Montesquieu: Biggest influence (besides God) on Constitution

By Bill Federer

Baron de Montesquieu
Baron de Montesquieu

“Society … must repose on principles that do not change” – wrote Montesquieu in Book 24 of “The Spirit of the Laws.”

Montesquieu was a French political philosopher whose books were read by Catherine the Great of Russia, praised in England, and banned by Louis XV of France. He greatly influenced America’s founders, with Thomas Jefferson even translating Destutt de Tracy’s Commentary on Montesquieu, Aug. 12, 1810.

In 1984, the American Political Review published “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late 18th-Century American Political Thought,” written by Donald S. Lutz of the University of Houston, and Charles S. Hyneman. After reviewing nearly 15,000 items written between 1760 and 1805, Lutz and Hyneman discovered that the writers of the Constitution quoted Montesquieu more than any other source except the Bible.

Montesquieu divided governments into three categories, describing what motivating force, or “spring,” as in a wind-up clock, each relied upon:

  • Republics, most prevalent in northern European Protestant countries, relied on Virtue
  • Monarchs, most prevalent in southern and western European Catholic countries, relied on Honor
  • Despots, most prevalent in Islamic countries, relied on Fear

“Republic” is a “popular government” where the people rule themselves, being conscious that each citizen will be held accountable to a God who wants them to be fair.

“Monarch” is a king with strings attached, having a conscience and being limited by laws, traditions, Judeo-Christian beliefs, and a class of powerful noblemen.

“Despot” is a king with no strings attached, who rules without a conscience, according to his whims and caprices, exercising absolute and arbitrary power:

  • absolute, meaning the moment he says something it is the law
  • arbitrary, meaning no one can predict what he will say next

Montesquieu understood that man’s nature was inherently selfish and, opportunity provided, any person could be tempted to accumulate power and become a despot. St. Augustine called this “libido dominandi” – the lust to dominate.

Montesquieu explained that once virtue is gone, a republic will become lawless. Power will gravitate from the many to the few, “popular” government will be replaced by a despot, who will usurp power and rule through fear: “It is the nature of a Republican government that … the collective body of the People … should be … the Supreme Power. … In a Popular state, one spring more is necessary, namely, Virtue. … The politic Greeks, who lived under a Popular government, knew no other support than Virtue. … When Virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice (greed) possesses the whole community. … When, in a Popular government, there is a suspension of the laws, as this can proceed only from the corruption of the republic, the state is certainly undone.”

Montesquieu continued: “As Virtue is necessary in a Republic … so Fear is necessary in a Despotic government: with regard to Virtue, there is no occasion for it. … Fear must therefore depress their spirits, and extinguish even the least sense of ambition. … Of a Despotic government, that a single person … rule according to his own will and caprice. … He who commands the execution of the laws generally thinks himself above them, there is less need of Virtue than in a popular government. …”

Montesquieu added: “Such are the principles … of government … in a particular Republic they actually are … Virtuous … in a particular Despotic government by Fear.”

In contrasting which religion supports a moderate Monarch or Republic, and which supports a Despot, Montesquieu wrote in “The Spirit of the Laws,” 1748: “A moderate Government is most agreeable to the Christian Religion, and a despotic Government to the Mahometan. … The Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power. The mildness so frequently recommended in the Gospel is incompatible with the despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects, and exercises himself in cruelty. As this religion forbids the plurality of wives, its princes are less confined, less concealed from their subjects, and consequently have more humanity: they are more disposed to be directed by laws, and more capable of perceiving that they cannot do whatever they please. While the Mahometan princes incessantly give or receive death, the religion of the Christians renders their princes … less cruel. The prince confides in his subjects, and the subjects in the prince. How admirable the religion which, while it only seems to have in view the felicity of the other life, continues the happiness of this! … It is the Christian religion that … has hindered despotic power.”

Montesquieu continued: “From the characters of the Christian and Mahometan religions, we ought, without any further examination, to embrace the one and reject the other: for it is much easier to prove that religion ought to humanize the manners of men than that any particular religion is true. It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror. The Mahometan religion, which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men with that destructive spirit with which it was founded.”

Of the Christian religion, Montesquieu examined: “When the Christian religion, two centuries ago, became unhappily divided into Catholic and Protestant, the people of the north embraced the Protestant, and those of the south adhered still to the Catholic. The reason is plain: the people of the north have, and will forever have, a spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the south have not; and therefore a religion which has no visible head is more agreeable to the independence of the climate than that which has one. … When a religion is introduced and fixed in a state, it is commonly such as is most suitable to the plan of government there established.”

Montesquieu compared Lutheran and Calvinist countries: “In the countries themselves where the Protestant religion became established, the revolutions were made pursuant to the several plans of political government. Luther having great princes on his side … an ecclesiastical authority … while Calvin, having to do with people who lived under republican governments. … Each of these two religions was believed to be perfect; the Calvinist judging his most conformable to what Christ had said, and the Lutheran to what the Apostles had practiced.”

Warning of the abuse of power when concentrated, Montesquieu introduced the revolutionary concept of separating the powers of ruling into three branches:

  • legislative
  • executive
  • judicial

These three branches would selfishly pull against each other to prevent one from overpowering the others – thus using selfish power to selfish check power.

The brilliance of this is equivalent to a Sunday school teacher giving an assignment – “Design a system of government where sinners keep other sinners from sinning.”

Montesquieu wrote: “Nor is there liberty if the power of Judging is not separated from Legislative power and from Executive power. If it were joined to Legislative power, the power over life and liberty of the citizens would be arbitrary, for the Judge would be the Legislator. If it were joined to Executive power, the Judge could have the force of an oppressor. All would be lost if the same … body of principal men … exercised these three powers.”

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James Madison echoed this in “The Federalist No. 51”: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. … If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary.”

In “The Spirit of the Laws,” 1748, Montesquieu wrote: “I have always respected religion; the morality of the Gospel is the noblest gift ever bestowed by God on man. We shall see that we owe to Christianity, in government, a certain political law, and in war a certain law of nations – benefits which human nature can never sufficiently acknowledge. The principles of Christianity, deeply engraved on the heart, would be infinitely more powerful than the false Honor of Monarchies, than the humane Virtues of Republics, or the servile Fear of Despotic states.”

In his “Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans,” 1734, Montesquieu wrote: “It is not chance that rules the world. Ask the Romans. … There are general causes, moral and physical … elevating it, maintaining it, or hurling it to the ground. … If the chance of one battle – that is, a particular cause – has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle. In a word, the main trend draws with it all particular accidents.”

In the beginning of “The Spirit of the Laws,” 1748, Montesquieu wrote: “God is related to the universe as Creator and Preserver; the laws by which He created all things are those by which He preserves them. … But the intelligent world is far from being so well governed as the physical. … Man, as a physical being, is like other bodies governed by invariable laws. As an intelligent being, he incessantly transgresses the laws established by God, and changes those of his own instituting. He is left to his private direction, though a limited being, and subject, like all finite intelligences, to ignorance and error … hurried away by a thousand impetuous passions. Such a being might every instant forget his Creator; God has therefore reminded him of his duty by the laws of religion.”

Baron Montesquieu died on Feb. 10, 1755.

Montesquieu wrote in “The Spirit of the Laws,” 1748: “The Christian religion, which orders men to love one another, no doubt wants the best political laws and the best civil laws for each people, because those laws are, after (religion), the greatest good that men can give and receive.”

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