, seven editions of the Social Contract were published, which made Rousseau’s political ideas, in particular his concept of the general will, very popular. In the concrete political realm, Rousseau was being cited time and again in the National Assembly, in political clubs – like the Jacobins – and in the Revolutionary press.15 The National Assembly, made up of representatives of the people, voted in favour of giving the Social Contract a place of honour and commissioned a bust of Rousseau. Famous revolutionaries like Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat became disciples of Rousseau, with Robespierre going so far as to declare, in no uncertain terms, that Rousseau was the precursor to the Revolution.16 While it must be admitted that none of these institutions or individuals slavishly mirrored all of Rousseau’s thought, they were nevertheless committed to interpreting and grounding their policy with reference to Rousseau, especially with the social contract and the general will.17 

Rousseau heavily influenced the constitutional documents and ideological foundation of the Revolution and republicanism in France, especially through his theories of social contract, the general will and the law, and the concept of sovereignty. First, the social contract means the “total alienation of each associate together with all of his rights to the entire community [where] since each person gives himself whole and entire, the condition is equal for everyone.”18 The social contract depends upon a totalizing sacrifice of each individual to one another, which creates a theoretical equality that, in turn, grounds participation in the State. Second, the social contract is defined by an “act of association [by each individual that] produces a moral and collective body.” Third, these associates are called “citizens insofar as they are participants in the sovereign authority, and subjects, insofar as they are subjected to the laws of the state.” Thus, under the social contract, citizens become active participants in the sovereign authority of the State, and they become morally responsible agents to the State and to each other. 

According to Rousseau, the general will “directs the forces of the state” to the common good. The general will is “always right and tends toward the public utility.” Rousseau goes so far as to argue that when a citizen’s opinions run counter to the general will, it is the citizen who has erred: “when therefore [on the declaration of the general will] the opinion contrary to mine prevails, the proves merely that I was in error, and that what I took to be the general will was not so.” In practical terms, the general will simply expresses the sovereign will of the people, a will that not only tends to the good but is incapable of committing error. For Rousseau, the discovery, position, and articulation of the general will is always revealed in the law itself. Rousseau argues that the general will, “ha[s] no other force than legislative matters, [and] acts only through the laws.” The laws of the state and the general will are one and the same. Thus, Rousseau presented a new view of the State as composed of sovereign citizens who are morally responsible to one another and the state and where a national assembly forges the general will into laws to which each citizen is simultaneously participant and subject. 

Rousseau’s thought also had profound implications at the level of individuals and their relationships to one another. Concerning the individual, the associate, the citizen himself, Rousseau argues that citizens take upon themselves the moral faculties of the sovereign: they are active and morally responsible, with duties toward the general will and the state. In other words, each citizen is sovereign and subject at the same time. Under Rousseau’s philosophy, citizens take on a dual nature: fully sovereign as part of the general will, and yet fully subject to that general will. Rousseau suggests that each citizen is part and whole at the same time, and that the general will entails differentiated subjects but a unified sovereign. In addition, Rousseau suggests that a citizen’s identity comes from crafting the law. Each citizen becomes responsible to the State and to other citizens, not only in terms of crafting laws but also in enforcing the general will across the whole spectrum of civil activities.


The forces unleashed here, namely “the mass,” must be regarded as central. People no longer are subject to the will of the ruling class, that is, to a select few, but are now subject to the authority of every other citizen, which reinforces the authority of the state. To stand against the general will, articulated in this way, is not to stand against the aristocracy, or the King, but to stand against every citizen of France. Citizen identification with the general will, which is enumerated in the laws, makes each citizen responsible for and to the law. This in conjunction with the notion of the validity of the general will theoretically situates all as either for or against and allows Rousseau to insist that “whoever refuses to obey the general will [articulated only through laws], will be forced to do so by the entire body.” The most important theoretical concept, in regards to the individual, is then the adoption of a sovereign character, that is co-constitutive with the general will, which is, in turn, manifested in real politics in the form of law. A citizen is not only totally alienated to the general will because it is his will, but because it his will and because he is sovereign, he also becomes responsible for enforcing the general will on his fellow citizens, and is subject to that will being imposed upon him in turn.19


1791-95 Constitutions 

If the concepts above are unique to Rousseau, their application in law can be viewed as a mobilization of his thoughts during the revolutionary period. There is a clear conceptual lineage between Rousseau and two major legislative documents of the revolutionary period, the Constitution of 1791 and the Constitution of the Year III.

