Montesquieu and the Constitution of Liberty

Part of the Studies of the Americas book series (STAM)


Thirty-five years ago, in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn surveyed the intellectual traditions that exercised influence in the American colonies on the eve of the American Revolution and argued that the English commonwealthmen identified by Caroline Robbins had a greater substantive impact than did the writers of classical antiquity and the Enlightenment, the exponents of the common law, and the Puritan divines. Of the writers who fell within the last three categories, he did not repeat what he had said concerning “the classics of the ancient world”—that they

are everywhere in the literature of the Revolution, but they are everywhere illustrative, not determinative, of thought. They contributed a vivid vocabulary but not the logic or grammar of thought, a universally respected personification but not the source of political and social beliefs. They heightened the colonists’ sensitivity to ideas and attitudes otherwise derived.

To the Enlightenment, the common law, and the colonists’ Puritan heritage he attributed greater substantive influence.


American Political Executive Power Political Liberty Legislative Power American Revolution 
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In citing the Persian Letters and The Spirit of the Laws, I have used the Pléiade edition: Charles de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu, ed. Roger Caillois (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1949–1951), 1: 131–373, 2: 225–995. All of the interlinear references in the text are to the parts, books, and chapters of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws; where the chapters are long, I have specified the pertinent page of the edition used. In general, the translations are my own. Where I found that I could not do better myself, I have not been hesitant to borrow phraseology from Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent (New York: Hafner, 1949) and from Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, ed. and trans. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  1. 1.
    Consider Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1967), esp. 22–54, in light of Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961). An earlier version of the former was published as the introduction to Bernard Bailyn, ed., Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1766 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1965–), 1: 1–202.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review 78 (1984): 189–197.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    To date, there is no adequate account of Montesquieu’s influence overall. One should begin, however, with Paul Merrill Spurlin, Montesquieu in America, 1760–1801 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1940). Regarding his influence on the framers of the American Constitution, more has been done: see Paul Merrill Spurlin, “Montesquieu and the American Constitution,” in The French Enlightenment in America: Essays on the Times of the Founding Fathers, ed. Paul Merrill Spurlin (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), 86–98; James W. Muller, “The American Framers’ Debt to Montesquieu,” in The Revival of Constitutionalism, ed. James W. Muller (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1988), 87–102; and Anne M. Cohler, Montesquieu’s Comparative Politics and the Spirit of American Constitutionalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    See Martin Howard, Jr., “A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax” (1765), in Pamphlets of the American Revolution, I: 541.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    See Jacob E. Cooke, ed., The Federalist (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 324, 523.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Cf. The Complete Anti-Federalist, ed. Herbert J. Storing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): Robert Yates and John Lansing, “Reasons of Dissent” (2.3.7); Luther Martin, “The Genuine Information Delivered to the Legislature of the State of Maryland” (2.4.44); Letters of Cato III (2.6.10–21, 25, 36, 43, 48); Letters of Centinel I (2.7.11, 17–19, 33, 73); Letters from the Federal Farmer II (2.8.15–19, 97, 148); Essays of Brutus (2.9.11–21, 39); Essays of an Old Whig IV (3.3.11, 20); A Review of the Constitution Proposed by the late Convention by a Federal Republican (3.6.8, 16, 19, 23); The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania To Their Constituents (3.11.16–17, 26, 44–45); Essays by William Penn (3.12.13); Letters of Agrippa IV (4.6.16–17); Letters of a Republican Federalist (4.13.21); Essays by a Farmer (4.17.22); Essays by a Farmer (5.1.13, 68, 93); Address of a Minority of the Maryland Ratifying Convention (5.4.10); Address by