Happy birthday to Montesquieu! Lessons on human nature from America's unofficial Founding Father, born 333 years ago today
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Lessons on human nature from America’s unofficial Founding Father, born three centuries ago today!
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Lessons on human nature from Montesquieu, America's unofficial Founding Father
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu—known more commonly to us today as simply Montesquieu—was born 333 years ago today, on January 18, 1689.
He was born in La Brède, France at Château de la Brède, just outside of Bordeaux. (Watch the above video on Montesquieu, shot at Château de la Brède this sumemr, for a visual of the beautiful château!)
He died on February 10, 1755, at the age of 66.
It’s worth remembering Montesquieu today, the anniversary of his birth, because this French thinker shaped our world in more ways than many of us realize. He also had important insights into human nature, and maintained a dogged belief in the greatness and corruptibility of man, all of which can help us better understand, appreciate, and engage in our world today.
Montesquieu’s most famous idea is his notion of the “separation of powers.” This idea was profoundly influential on America’s founding fathers, who drew from his famous work, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), as they formed America’s system of government.
For example, Montesquieu’s ideas heavily influenced James Madison, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers—a series of op-eds intended to galvanize public support for the new constitution published during the debates over the constitution’s ratification—and a central figure at the United States Constitutional Convention.
Montesquieu also shaped the thought of Thomas Jefferson, the “Architect of Liberty” who drafted the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was such a devotee of Montesquieu he went beyond reading The Spirit of the Laws—which, at two volumes, 31 books and 1,086 pages, is a feat in itself. Jefferson also both read and translated from French to English an extended critical commentary on The Spirit of the Laws, called A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws" by Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy. In this work, Destutt de Tracy evaluates Montesquieu’s arguments, one at a time.
(Side note: It’s easy to forget how learned America’s Founders were, many having a working knowledge of several languages. It makes one wonder how many public officials today would even care to do original translation of works of political theory in their spare time, let alone have the ability to do such a translation.
Madison and Jefferson are just two of the many Founders whom Montesquieu influenced. Scholars of the American Founding have concluded that Montesquieu is the most cited resource in America’s founding documents, with the Bible coming in second.
Montesquieu’s writing has held resonance for many audiences beyond America’s Founding generation. He has been, and continues to be, central to The Great Conversation—the iterative dialogue on life’s big questions and ideas that thoughtful people have been engaging in across time and place.
For example, after overthrowing her husband as ruler of Russia in a coup d’état in 1762, Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia and began drafting the Nakaz, or Grand Instruction. And in doing so she drew from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, finding in his work a helpful framework as she sought to build a more humane and enlightened system of governance in her previously highly unequal and oligarchic Russia. In fact, Catherine is reported to have referred to Spirit of the Laws as “the prayerbook of all monarchs with any common sense.”
Centuries later, English Economist John Maynard Keynes (among the most influential economists of all time), was also known to praise Montesquieu. While addressing French readers of his General Theory, Keynes described Montesquieu as “the real French equivalent of Adam Smith, the greatest of your economists, head and shoulders above the physiocrats in penetration, clear-headedness and good sense (which are the qualities an economist should have).”
Why does the idea of “the separation of powers” matter today?
Many important thinkers—both before and since Montesquieu—have appreciated the importance the idea of “the separation of powers” to ensuring and maintaining a free and flourishing arrangement of government. For example, before Montesquieu:
Aristotle discussed the concept of a “mixed” government in his Politics.
The Greek historian Polybius explained the system of “checks and balances” that was instituted by the famous lawgiver Lycurgus in Sparta.
John Calvin, a Reformed theologian and a key player in the Protestant Reformation, thought that the best form of government was one mixed between aristocracy and democracy.
English political theorist John Locke—also, like Montesquieu, an “unofficial” American Founding Father whose ideas found expression in the writings of Thomas Jefferson—articulated an early conception of the tripartite system government. For Locke, this included legislative, executive and federative powers.
No one, however, developed the idea of the separation of political powers at greater length than Montesquieu.
In any political regime, Montesquieu contends, there are three fundamental tasks: creating laws, enforcing (or “executing”) laws, and interpreting laws.
In a monarchy or a tyranny, all of these tasks are undertaken by a single person.
Montesquieu argues that the best form of government—that is, the form that will do the best job of promoting justice and the well-being of citizens—will “separate” each of these tasks, and divide the power of government into three discrete entities, or “branches.”
Each branch has one power or authority—one to make laws, one to enforce laws, and one to interpret laws.
In the American context, this idea found expression in the three branches of our federal government (state governments generally follow a similar model):
Congress—which includes the Senate and House of Representatives, holds the legislative power to enact laws.
The President holds the executive authority to execute laws.
Judges—from local federal courts to the United States Supreme Court—interpret the law by applying it to individual disputes.
Each branch has their own lane of authority, and each counterbalances the others to keep them in check. Ideally, when one branch overreaches the other branches will respond in opposition to keep the system in balance: after all, overreaching by one branch will often intrude on the other branches’ own powers, and one branch accordingly has a strong incentive to defend its own prerogatives by resisting the abuses of the others. In this way, Montesquieu argues, the separation of powers limits abuses of authority and thereby promotes the flourishing of citizens.
The separation of powers is also central to the rule of law—which is in turn essential to a functioning democracy. The rule of law is a complex idea, but two essential attributes of the rule of law are that laws are:
Apply equally to everyone
Known in advance
Both of these tenets are fundamental to rule of law. Otherwise people may face prosecution for unknown offenses, and individuals or minorities may face persecution in the form of special laws that don’t apply to the rest of the population.
