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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws

When our founding fathers were challenged with the task of forming a government they looked to the writings of Montesquieu & the rich history of former empires & so came the great American experiment. In Montesquieu's book the Spirit of the Laws, he asks a fundamental question. “What is the best way to organize government?”

Now, how you figure out what the best way to organize a government is, is to look back at history and see how other people organized their governments. Montesquieu organized his findings into 3 categories. Despots, Monarchs, and Republics. Each one had a motivating force behind it which Montesquieu called a "spring," as in the internal workings of a wind-up clock:

Despots which were prevalent in the ancient world and Islamic countries had absolute power. Despots relied on Pleasure and Fear. This was in the physical realm. You were rewarded with pleasurable things or you were tortured or killed. You may even get a limb chopped off.

Monarchs which were found in southern and western European catholic countries were held accountable in the next life so they had some strings attached. Monarchs relied on honor and shame. This was in the mental realm. There were mental and emotional rewards or punishments. You can see this at the time of chivalry and honor.

Republics or (a popular form of government) which were more prevalent in northern European protestant countries and relied on virtue. This was in the spiritual realm. Citizens exercise more self-control when they are aware that they will be rewarded or punished in the next life. Montesquieu saw that if citizens were conscious of the fact that each will be held individually accountable to God, who wants them to be fair, this would result in citizens having moral and virtuous behavior.

So now Montesquieu has identified the three kinds of government but which one was the best? Well he noticed something interesting.

“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty… 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 then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression. There would be an end to everything, 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” (Baron de Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, 1748).

He recognized that when the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of a government were in one entity, tyranny would reign. There is no limit of examples we can use from history from Rome to Britain. Montesquieu believed in what we now know as checks and balances. He believed the branches needed to be separated as they selfishly pulled against each other.

He also noticed something else interesting, and I think it is very relevant. That whenever the motivating force of a government changes, so does that government. When people gain virtue they move closer to a monarchy or a republic and whenever a people within a Republic lose their virtue and chaos reigns, the system swings directly to despotism. Montesquieu writes…

"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 …"

So according to Montesquieu what is the best form of Government? Well, he states..

“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."

He is saying these principles would do better than any government but people are not perfect and how do you get bad people to do good things. He believed a republic with checks and balances that ran off of virtue would create the best conditions and choices for people. This system should not run off of any random virtue but a specific kind. Montesquieu writes..

"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."

This all inspired the Founders and it showed in all of their writing from the Declaration of Independence to the Federalist Papers and Constitution. This is why John Adams said...

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

and James Madison said

"An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others."

Each of these ideas was inspired by Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and I think it is relevant now more than ever. Not only to fully understand how our system works but why it does. What has been it’s motivating force for all of these years and how can we maintain it? What do you guys think? Let us know in the comments below.



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