The Constitution of 1791 is a formative document for the Revolution and offers key conceptual linkages between the revolutionary authors, the French state, and Rousseau. The Constitution begins with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and for our purposes enumerates here the co-identification of the general will and the law. Article 6 of the Declaration proclaims quite clearly that the “Law is the expression of the general will.” Moving into the Constitution in depth, we see Rousseau mirrored in the sections on the division of the kingdom and the condition of citizens, as well as its section on public powers. On the conditions of the citizen the constitution enumerates the civic oath, which obligates each citizen to have fealty to the nation, the law, and the king, and orders them to obey the constitution.  The constitution declares that sovereignty is indivisible, inalienable, and imprescriptible, and that no section of people can attribute to themselves the exercise of the sovereign authority, and explains that the exercise of sovereign power arises out of delegation. It is not a stretch to suggest these passages are enumerated on the basis of Rousseau’s philosophy: collocating the general will and the law, the same concept of sovereignty, and an oath which expresses the citizen’s obligations to the State. The revolutionaries mobilized Rousseau’s theoretical logic in explicit terms.

After the fall of Robespierre and the dismantling of the Terror, the National Convention drafted a new republican constitution, which was put to referenda and approved in the fall of 1795.20 This Constitution of the Year III links a rights discourse with an obligations discourse, in a manner in line with the philosophy of Rousseau. The Declaration of Rights in this constitution enumerates the same identification of the law and general will. And when read in concurrence articles 6, 17, 18, and 19, the constitution proclaims that sovereignty is general, its exercise by the state is delegated, and that it is declared by a majority vote. 

But the Declaration of Rights does not merely mirror the Constitution of 1791; it goes farther by declaring the duties and obligations of the citizen. Articles 3, 6, and 9 are especially illuminating. Article 3 states that “the obligations of each person in society consist in defending it, serving it, living in submission to the laws, and respecting those who are agents of them.” Article 6 states that “the one who violates the laws openly declares himself in a state of war with society.” Article 9 states that “every citizen owes his services to the fatherland and to the maintenance of liberty, equality, and property whenever the law summons him to defend them.” In no uncertain terms the logic of Rousseau’s philosophy is mobilized by the revolutionary state, and pays direct homage to the totalizing impulse of his philosophical work. Here then, citizens are duty-bound to participate actively and defend society, even at the cost of their own lives, and those who violate the laws, which are merely a representation of the general will, make themselves an enemy of the state, and therefore of all citizens.


Levée en Masse

The French National Convention decreed the Levée en Masse on Aug. 23, 1793 in an hour of extreme peril.21 The Levy marks the transition from the limited warfare of the 18th century to the total warfare of the 20th. Articles 1, 5, 6, and 8 reveal its philosophical connections to Rousseau and the constitutional documents. Article 1 of the decree states that “all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the service of the armies.”22 And “Frenchmen” here refers to all French people, not even simply citizens. Article 1 explicitly mobilizes, or leaves open the requisition of, all men, women, children of all ages, each of whom are given a responsibility to the war effort. In Article 5, the Levy claims rights to the industrial and economic capacity of the State, as determined by the Committee of Public Safety. Article 6, for its part, invests unlimited powers to the individuals responsible for enacting the Levée, and Article 8 states that the Levy will be general. Although not as explicit or identical as the language of the constitutions, these articles clearly flow from the same logic, and thus from Rousseau’s political thought.


