Montesquieu: Three Types of Governments & What Makes Them Work

The influence of French political writer Montesquieu on America's founding fathers.

Society ... must repose on principles that do not change" -- wrote Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 1748, Book 24.

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, August 12, 1810.

In 1984, the American Political Review published an article titled "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, and described what motivating force each relied upon.

He called the motivating force a "spring," as in the internal workings of a wind-up clock:

  • Republics, most prevalent in northern European Protestant countries, relied on moral Virtue;

  • Monarchs, most prevalent in southern and western European Catholic countries, relied on Honor and Shame; and

  • Despots, most prevalent in Islamic countries, relied on Pleasure and Fear. The Muslim Sultan Balban of Delhi, India (1266–1286) declared: "Fear of the governing power ... is the basis of all good government."

Just as man is a three-fold being with a spirit, mind, and body, so do republics, monarchies, and despotisms have three different motivations.

  • The motivating spring in a republic is virtue, which is more in the spiritual realm. Citizens exercise more self-control when they are aware that they will be rewarded or punished in the next life.

  • The motivating spring in a monarchy is honor and shame, which are more in the realm of the mind -- mental and emotional rewards or punishments. Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, 1971, of the motivating power of shame: "ridicule is man's most potent weapon."

  • The motivating spring in a despotism is pleasure and fear, which is more physical realm. If one obeys the Sultan, they can be rewarded with a harem, and if one offends the Sultan, they may lose their hand or their head.

"Politics" is derived from the Greek word "polis," which means "city."

Politics is the business of the city.

"Citizen" is a Greek word which means "co-ruler."

Where kings and despots have "subjects" who are subjected to their will, democracies and republics have "citizens" who are "co-rulers."

A "popular government" is where the "population" of citizens govern themselves.

A "democracy" is a "popular government" where "citizens" rule themselves by being personally present at the city government meetings.

As a form of government, "democracies" have only ever worked on a small, city-wide basis, where every citizen was physically present everyday at the city meetings.

Any larger than a city, democracies ceased to function, as everyone can not logistically be present everyday.

(During the Cold War, the word "democracy" came to have a second, more generalized meaning of a "popular government.")

A "republic," is a "popular government" where citizens rule themselves through "representatives" who attend the government meetings in their place.

This allowed "republics" to function over larger areas, such as nations.

In Montesquieu's definition of the popular government of a "republic," each citizen acts as a co-king, being conscious of the fact that each will be held individually accountable to God, who wants them to be fair. This results in citizens having moral and virtuous behavior.

Montesquieu described a "monarch" as a king with strings attached, being limited by a class of powerful noblemen, laws, traditions, Judeo-Christian beliefs, and having a conscience -- reminded that he will be held accountable the King of kings in the next life.

Montesquieu described a "despot" as a king with no strings attached, who rules without a conscience, according to his whims and caprices, exercising absolute and arbitrary power:

  • absolute power, means the moment he says something it is the law; and
  • arbitrary power, means 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. The resulting insecurity for life and property causes individuals to beg for someone to restore order.

The power of governing will then gravitate from the many to the few.

Popular government will be usurped by a despot, who will reward his supporters with pleasure, and dominate the rest of his subjects through fear.

Montesquieu wrote:

"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."

James Monroe warned in his Inaugural Address, 1817:

"It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace (mob), that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty.

Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and a usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin."

Ancient Israel functioned as a republic during its first four hundred years in the promised land -- before they demanded a king.

Enoch Cobb Wines wrote in Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews, with an Introductory Essay on Civil Society & Government (NY: Geo. P. Putnam & Co., 1853):

"A fundamental principle of the Hebrew government was ... the education of the whole body of the people; especially, in the knowledge of the constitution, laws and history of their own country.

An ignorant people cannot be a free people. Intelligence is essential to liberty.

No nation is capable of self-government, which is not educated to understand and appreciate its responsibilities ...

Maimonides, in his treatise on the study of the law, says: 'Every Israelite, whether poor or rich, healthy or sick, old or young, is obliged to study the law ... ' He asks, 'How long ought a man to pursue the study of the law?' and replies, 'Till death ...'"

E.C. Wines continued:

"Moses ... intended, that all his people should share in the management of the public affairs. He meant each to be a depositary of political power ... as a solemn trust ...

On the subject of education, he appears chiefly anxious to have his people instructed in the knowledge of ... their duties as men and citizens.

He ... (did not) desire to see the mass of the people shut out from all political power ... nor ... to see the power of the masses increased, irrespective of their ability to discharge so important a trust beneficially to the community.

In his educational scheme, power and knowledge went hand in hand. The possession of the latter was regarded as essential to the right use of the former ...

In proportion as this idea enters into the constitution of a state, tyranny will hide its head, practical equality will be established, party strife will abate its ferocity, error, rashness, and folly will disappear, and an enlightened, dignified, and venerable public opinion will bear sway ...

It is political ignorance alone, that can reconcile men to ... surrender of their rights;

it is political knowledge alone, that can rear an effectual barrier against the encroachments of arbitrary power and lawless violence."

Montesquieu continued in The Spirit of the Laws, 1748:

"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, and
  • 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."

An indirect reference to the three branches was made at New Hampshire's Convention to Ratify the U.S. Constitution, June 5, 1788.

Harvard President Samuel Langdon gave an address titled, “The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States,” in which he referenced Isaiah 33:22, "For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King; he will save us":

"This being the ninth State which has acceded to this form of national Union, it will be carried into effect; and there is no reason to doubt of the speedy accession of all the other States ...

May all rejoice in the Lord, who has formed us into a nation, and honor Him as our Judge, Lawgiver, and King, who hath saved us."

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."

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 FEBRUARY 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."

Comments