John Francis Mercer (5.5.5–6); Letter of Richard Henry Lee to Governor Edmund Randolph (5.6.1); Essays by Cato (5.10.4); Essay by Tamony (5.11.7); Reply to Cassius by Brutus (5.15.1); Speeches of Patrick Henry in the Virginia State Ratifying Convention (5.16.14); Speech of George Mason in the Virginia Ratifying Convention (5.17.1); James Monroe, Some Observations on the Constitution (5.21.12–13); Essays by Cincinnatus (6.1.12, 32); Essays by Sidney (6.8.17–19, 31, 35); Speeches by Melancton Smith in the New York Ratifying Convention (6.12.5), with Cooke, Federalist, 52–53, 56, 292, 295, 324–326, 328, 523 and with James Wilson, Speeches at the Pennsylvania Convention, November 24 and December 4, 1787; Cato, Poughkeepsie Country Journal and Advertiser, December 12, 1787; A Citizen of American [Noah Webster], An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, October 17, 1787; and A Foreign Spectator [Nicholas Collin], “An Essay on the Means of Promoting Federal Sentiments in the United States,” Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer August, 6, 10, 16–17, 24 and September 4, 12–13, 17, 1787, in Friends of the Constitution: Writings of the “Other” Federalists, 1787–1788, ed. Colleen A. Sheehan and Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998) 74, 212, 237, 346, 386n, 400, 401n, 415, 425–426, 432. In the postscript dealing with the ratification of the Constitution that Bernard Bailyn added to the enlarged (but otherwise unrevised edition) of his book, Montesquieu plays a considerable role: see Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992), 321–379.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    A Pennsylvanian, “An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America Upon Slave-Keeping” (1773), in American Political Writing during the Founding Era, I: 217–230, 218–219n, 225n, 228n.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    The federalism of John Dickinson is a case in point. First cf. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), I: 20–22 (May 29, 1787) with The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 235–237 (June 13, 1787); note The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 242–245 (June 15, 1787); and consider, with care, Supplement to Max Farrand’s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. James H. Hutson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 84–91. Then, consider The Records of the Federal Convention, I: 85–87 (June 2, 1787), 136 (June 6, 1787), 150, 152–153 (June 7, 1787); II: 114–115 (July 25, 1787), 123 (July 26, 1787), 202 (August 7, 1787), 278 (August 13, 1787), 292 (August 14, 1787), with an eye to Supplement to The Records of the Federal Convention, 128–129, 134–139. Finally, see Fabius, “Observations on the Constitution Proposed by the Federal Convention,” no. 8, April 29, 1788, in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, ed. Merrill Jensen et al. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976–), 17: 246–251, esp. 246–249, where Dickinson makes it clear that the so-called Connecticut Compromise embodied a set of constitutional principles inspired ultimately by Montesquieu and was no compromise at all.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    See Louis Desgraves, “Aspects de la correspondance de Montesquieu en 1749,” in Lectures de Montesquieu, ed. Edgar Mass and Alberto Postigiola (Naples: Liguori Editore, 1993), 66.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    See David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (London: A. Millar, 1751), 54–55; as cited in Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 245.Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    See Edmund Burke, “Abridgment of English History” (1757), in Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 8 vols. (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854–1859), VI: 297.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    One can get a good sense of the work’s scope from perusing the essays collected in Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: Essays on The Spirit of Laws, ed. David W. Carrithers, Michael A. Mosher, and Paul A. Rahe (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). There is much of value as well in Montesquieu and the Spirit of Modernity, ed. David W. Carrithers and Patrick Coleman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2002). The best attempt to date at a comprehensive analysis of Montesquieu’s masterpiece is Thomas L. Pangle, Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on The Spirit of the Laws (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973). Shackleton’s Montesquieu is far more valuable for the light it casts on Montesquieu’s life than for its analysis of his writings and thought.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    In this connection, see Lois G. Schwoerer, The Declaration of Rights, 1689 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  14. 26.