The first nod to Rousseau is the totalizing character of the claims of the law on the French State. The law is an expression of the general will, and the general will is a product of the social contract; Article 1 of the Levy therefore subjects every man, woman, and child, along with their industrial capacities, to the defense of the State. Indeed, Rousseau himself argues that it is a moral obligation of the people to give up all their claims to autonomy and place themselves in the grip of the general will. From Articles Five and Six we see those Rousseauian notions of the relationship between the general will and its delegates enumerated quite clearly as well. The Levée (which for convenience can be translated as the “Mass Levy”) can requisition industry at the hands of the Committee of Public Safety, which wields the authority of the general will in its unlimited fashion. And finally, we see that distinct nod to Rousseau in regard to the overall generality of the decree in Article 8, when it instantiates in real law a general application to the population. In so doing, the Mass Levy inaugurates in real politics the total claims of the state on its people, in general application to everyone, through the law, which is the articulation of the general will itself.

Rousseau’s political philosophy made the Mass Levy, and the total mobilization that it entails, possible in France. But these conditions did not pertain in France’s peers, which made mass conscription inconceivable elsewhere in Europe. Let us begin first with a reference to the historical conditions of conscription in Europe. 

Ira Bulger Read in his thorough study, The Origins and Development of the Idea of the Levée en Masse, shows that conscription existed as a concept in medieval and renaissance Europe.23 Indeed, the idea of citizen armies, and their utility for warfare, is recognized and acknowledged again and again from Antiquity through to the French Revolution. From the early medieval period with the notions of the Anglo-Saxon fyrds, through to Machiavelli’s own preference for citizen-armies, we see a conceptual lineage that either attempts to mobilize the concept or pays homage to the strategic usefulness of mass conscription. And yet throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, no European society succeeded in implementing mass conscription in practice. The main reasons why these Medieval and Pre-Modern States failed to put the theory into practice is because of the practical political and ideological restrictions of their societies. 

In this, the strategic literature resoundingly agrees. The classic Makers of Modern Strategy argues that “the tie between the sovereign and subject was bureaucratic, administrative, and fiscal, an external mechanical connection of ruler and ruled, strongly in contrast to the principle brought by the Revolution, which, in its doctrine of responsible citizenship and sovereignty of the people, effected an almost religious fusion of the government with the governed.”24 Moreover, the supposedly absolute monarchical states of the medieval and pre-modern period in fact found themselves in a precarious balance between the monarchy and the aristocracy, a balance struck by the provision of privileges, and rights against taxation. Medieval monarchs were therefore unable to draw on the full human and capital resources of their States. Ira Bulger argues in a similar fashion, and even more forcefully, that before the French Revolution there was no conception of the nation-in-arms.25 He further argues that the concept of a nation-in-arms was impossible because of the “complete gulf that existed between the army and the population; the nobility commanded, the lowest classes did the fighting and the middle-class paid the taxes.” France’s aristocratic peers, animated by an older logic of privilege and difference, could not conceptualize a way to mass conscription without undermining the central discursive ideology that formed the foundations of their societies. Without the main tenets of Rousseau’s social contract — equality, total alienation, co-identification of citizen and state — the political horizon in medieval Europe was constrained, and the monarchy and aristocracy could never enact this revolution in military affairs.

The French of the revolutionary era, on the other hand, possessed as they were of the relevant concepts of Rousseau, were situated within a conceptual and political horizon that made mass conscription possible. The notions of total sacrifice, identification with the state, equality with one another, and the general will as law, all open a clear avenue to the passage of an act that would, when the state determined, mobilize the entire society to its war effort, be that as a soldier, or in industry and commerce as necessary. 


The Levée en masse not only carries within it the concepts of Rousseau transmitted through the revolutionaries, but also shows why the French in particular — and not the English, Prussians, or Russians — became so attached to Rousseau’s concepts, which revolutionized military affairs with the formation of citizen-armies. The French Revolution created the conditions for the passage of the Levée, and the political thought of Rousseau himself created a conceptual and ideational horizon where French Revolutionaries could lay claim on the entire resources of the state, both human and capital, as they saw fit. The Mass Levy revolutionized warfare itself and gave States which implemented it powers hitherto unimaginable. 