Montesquieu maintained that the separation of powers would lead to fewer such abuses. As he put it:
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.
There would be an end of every thing, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.
Today, however, America’s hyper-polarized and gridlocked Congress finds it difficult to pass laws. And this has in turn led to considerable concern that the other two branches, the executive and the judicial, will respond by creating laws themselves—even though the separation of powers places such power outside the scope of their authority. (I discuss this dynamic—the way in which polarization has contributed to the breakdown of civil discourse, and how congressional dysfunction perpetuates these challenges —in my forthcoming book on civil discourse, arriving from St. Martin’s Press next winter).
Indeed, the continuing relevance of Montesquieu is aptly illustrated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision invalidating the COVID-19 mandate issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA, an agency within the Executive branch ultimately responsible to the President). The mandate had required the vast majority of American employees to either get the vaccine or submit to testing-and-masking requirements, and the Court ruled that OSHA lacked the authority to impose such a mandate because the relevant law that Congress had passed empowers OSHA “to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures.”
“[OSHA] lacked authority to impose the mandate. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute. They accordingly possess only the authority that Congress has provided. The Secretary has ordered 84 million Americans to either obtain a COVID–19 vaccine or undergo weekly medical testing at their own expense. This is no ‘everyday exercise of federal power.’”
In other words, the separation of powers vests Congress—not courts or executive agencies—with lawmaking power. This means that Executive branch agencies have only the power Congress gives them. And because the Court concluded that the law Congress passed did not authorize OSHA’s mandate, the Court declared the mandate unlawful.
Montesquieu’s ideas are therefore still very much relevant in our modern world, and today especially his thought deserves our consideration.
Montesquieu on human nature: the greatness and fallibility of man
Montesquieu, moreover, offers us far more than thoughts on the nuts and bolts of government. His work gives us profound insights into human nature as well: He believed human nature remains the same over the centuries, and that this nature is both capable of greatness as well as susceptible to corruption.
This balanced view prevented Montesquieu from being excessively pessimistic or optimistic about his own era. He took a long view of human history, and understood that while the abuses of power in his own day might seem pretty bad, such abuses have occurred before.
A few decades before Edward Gibbon published his landmark work on the fall of the Roman Empire, Montesquieu offered an important reflection on the Empire’s rise: If Pompey and Caesar hadn’t usurped power in Rome, Montesquieu argued, others would have. Montesquieu claimed that it was not these particular generals’ ambition, but the ambition of humankind in general, that caused the Republic to give way to Empire.
Though he died two hundred years before Lord Acton lived, Montesquieu would have agreed with the English statesman’s famous observation that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It was because Montesquieu held this realistic—one might even say cynical—view of human nature that he believed political institutions must be arranged so as to maximize man’s potential while minimizing man’s opportunity for vices and abuses.
On this score we can see the influence of Montesquieu in James Madison’s argument (in Federalist 51, that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
This skeptical view of human nature also informed his argument for distributing power across different political entities: if, as Madison, would say, men were angels, there would be no issue with one person holding all the power.
But we know from history and lived experience the danger of unchecked power held by a single individual: it is a recipe for suffering.
Having a balanced and clear-eyed view of human nature was important to Montesquieu because of the way that he thought the character of a regime affects a citizenry, and vice versa.
I love this insight.
In this vein Montesquieu contends that honor is the principle of people living in monarchical states, fear the principle of people in despotic states, and virtue the principle of citizens of republican or democratic states.
Despite his attempts at being polite—Montesquieu wrote, “I beg that no one will be offended with what I have been saying; my observations are founded on the unanimous testimony of historians”—he offended a good many powerful people in his day, including the two entities that, for most of Western history, were the most perilous to cross: The Church and the Monarchy.
So much so that all of his books ended up on the Catholic Church’s Index of banned books!
In a chapter titled, That Virtue is not the Principle of a Monarchical Government, he wrote on the theme of the importance of a leader’s character:
I am not ignorant that virtuous princes are no such very rare instances; but I venture to affirm, that, in a monarchy, it is extremely difficult for the people to be virtuous.
It was because of such unflattering observations about the Monarchy that Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws was almost universally condemned after publication.
This is interesting, because Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published about a hundred years after Spirit of the Laws, makes many similar points, and yet was universally praised and adored in France.
Indeed, Tocqueville cites Montesquieu as one of his primary intellectual influences—alongside Blaise Pascal and Michele de Montaigne, both of whom we previously have explored here at Civic Renaissance—so it would make sense that we see some of Montesquieu’s ideas and themes resurface in Tocqueville’s work. (For example, Tocqueville is critical of monarchies, and similarly believes that the character of a society’s leader will tend to elevate or debase the character of its people).
A few questions to consider:
What do you think of Montesquieu’s view of human nature? Do you think, as he did, that we have both good and bad in us?
Do you have faith in the way that institutions can promote that which is best in us, and mitigate that which is worst?
What about when our institutions are tested—as they are being today, with a dysfunctional and gridlocked Congress? Or what about when institutions fail us entirely?
Given the inability of Congress to do the job that the Founders tasked it with—making laws—due to political polarization, does the separation of powers even make sense anymore? If not, is there any alternative that might also promote the freedom and flourishing of citizens, as America’s Founding Fathers intended?
I’d love to hear from you.
Feel free to write to me directly with your thoughts at email@example.com
I hope this missive encourages you to read more about and from Montesquieu for yourself.
As someone who is central to the Great Conversation, and central to the world we live in today, Montesquieu is a thinker and writer with many ideas still worth grappling with today.
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