The Grandfather of
By Gabriel Blanchard
We have a general notion of the debt our government structure owes to the British, the Romans, even possibly the Iroquois; but we tend to forget one more nation ...
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Kingdom of France emerged as the queen of Europe. The French religious wars of the sixteenth century, which had combined with a dynastic dispute, had ended by putting the Huguenot* champion, Henri IV, on the throne—after his conversion to Catholicism (he is still remembered for his cynically genial remark Paris vaut une Messe, or “Paris is worth a Mass”). Henri’s grandson was Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil or “the Sun King.” He took the throne in 1643, and held it until his death in 1715; still the longest-reigning monarch in recorded history, he made France the most prestigious and formidable power in Europe. Among many reforms, he took steps to eradicate Protestantism from his realm, especially by revoking the protective Edict of Nantes that Henri IV had issued. His rule saw a flowering of literary, architectural, artistic, and philosophical creativity that would continue throughout the reign of his great-grandson and successor,** Louis XV.
In 1689, as the Sun King’s splendor had begun to wane, the hope of an alliance with a Catholic monarchy in England was dashed. King James II was chased out of the country and his throne usurped by his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange, and the British crown has, since then, been resolutely Protestant and almost entirely ceremonial, with real governance passing into the hands of Parliament. That same year, Charles Louis de Secondat was born, later to be known as the Baron de Montesquieu. On Louis XIV’s death, his heir was only five years old, and a regency council took power until the young king came of age. Both the constitutional revolution in Great Britain and the French regency made lasting impressions on Montesquieu, perhaps thanks in part to his own ties on his father’s side to the Plantagenets.† In any event, the young man studied law and served for over a decade as a senior magistrate in the city of Bordeaux, before embarking on a career as a man of letters, with a particular interest in history and political theory. He gained considerable notoriety, both positive and negative: in the writings of the American Founding Fathers, the only author or book quoted more frequently than Montesquieu is the Bible, which is especially ironic in light of the fact that in 1751, four years before its author’s death, the Catholic Church placed his most famous work on the Index of Forbidden Books! But let us take things in order.
His first great success was The Persian Letters, published in 1721. This was, as the title suggests, a collection of fictional letters, thus helping to pioneer the genre of the epistolary novel (later and more familiar examples include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, C. S. Lewis‘s The Screwtape Letters, and Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine trilogy). Its aim was to shed a fresh, satirical light on French society by looking at it as if from without; though several letter-writers are included in the collection, its central character is one Usbek of Isfahan, a Persian noble—and accordingly a Muslim—traveling in France and writing letters home to fellow nobles, his servants, his wives, and so on.
Montesquieu here shows one of his salient traits at its fullest, namely his ambivalence about religion (a trait he shares, like several others, with his predecessor Montaigne). It is so pronounced that it is difficult to tell what he personally believed. He received a Catholic education, and seems at the least to have outwardly conformed to that faith; nonetheless, he was of Huguenot extraction, married a Huguenot, and criticized Christianity, Catholicism especially, in many of his writings, notably The Persian Letters. This could indicate a man unsure of his religious beliefs—confident that wrong is wrong, but not that Catholicism as such is wrong, so to speak. Or, it could indicate someone whose religion was so thoroughly settled that even severe, public criticism would not unsettle it. His ambiguity may even have been deliberate; it would not be hard for such a subtle mind to see that this attitude could be “of use” no matter whose side of the quarrel was right.
In any event, a few years later, Montesquieu published a new and quite different work, this time a historical thesis: Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Originally intended as a brief essay, his topic ran away with him, and he ultimately covered the whole span of formally Roman civilization, from the traditional urbe condita‡ in 753 BC to the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453. Among other things, Montesquieu judged the expansionist militarism of the Empire and, after Constantine, the ideological distractions of Christian infighting for the collapse of Rome’s hegemony, western and eastern. In scope and in reasoning, the Considerations became the basis for Edward Gibbon‘s later, longer, and more famous The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
But the work Montesquieu is best known for in the US is The Spirit of Law, published anonymously in 1748. The book was not popular in France with either supporters or opponents of the established ancien regime, but in Great Britain and her colonies in the New World, it was a tremendous hit (as it was also with Empress Catherine the Great of Russia). Interestingly, he departed from Aristotle by not classifying systems of government primarily by their structure—democratic, monarchic, aristocratic, or mixed. Rather, he classified them according to the motivation that makes them function, prompting people to obey laws and support the state. Monarchies, he said, operate on the basis of a love of public honors and rank; despotisms, on fear of the ruler and the penalties they can impose for non-compliance; republics, on what he called “love of virtue,” meaning in this context the choice to put the common weal ahead of private advantage. Montesquieu argued on this basis that, if the animating principle of a system of government is not strong enough, that government is doomed to collapse. He adduced the abortive English republic of 1649-1660 as an example: love of virtue was not a strong enough trait in England at the time for a republic to take root, and their predilection for public honors rather than for the public good naturally issued in the restoration of the monarchy.
There is much else to be said about The Spirit of Law: for instance, its author set a high value on the autonomy of the individual citizen, denounced slavery as intrinsically immoral (a rare position at the time), and recommended extreme caution and leniency in dealing with hard-to-prove accusations like witchcraft (another relative novelty). But Montesquieu’s most celebrated thesis, adopted with alacrity by the Founding Fathers, was the principle of the separation of powers. He distinguished what we now call the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government, and advised that all states be so arranged that each of these functions be mainly vested in a distinct branch of the state—one neither so weak it could be overthrown by the other two, whether alone or acting in concert, nor so strong that it could usurp their functions. This, he believed, was the best safeguard of personal liberty: a balance of opposing tensions, like an arch that is paradoxically held up by gravity. Madison and the rest of the Constitutional Convention endorsed this principle wholeheartedly, and today it is the stamp not only of American government, but of nearly every government in the world.
*The Huguenots (typically pronounced HEW-ga-notts in American English) were French Protestants of the Reformed or Calvinist school. After the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, their numbers steadily declined due to persecution.
**This unusual succession was caused by disease: Louis XIV’s son died of smallpox in 1711, and the following year an outbreak of measles in the palace took the lives of both of Louis XV’s parents and his elder brother.
†The Plantagenet dynasty ruled England from the invasion of 1066 until the victory of the Tudors in 1485 (which ended the Wars of the Roses). Richard de la Pole was the last person of Plantagenet blood to assert his right to the throne against the Tudors; he took refuge in France, and there became an ancestor of Montesquieu. Interestingly, de la Pole was also descended from another figure on our Author Bank, Geoffrey Chaucer, as therefore was Montesquieu.
‡Ab urbe condita, Latin for “from the founding of the city [i.e. Rome],” was a dating system occasionally used by the Romans in antiquity, and more commonly during the Renaissance as an affectation; it was also used by Livy as the title of a history of Rome.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.
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Published on 24th April, 2023. Page image of the Institut de France, the superior organization of the Académie Française (of which Montesquieu was a member from 1728), the principal body responsible for regulating the French language; photograph taken by Dennis Jarvis in 2014 (source).