If the argument that it was the thought of Rousseau which unleashed the forces of France is correct, then the implications for strategy and the strategic discipline is that the mobilization of the total energies of the state to war is contingent upon discourse and language, as much as or more than technology. It was not, then, a technological advantage that the French state had, but rather a discursive and conceptual advantage that allowed them to activate the wills of their newly formed “citizens” to the purposes of warfare. This should give pause to the technologically-oriented strategic discipline, and suggest that the power a state can wield, which is inevitably tied to technology, is also intimately, and maybe more profoundly, linked with the mobilization of language and ideas. Such a linguistic turn is long overdue in the strategic discipline. The real expression of force and violence are constituted by language and concepts as much if not more than technology. 

Strategic Studies scholars are correct to identify the Levée as a revolution in military affairs that was contingent on the political worldview of the revolution. But that political worldview was itself contingent on the political thought of Rousseau, which created the discursive and ideational conditions necessary to pass the Levée en Masse, and in so doing revolutionized warfare. Rousseau’s unique conception of the social contract, and the general will, laid open for the French people a new world with corresponding political and military potentialities. Total alienation, equality, and the identification of the individual with the sovereign power unleashed in the French revolutionaries a new way of conceiving of politics, one where mass conscription was not only possible, but in some senses required. 

For the revolutionaries, the concept of the professional army itself thus became inconceivable. If the ideas of equality and generality are taken seriously, they not only lay open a path to the citizen-army but in some ways necessitate it. The impact of the Levée en Masse was to lay the the intellectual and ideological groundwork necessary for total war and came to define warfare in the 20th century. 


Douglas Fergusson has his BA in Political Science and Religion from the University of Manitoba and MA in Political Science from Carleton University where, as an expert in strategic studies and military history, he is completing doctoral studies on War and Society.

Originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 vol. 12 no. 2 print edition of The Dorchester Review.



  1. Peter Paret, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert, eds. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, 1986, rpt. 2010), pp. 11-113.
  2. Paret, p. 113.
  3. Machiavelli, The Prince (Open Road, 2014), pp. 79-81.
  4. Though regiments were permitted to disband and remuster, e.g. Monck’s Regiment reappeared as the Coldstream Guards, affiliated with the Governor General’s Foot Guards in Canada.
  5. Ira Bulger Read, The Origins and Development of the Levée en Masse, p. 182.
  6. Constitution of the Year VIII.
  7. Paret, p. 91.
  8. The Campaign against the Third Coalition (Russia, Austria, Great Britain) took four months. Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 (Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 276-277.
  9. Ibid., p. 123. 
  10. Ibid., p. 119.
  11. Paret, p. 119. 
  12. Clausewitz interprets ‘total war’ as a philosophical ideal which, for a variety of reasons, is not attainable in the real world. He sees ‘total’ war as the notion that war is becoming increasingly total as the prosecution of it moves away from the aristocracy and begins to envelop the entire energies of the state, both human and capital.
  13. G. H. McNeil, “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas 6, no. 2 (1945): p. 197
  14. Ibid., p. 201. 
  15. Ibid., p. 203. 
  16. Ibid., p. 206. 
  17. Ibid., p. 206.
  18. Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, 2nd ed., tr. by Donald A. Cress (Hackett, 2011), p. 164.
  19. ‘Enforcing’ here is perhaps not the right concept. It is not that the citizens in Rousseau’s theory have recourse to actual enforcement, for force in his theory is an object of the government; but rather that there is moral and visual enforcement that occurs in society when citizens identified as such to the state engage in countless non-violent activities that reinforce the sovereignty of the general will.
  20. “Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen, Constitution of the Year III (1795).”
  21. Read, p. 1. 
  22. Frank Maloy Anderson, ed., The Constitutions and Other Select Documents Illustrative of the History of France, 1789-1907 (Russell & Russell, 1908), p. 184.
  23. Read, pp. 7-27.
  24. Paret, p. 92. 
  25. Read, p. 24.

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