Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Montesquieu: The Spirit of Laws

The authors of our Constitution depended on the ideas and writings of Montesquieu more than any other single political thinker.  No writer is more highly cited than Montesquieu by our Founding Fathers and he profoundly influencedThomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. However, I expect most of us have never heard of him. 

Montesquieu (1689-1755) was born Charles Louis de la Brède  in the French area of Gascony near Bordeaux. Montesquieu took his name from his estate, just like another French political thinker from Gascony, Montaigne. Initially Montesquieu pursued interests in literature and science. However a tour of Europe observing local social and legal institutions inspired him to explore the deeper meanings of law, human rights and the purpose of government.   Montesquieu distilled his thoughts in his book, The Spirit of Laws

Montesquieu's work was largely criticized in his native France, but was embraced in Britain and the American colonies.  The Spirit of Laws promoted the separation of government into three branches (executive, legislative and judicial powers) and the rights of all men.  He also discusses at length the differences between governments such as republics, monarchies, and despotic regimes.  Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws is a stark contrast from Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, which supports a strong, almost omnipotent central government. We therefore have an interesting juxtaposition of a Frenchman (Montesquieu) celebrating the British constitution and an Englishman (Hobbes) idolizing the French monarchy.