Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu
Montesquieu is one of the constitutional influencers featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy.
Montesquieu constructed a naturalistic account of the various forms of government, and of the causes that made them what they were and that advanced or constrained their development. He used this account to explain how governments might be preserved from corruption. He saw despotism, in particular, as a standing danger for any government not already despotic, and argued that it could best be prevented by a system in which different bodies exercised legislative, executive, and judicial power, and in which all those bodies were bound by the rule of law. This theory of the separation of powers had an enormous impact on liberal political theory, and on the framers of the constitution of the United States of America.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Spirit of Laws
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu’s most influential work divided French society into three classes: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. He saw two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from and dependent upon each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. This is the doctrine of separation of powers.
Montesquieu (1689 – 1755) argued that each power should only exercise its own functions. If, for example, the legislative branch appoints the executive and judicial powers, there will be no separation or division of its powers, since the power to appoint carries with it the power to revoke. This was a radical idea at the time for it completely eliminated the Three Estates structure of the French Monarchy: the clergy, the aristocracy, and the people at large represented by the Estates-General, thereby erasing the last vestiges of feudalism.
Forms of Government
Montesquieu maintained there were three main forms of government, each supported by a social “principle”: monarchies (free governments headed by a hereditary figure, e.g. king, queen, emperor), which rely on the principle of honor; republics (free governments headed by popularly elected leaders), which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms (enslaved governments headed by dictators), which rely on fear. Free governments are dependent on fragile constitutional arrangements.
In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They may govern through ministers, or be advised by a senate, but they must have the power to choose their ministers and senators for themselves. The principle of democracy is political virtue or “the love of the laws and of our country” (SL 4.5), including its democratic constitution. While laws governing suffrage and voting are fundamental, the need to protect its principle, however, imposes far more extensive requirements.
The virtue required by a functioning democracy is not natural according to Montesquieu. It requires “a constant preference of public to private interest” (SL 4.5); it “limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow citizens” (SL 5.3); and it “is a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful” (SL 4.5).
To produce this unnatural self-renunciation, “the whole power of education is required” (SL 4.5). A democracy must educate its citizens to identify their interests with the interests of their country, and should have censors to preserve its mores. It should seek to establish frugality by law, so as to prevent its citizens from being tempted to advance their own private interests at the expense of the public good; for the same reason, the laws by which property is transferred should aim to preserve an equal distribution of property among citizens. Its territory should be small, so that it is easy for citizens to identify with it, and more difficult for extensive private interests to emerge.
According to Montesquieu, democracies can be corrupted by “the spirit of inequality” and “the spirit of extreme equality” (SL 8.2). The spirit of inequality arises when citizens no longer identify their interests with the interests of their country, and therefore seek both to advance their own private interests at the expense of their fellow citizens, and to acquire political power over them.
The spirit of extreme equality arises when the people are no longer content to be equal as citizens, but want to be equal in every respect. In a functioning democracy, the people choose magistrates to exercise executive power, and they respect and obey the magistrates they have chosen. If those magistrates forfeit their respect, they replace them. When the spirit of extreme equality takes root, however, the citizens neither respect nor obey any magistrate. They “want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges” (SL 8.2). Eventually the government will cease to function, the last remnants of virtue will disappear, and democracy will be replaced by despotism.
Madison and the Founding Fathers took heed of Montesquieu’s warning by establishing an independent executive (the President), legislative (the Congress), and judiciary (the Supreme Court) in the federal Constitution. Madison masterfully protected the separation of powers by establishing a thorough system of checks and balances as well.
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