14 AHMP The Separation of Powers According to Montesquieu, Locke, and the Founding Fathers
Who was the philosopher known as Montesquieu? What governmental structure did he believe would be assure political liberty, and why did he believe so strongly that each branch must be firmly separated from one another? When we meld the ideas of Locke and Montesquieu together, how can we hear them in the writings of the Founding Fathers? We will explore these questions in this episode.
First, let’s learn a bit about his life history
Who was Montesquieu? First of all, his name is a mouthful to say the least! Let me see if I can stumble over it for you. His full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu.
In the 13th edition of American History for the Modern Patriot, we learned about the life and philosophy of John Locke. You will recall that he was an empiricist, meaning the he believed that knowledge arises not from a series of deductions, but from the sensate or experiential collection of data. He talked about broad concepts such as natural law, the state of nature, property, liberty, and tyranny. Montesquieu focused on much more concrete systems such as the structure of government. Is it any surprised that Locke was trained in medicine, and Montesquieu was trained in the law?
But let’s start from the beginning of his life. As with Locke, Montesquieu’s parents died while he was a child. However, unlike Locke, both of Montesquieu’s parents were French nobles. Although his mother carried a minor title, Montesquieu’s guardian and uncle was a Baron and left him that title, wealth, and with a Parliamentary office upon his death. In 1708, He received a law degree from the University of Bordeaux. Montesquieu watched the events of England’s Glorious Revolution from afar, and the limitations set upon the English Sovereign, as well as guarantees instituted in documents such as the English Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement. He also connected with exiled members of the House of Stuart in France, and spent more than a year in England intermixing with members of Parliament and becoming a member of the Freemasons.
He served in the office of President a Mortier for eleven years. During that time, he supervised prisons and sat as the trier of fact in proceedings. He also became active in the Academy of Bordeaux which was focused on science rather than the law. Although trained as an attorney, he was financially able to devote himself to writing. He began publishing in his early thirties, and published the book that is of most interest to us as he neared his 60th birthday.
The book that those interested in the American Founding most closely associate with Montesquieu is the Spirit of the Laws.
As with Locke, Montesquieu first published this work anonymously. It is an immense work with four volumes, hundreds chapters, and discusses everything from anthropology to governmental structure. Montesquieu was nearly blind when he produced this work, and he employed several secretaries to help him read material and scribe the text. Montesquieu worked on his masterpiece from 1731 until 1748. In it, he considered a vast number of social institutions including that of the governments of Rome, China, England and France, as well as why those government thrived or may have become corrupt. He expounded on slavery, liberty, religion, and most important for our purposes the structure of a republic
Although the book was well received in Britain, and most certainly in the American Colonies, it was banned by the Catholic Church and not well received by those in power in his own country. Why? It might have something to do with Montesquieu’s description three different types of governments: despotism, monarchies, and republics. While republics were said to have virtuous characteristics such as fraternity, equality, and patriotism (yes,