    For the details, see Winston S. Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times (London: George G. Harrap, 1947), I: 711–868.Google Scholar
  15. 28.
    See Paul A. Rahe, “Averting Our Gaze,” The Journal of the Historical Society 2 (2002): 145–151.Google Scholar
  16. 30.
    For a more detailed argument along these lines than there is space for here, see Paul A. Rahe, “The Book That Never Was: Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Romans in Historical Context,” History of Political Thought 26 (2005): 43–89.Google Scholar
  17. 32.
    The best introduction to this important, but neglected work is Diana J. Schaub, Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).Google Scholar
  18. 33.
    See Peter Gay, Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 33–48, 66–68; and Theodore Besterman, Voltaire, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 113–128. For an earlier, more circumstantial, and ultimately less reliable account, see J. Churton Collins, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau in England (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1908), 1–116.Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, “Vie de Voltaire” (1791), in François Marieu Arouet de Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Louis Émile Dierdonné Moland, 52 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1877–1885), I: 208.Google Scholar
  20. 36.
    See Michel Baridon, “Rome et l’Angleterre dans les Considérations,” in Storia e ragione: Le Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence di Montesquieu nel 250 della publicazione, ed. Alberto Postigliola (Naples: Liguori, 1987), 293–309.Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    At one point, Montesquieu started to draft a preface, in which he explained that he had originally set out to describe the transition from the republic to the principate and that he had later decided to begin at the beginning, but he left the draft incomplete. See “Project de préface,” in Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu, ed. Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998–), II: 315–316.Google Scholar
  22. 43.
    I find it astonishing that, in the introduction to the one recent English translation of this work, there is no mention of the Reflections at all: see David Lowenthal, “Introduction,” in Montesquieu, The Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, trans. David Lowenthal (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965), 1–20. This is not, however, an anomaly. Almost nowhere in the scholarship on Montesquieu’s Considerations does anyone say a word concerning the original design of the book that Montesquieu had printed early in 1734: see, e.g., Roger B. Oake, “Montesquieu’s Analysis of Roman History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 16 (1955): 44–59; David Lowenthal, “The Design of Montesquieu’s Considerations: Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 2 (1970): 144–166; Georges Benrekassa, La politique et sa mémoire: Le politique et l’historique dans le pensée des lumières (Paris: Payot, 1983), 37–89; the essays collected in Storia e ragione; and Richard Myers, “Montesquieu on the Causes of Roman Greatness,” History of Political Thought 16 (1995): 37–47. Though the facts concerning Montesquieu’s original intentions have been known for more than a century, I know of no discussion of their importance apart from the brief remarks in Andrivet and Volpilhac-Auger, “Introduction à Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence,” 3–86; and Larrère and Weil, “Introduction à Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle en Europe,” 321–337.Google Scholar
  23. 44.
    For a more detailed discussion of these two texts than is possible here, see Paul A. Rahe, “The Book that Never Was: Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Romans in Historical Context,” History of Political Thought 26: 1 (Spring 2005): 43–89.Google Scholar
  24. 46.
    Charles de Secondat, “Mémoire pour servir a l’éloge historique de M. de Montesquieu,” in Louis Vian, Histoire de Montesquieu: Sa vie et ses oeuvres (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1970), 396–407, 401.Google Scholar
  25. 49.
    Cf. Jean Jacques Granpre Molière, La théorie de la constitution Anglaise chez Montesquieu (Leiden: Presse Universitaire de Leyde, 1972), who fails to recognize the significance of the fact that the draft of L’Esprit des lois 2.11.6 is in the same hand as an extract from the missing manuscript of Refléxions sur la monarchie universelle en Europe.Google Scholar
  26. 52.
