March 9, 2007


Meanwhile: Revisiting the French guru of American democracy (Michael Johnson, March 9, 2007, International Herald Tribune)

Montesquieu seems especially relevant today in the U.S. debate over concentration of presidential power. He lived under a monarchy, but spent his final years searching for better ways to combine order and freedom.

As I flipped through one of his books recently while at a sidewalk café in the warm sunshine of Bordeaux, I felt an eerie resonance. Montesquieu is worth a fresh look. A key tenet he advocated was the separation of powers, which the early Americans adopted outright for their new Constitution.

"The Spirit of Laws," a translation of which was published in Philadelphia and corrected by Thomas Jefferson, was "the best-read book in the Colonies after the Bible," said Joyce Appleby, a specialist in American History at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Separation of powers was a key concept in the U.S. Constitution. "The oracle who is always consulted on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu," James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers. He quotes Montesquieu as saying that "there can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body or magistrates." Accumulation of powers "may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny," he concluded.

To be sure, in later years Jefferson and others cooled to the great Frenchman, at odds with such ideas as warning that democracy would be manageable only in small republics. Jefferson as president had bigger ideas for the United States, and indeed doubled its size with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Yet Montesquieu's influence on Jefferson is beyond dispute. [...]

While avidly read in America, the Vatican banned his masterwork. In France he was criticized by progressive colleagues for being too pro-British and pro-monarchy. The French, says one historian, felt he was "too fond of talking about the nature of liberty and too pointed in implying that France had very little of it."

And so even the very best Frenchmen must rely on the Anglosphere to spread their ideas.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2007 4:06 PM
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