Thursday, October 17, 2019

On Montesquieu’s Republicanism

Montesquieu was a popular philosopher in 18th century French, but his political theory had a great impact across the continent, in America. In his 1748 work The Spirit of the Laws, he makes an important claim about the separation of powers between different arms of a republican government that proved crucial to the leaders who founded American in 1776. The great debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists in the United States in 1787 and 1788 was inspired by Montesquieu’s theory of government.

An admirer of England’s constitutionalist system with its mixed government and separation of powers, Montesquieu makes the case for a division of power between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches, and a bicameral legislature. He grants the executive the power to veto legislation but not to establish it, and to the legislature he grants the power to review the executive but not to disarm it. The outcome of his theory is four agencies—the executive, judiciary, House of Lords, and House of Commons—which act as a check on one another’s powers.

Montesquieu is an advocate of the view that a government with internal political limits and whose parts are in competition is a necessary condition for preserving the liberty of the citizens. But he insists that if a republic is too large, it’s likely to become corrupted. He says that a large republic should adopt a federal structure (a federation of small republics) to avoid the pitfalls of size.

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