    Montesquieu’s striking description of the English constitution echoes views long common in England. Cf., e.g., Roger L’Estrange’s claim, advanced on the eve of the Restoration, that “our former Government, eminently, included all the perfections of a Free-State, and was the Kernel, as it were, of a Common-wealth, in the shell of Monarchy.” See [Roger L’Estrange], “A Plea for Limited Monarchy, As it Was Established in this Nation, Before the Late War” (1660), in The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1999), I: 495–504, 499. This sort of claim was frequently heard from the late Tudor period onward: see Patrick Collinson, “The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester 69 (1987): 394–424. Note also David Hume, “Of the Liberty of the Press,” “Of the Independency of Parliament,” and “Of the Parties of Great Britain,” in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985), 9–13, 44–53, 64–72.Google Scholar
  27. 54.
    In this connection, see Bernard Manin, “Montesquieu et la politique moderne,” Cahiers de philosophie politique 2–3 (issue nos.) (Reims: Université de Reims, 1985), 157–229 (esp. 182–229), and Cohler, Montesquieu’s Comparative Politics, 66–97. Note also Walter Kuhfuss, Mässigung und Politik: Studien zur politischen Sprache und Theorie Montesquieus (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1975), 94–229.Google Scholar
  28. 56.
    As Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à De l’esprit des lois de Montesquieu (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998), 125, points out, in these passages Montesquieu is alluding to Bossuet, who had juxtaposed the “false honor” arising from an ambition for the things of this world with the true honor sought by Christians.Google Scholar
  29. 58.
    Cf. Arist. Eth. Nic., 1138a5–7 with Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), II.xxi.1–18; and Thomas Hobbes, A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England, ed. Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 73. For an example of the confusion to which Montesquieu’s discussion of liberty has given rise, see David Spitz, “Montesquieu’s Theory of Freedom,” in Essays in the Liberal Ideal of Freedom (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1964), 28–35. Cf. Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 60–63.Google Scholar
  30. 61.
    See M. J. C. Vile, Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967). That Montesquieu is discussing the separation of powers without employing the phrase is evident, as James Madison had occasion to observe, both from his inclination to criticize polities in which two or more of the powers are “united” or “joined” and from his insistence that “the power of judging” be “separated” from both “the executive” and “the legislative power.” Consider 2.11.6, 396–397, in light of Cooke, Federalist, 324–327. Cf., however, Charles Eisenmann, “L’Esprit des Lois et la séparation des pouvoirs” and “La pensées constitutionnelle de Montesquieu,” and Michel Troper, “Charles Eisenmann contre le mythe de la séparation des pouvoirs,” Cahiers de philosophie politique 2–3 (issue nos.) (Reims: Université de Reims, 1985), 3–79. As one would expect, Montesquieu owed his terminology, in part, to the 1691 French translation of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government: see Shackleton, Montesquieu, 286. Note also Alberto Postigliola, “Sur quelques interprétations de la ‘séparation des pouvoirs’ chez Montesquieu,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 154 (1976): 1759–1775.Google Scholar
  31. 62.
    On this, see Pangle, Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism, 117–138; Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, 53–64; and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power (New York: Free Press, 1989), 213–246.Google Scholar
  32. 68.
    Cf. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, 1.4, in Tutte le opere, ed. Mario Martelli (Florence: Sansoni, 1971), 82–83.Google Scholar
  33. 69.
    In a much earlier work, Montesquieu has a character observe that in England’s historians “one sees liberty constantly spring forth from the fires of discord and sedition” and that one finds “the Prince always tottering on a throne,” which is itself “unshakeable.” If the “nation” is “impatient,” this character remarks, it is nonetheless “wise in its very fury.” Consider Lettres Persanes, no. 136, in Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu, ed. Caillois, 1: 336, in light of Neal Wood, “The Value of Asocial Sociability: Contributions of Machiavelli, Sidney and Montesquieu,” in Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought, ed. Martin Fleisher (New York: Athenaeum, 1972), 282–307, esp. 298–305.Google Scholar
  34. 70.
    See, e.g., “Appeal to the Inhabitants of Quebec,” October 26, 1774, Journals of the Continental Congress I: 107.Google Scholar

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© Gary L. McDowell and Johnathan O’Neill 2006

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