How the Founders Read Montesquieu

Scholars and especially commentators in need of a quotation frequently cite Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu to support the idea of a “mixed” constitution with democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements. Rarely, though, are Montesquieu’s works, especially The Spirit of Laws, explored at length. Montesquieu is more likely to be plumbed for quotes to diminish current politicians rather than to be read seeking wisdom. Some writers even call him a prophet. Once in a while, however, engaging Montesquieu in this way can produce something thoughtful, like this piece by Harvey Mansfield, but that is rare.

What has long been needed is a book-length analysis of Montesquieu, especially in light of “post-liberal” criticism of the American founding as a fatally and ideologically flawed Enlightenment project, rooted in a false, radically individualist anthropology. Like Marxian analysis of the American Founding, these political philosophical arguments have in common an overly theoretical approach as well as an extreme reductionism. Yet they are at their root implicitly historical, for they propose “liberalism” as an ideology, and the American Revolution as an attempt to instantiate in the body politic this ideology that they argue was doomed to fail.

With The Politics of Place: Montesquieu, Particularism, and the Pursuit of Liberty, Joshua Bandoch, Research Fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, gives us the Montesquieu book we need to navigate this debate about the degree to which American government institutions and constitutional principles are universal. Indeed, Bandoch wants to know whether it even is possible “to develop a universalistic account of the right political order.” On its own, this is not a groundbreaking book. Yet it significantly furthers our definition of just what “American exceptionalism” might or can or ought to be.

Montesquieu in the Federalist Debate

Enlightenment thinkers prior to the American Revolution, including John Locke, thought one could reason one’s way to the best system of government. Joining these Enlightenment thinkers is a long cast of characters, all of whom in one way or another sought not so much principles of right order and justice but rather universal systems. These thinkers include Jeremy Bentham, Georg W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and nearly all thinkers in the Jacobin vein who eschew liberty and virtue for a programmatic but elusive utopia.

Bandoch’s question is whether Montesquieu is rightly considered among this group who propose a singular, transcendent political order. His answer, given Montesquieu’s influence among Americans in the wake of the Revolutionary War, has important implications for the American Founding. For if the US Constitution is a model borrowed from Montesquieu, then it is the ideological blueprint the post-liberals argue that it is and nothing more. And if it is a blueprint that can be unmoored from the American experience, then Americans who promote their constitutional order as universal in all respects have greater cause to export it as a one-size-fits-all plan for humanity. But what if the US Constitution is a compromise document, shaped through prudence and moderation at a particular time and place?

Only the Bible was quoted more than Montesquieu at the Constitutional Convention. The use of Montesquieu, however, especially The Spirit of Laws, did not stop there. In the ensuing debates over whether to ratify what Madison called “the draft of a plan,” Americans drew different conclusions from Montesquieu. For example, Antifederalists warned that, given the “extent and vagueness” of Congress’s powers under the Constitution, the federal union was too large to sustain itself without centralized tyranny. The result, Antifederalists claimed, would crush local needs.

Bandoch is right that this is important evidence of a strong democratic localism and experience with liberty. Richard Beeman points out that the theoretical backing used to bolster this argument came from Montesquieu, whom Antifederalists often cited both in assembly (Pennsylvania) and in print (Samuel Bryan and Robert Yates). Indeed, according to Antifederalists like Yates, who directly quoted The Spirit of Laws, history and common sense showed that republics could only flourish within small geographic limits among a homogeneous people.

Federalists James Madison and Alexander Hamilton also quoted and heavily used Montesquieu. Federalist 47, written by Madison, is one long disquisition on Montesquieu and how Americans ought to interpret the ways he connected liberty to separation of powers. Madison goes so far as to say that the British constitution was to Montesquieu as Homer was to later poets—the source and inspiration of perfection. Forrest McDonald notes that Americans could “recite the central points of Montesquieu’s doctrine as if it had been a catechism.” Beeman also acknowledges that “nearly all of America’s political leaders were familiar with the writings of Baron de Montesquieu.”

McDonald and Beeman are correct about American admiration for Montesquieu. But as McDonald admits, Montesquieu’s reading of Bolingbroke’s “misleading” depiction of the British constitution had led him to stress three separate government branches even though “the English system was asymmetrical” until the 1600s. Americans, after all, had the experience of their own colonial tradition of liberty. Much like the Americans’ reading of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776, Americans did not discover in Montesquieu a blueprint for a government that existed only in the minds of ideologues. What they found, rather, was confirmation, clarification, theoretical grounding, and broad principles for what had been growing organically in America for over 150 years during the period praised by Edmund Burke as a time of “salutary neglect.”

Read the full article on Law & Liberty.