American Minute with Bill Federer FEB. 10 - 'Fear is necessary in a despotic government' - Montesquieu
American Minute with Bill Federer
FEB. 10 - 'Fear is necessary in a despotic government' - Montesquieu
Society...must repose on principles that do not change." - wrote Montesquieu in Book 24 of The Spirit of the Laws.
Baron Montesquieu died on FEBRUARY 10, 1755.
He was a French political philosopher who greatly influenced America's founders.
In 1984, the American Political Review
published "The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late
18th-Century American Political Thought," written by Charles S. Hyneman
and Donald S. Lutz of the University of Houston.
reviewing nearly 15,000 items written between 1760 and 1805, Lutz and
Hyneman discovered that, after the Bible, the Founding Fathers quoted
Montesquieu more than any other source.
the selfish nature of man, and how, opportunity provided, a single
person would be tempted to accumulate power and become a despot.
introduced the revolutionary idea of separating the powers of ruling
into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial.
three branches would selfishly pull against each other to prevent one
from becoming too powerful over the others - thus using power to check
The brilliance of this is equivalent to a Sunday school
teacher giving an assignment - 'design a system of government where
sinners keep other sinners from sinning.'
"Nor is there liberty if the power of judging is not separated from legislative power and from executive power.
it were joined to legislative power, the power over life and liberty of
the citizens would be arbitrary, for the judge would be the legislator.
If it were joined to executive power, the judge could have the force of an oppressor.
All would be lost if the same...body of principal men...exercised these three powers."
James Madison echoed this in The Federalist No. 51:
must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be
connected with the constitutional rights of the place... If angels were
to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would
In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu gave the key ingredient for a 'popular' government of 'people' to rule themselves:
is the nature of a republican government that...the collective body of
the people...should be possessed of the supreme power...
In a popular state, one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue...
The politic Greeks, who lived under a popular government, knew no other support than virtue...
When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community...
in a popular government, there is a suspension of the laws, as this can
proceed only from the corruption of the republic, the state is
Montesquieu explained that without virtue, government will change to a single person ruling through fear:
"As virtue is necessary in a republic...so fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it...
Fear must therefore depress their spirits, and extinguish even the least sense of ambition...
Of a despotic government, that a single person...rule according to his own will and caprice..."
who commands the execution of the laws generally thinks himself above
them, there is less need of virtue than in a popular government...
Such are the principles... of government:... in a particular republic they actually are...virtuous;... or in a particular despotic government by fear."
In The Spirit of the Laws, 1748, Montesquieu wrote:
"A moderate Government is most agreeable to the Christian Religion, and a despotic Government to the Mahometan...
The Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power.
mildness so frequently recommended in the Gospel is incompatible with
the despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects, and
exercises himself in cruelty.
As this religion forbids the
plurality of wives, its princes are less confined, less concealed from
their subjects, and consequently have more humanity: they are more
disposed to be directed by laws, and more capable of perceiving that
they cannot do whatever they please.
While the Mahometan princes
incessantly give or receive death, the religion of the Christians
renders their princes...less cruel. The prince confides in his subjects,
and the subjects in the prince.
How admirable the religion
which, while it only seems to have in view the felicity of the other
life, continues the happiness of this!...
It is the Christian religion that...has hindered despotic power."
the characters of the Christian and Mahometan religions, we ought,
without any further examination, to embrace the one and reject the
for it is much easier to prove that religion ought to humanize the manners of men than that any particular religion is true.
It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror.
Mahometan religion, which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men
with that destructive spirit with which it was founded."
Of the Christian religion, Montesquieu examined:
the Christian religion, two centuries ago, became unhappily divided
into Catholic and Protestant, the people of the north embraced the
Protestant, and those of the south adhered still to the Catholic.
reason is plain: the people of the north have, and will forever have, a
spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the south have
not; and therefore a religion which has no visible head is more
agreeable to the independence of the climate than that which has one...
a religion is introduced and fixed in a state, it is commonly such as
is most suitable to the plan of government there established...that the
Catholic Religion is most agreeable to a monarchy, and the Protestant to
Montesquieu compared Lutheran and Calvinist countries:
the countries themselves where the Protestant religion became
established, the revolutions were made pursuant to the several plans of
Luther having great princes on his
side...an ecclesiastical authority...while Calvin, having to do with
people who lived under republican governments...
Each of these
two religions was believed to be perfect; the Calvinist judging his most
conformable to what Christ had said, and the Lutheran to what the
Apostles had practiced."
In The Spirit of the Laws, 1748, Montesquieu wrote:
"I have always respected religion; the morality of the Gospel is the noblest gift ever bestowed by God on man.
shall see that we owe to Christianity, in government, a certain
political law, and in war a certain law of nations - benefits which
human nature can never sufficiently acknowledge.
of Christianity, deeply engraved on the heart, would be infinitely more
powerful than the false honor of monarchies, than the humane virtues of
republics, or the servile fear of despotic states."
In the beginning of The Spirit of the Laws, 1748, Montesquieu wrote:
is related to the universe as Creator and Preserver; the laws by which
He created all things are those by which He preserves them...
But the intelligent world is far from being so well governed as the physical...
as a physical being, is like other bodies governed by invariable laws.
As an intelligent being, he incessantly transgresses the laws
established by God, and changes those of his own instituting.
is left to his private direction, though a limited being, and subject,
like all finite intelligences, to ignorance and error...hurried away by a
thousand impetuous passions.
Such a being might every instant forget his Creator; God has therefore reminded him of his duty by the laws of religion."
Montesquieu wrote in The Spirit of the Laws, 1748:
Christian religion, which orders men to love one another, no doubt
wants the best political laws and the best civil laws for each people,
because those laws are, after (religion), the greatest good that men can
give and receive."