Montesquieu's Comparative Politics and the Spirit of American Constitutionalism

With a New Foreword by Sarah Burns

Anne M. Cohler

“American republicans,” notes Forrest McDonald, “regarded selected doctrines of Montesquieu’s as being virtually on par with Holy Writ.” But exactly how the French jurist’s labyrinthian work, The Spirit of the Laws, with was published in 1748, influenced the eighteenth-century conception of the republic is not well understood by historians or theorists. Anne M. Cohler undertakes to show the importance of Montequieu’s teaching for modern legislation and for modern political prudence generally, with specific reference to his impact on The Federalist and Tocqueville. In so doing, she delineates Montequieu’s contribution to political philosophy and suggests new ways to think about the formation of the American Constitution.

To analyze the comparative politics found in the Spirit of the Laws, Cohler focuses on four fundamental principles underlying Montesquieu’s view of government: spirit, moderation, liberty, and legislation. In this endeavor she is guided by the conviction that the philosopher hews to the spirit of the laws rather than to the laws themselves—that is, to internal rather than external principles. Montesquieu, in Cohler’s argument, addresses the problem posed by the tendency to see human beings in light o universal abstractions at the expense of particular relationships, distinctions, and forms. To counter this tendency, which can be fostered by religion, Montesquieu develops a theory of prudence designed to support the world of politics and political life, necessarily an intermediate world occupying a space between universal abstractions and individual particularities.

“A thoughtful addition to the scholarship.

—Choice

“By calling our attention to the high emphasis both Montesquieu and the Founders placed upon moderation as the basis for a free government, she has helped to explain Montesquieu’s wide appeal and thereby succeeded in her aspiration to cast yet ‘another light upon the thought behind the shape of the Constitution.’

—Reviews in American History

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Cohler suggest that the Federalists and Tocqueville were most influenced by this preoccupation with spirit and moderation. James Madison and other Federalists, for example, were not drawn to limited government as a principled notion but rather as a consequence of understanding the context within which a moderate government must act not to become despotic. Similarly, Tocqueville extols democracy as self-government as an antidote to the dangers of democracy as a rule; the character of the governed shapes the nature of the governors. These and other conclusions will prove valuable to intellectual historians, political theorists, and students of religion.

About the Author

Anne M. Cohler (1940–1989) was an instructor in the Basic Program in Continuing Education at the University of Chicago and received her doctorate in political philosophy from Harvard University. She is the author of Rousseau and Nationalism and co-edited the first modern translation of Montequieu’s The Spirit of the Laws; this was her second and final book.

Sarah Burns is associate professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She is the author of The Politics of War Powers: The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism.