A Jack Miller Center Pathway to the Founding Essay
Through his authorship of The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu (whose full name was Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron of la Brède and of Montesquieu), became by far the most respected and consulted political theorist of the late eighteenth century. No book except the Bible was cited more often by Americans during the Founding period.
James Madison wrote in The Federalist (No. 47) that he was “the oracle who is always consulted and cited” on the subject of separation of powers. Montesquieu was also the authority on federalism, on the character of a commercial republic, and on the natures of democracy, monarchy, and despotism. He was looked to by his student William Blackstone for the fundamental principles underlying the Commentaries on the Laws of England. He was the inspiration and guide for Edmund Burke both in opposing the French Revolution and in attacking the British Empire in India. Montesquieu was the first, and for some time the only, major thinker to write forcefully against the enslavement of black Africans, and it was he who inspired the anti-slavery movement, which emerged in England out of his disciples.
The true meaning and teaching of Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws has been hotly contested since its first printing. Both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists — the proponents and the opponents of the ratification of the Constitution — claimed to be following Montesquieu more faithfully. Each side condemned their opponents’ misinterpretations. The Roman Catholic Church placed The Spirit of the Laws on the Index of forbidden readings as too dangerously liberal, and the radical Thomas Paine celebrated the book for the same reason; but at the same time, Thomas Jefferson attacked the work as so conservative as to be dangerously alien to American principles. When Burke appealed to Montesquieu, his antagonists, the upholders of the British East India Company, defiantly cited chapter and verse in claiming to be the true followers of Montesquieu’s imperialistic teachings on how to understand and deal with eastern despotism and religion.
Disputes of this kind over Montesquieu’s true teaching have continued among modern scholars. The controversies reflect the fact that The Spirit of the Laws is a work of gargantuan scope and demanding subtlety, animated by dramatic inner tensions, vibrating with provocative debates, and bristling with perplexities. “The aim,” Montesquieu says at a key point, “is not to make the reader read, but to make the reader think.”
Unfortunately, the original English translation of Montesquieu’s masterpiece, by Thomas Nugent (the version used by the American Founders), was not accurate enough to allow a sufficiently reliable reading. The more recent translation by Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone is a considerable improvement, but still falls short of the most desirable degree of accuracy.
Important clues to Montesquieu’s complex and puzzling philosophy may be found in the fact that prior to spending twenty years in writing The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu had already become famous as the author of an enigmatic philosophic and theological novel, The Persian Letters, and a compact philosophic analysis of the history of Rome—entitledConsiderations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline.
The latter is now available in quite an accurate translation by David Lowenthal, with a helpful introduction. More recently, important light on Montesquieu early analysis of Rome, and how that analysis illuminates his intention in The Spirit of the Laws is discussed in Paul Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift and Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty.
The Persian Letters has yet to find a very accurate translation, but there is a fascinating and revealing interpretative study by Diana Schaub.
Thomas Pangle is the author of Montesquieu’s Philsophy of Liberalism and, most recently, of The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws published by the University of Chicago Press.