The Words and Wisdom of Montesquieu

CHARLES Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, was called “perhaps the most central thinker … of the enlightenment” by Robert Wokler. He was such an important influence on America’s founders, particularly his argument that a separation of powers was necessary for liberty to be maintained, that one writer characterized him as the “Ideological co-founder of the American Constitution,” along with John Locke.

Of particular importance for America was his analysis of liberty (including economic liberty), property, and the role of government in a republic. Countries are well cultivated, not as they are fertile, but as they are free.

Liberty consists principally in not being forced. Political liberty consists in security. In a country of liberty, every man who is supposed a free agent ought to be his own governor. The liberty of one citizen is of greater importance to the public than the ease or prosperity of another.

In a well regulated democracy, men are equal only as citizens. In republican governments, men are all equal; equal they are also in despotic governments: in the former, because they are everything; in the latter, because they are nothing.

Political liberty is to be found only … when there is no abuse of power. The real wants of the people ought never to give way to the imaginary wants of the state.

A nation may lose its liberties in a day. It is much better to leave trade open than … to restrain the liberty of commerce. Severe and tyrannical government was incompatible with commerce.

Commerce … flies from the places where it is oppressed, and stays where it has liberty to breathe.

When a democracy is founded on commerce, private people may acquire vast riches without corruption of morals. Trade produces … exact justice, opposite to robbery. Commerce … renders every man willing to live on his own property.

When the inhabitants of a state are all free subjects … each man enjoys his property with as much right as the prince. The public good consists in everyone’s having his property … invariably preserved.

Each citizen contributes to the revenues of the State a portion of his property in order that his tenure of the rest may be secure.

Whenever the public good happens to be the matter in question, it is not for the advantage of the public to deprive an individual of his property, or even to retrench the least part of it by a law, or a political regulation.

The state is the association of men, and not men themselves. In a democracy the people are the sovereign.

We cannot give someone else greater power over us than we have ourselves. In an extensive republic … there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens.

The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy. Cut the tree at the bottom and gather the fruit. That is exactly a despotic government. Useless laws weaken the necessary laws. Laws undertake to punish only overt acts.

Montesquieu was one of the most influential political thinkers behind America’s founding in pursuit of the blessings of liberty. Central to that influence was his recognition that those blessings required that “government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another.” But his intellectual legacy is now honored mainly in the breach, with government primarily devoted to transferring resources and power to the politically influential, which forces Americans to constantly fear that government’s power will be employed against them. We need to revive our commitment to that legacy, rather than to developing new and improved means for the state to prey on citizens it was intended to protect.

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