Champion of Liberty: Charles Montesquieu

Dinner Topics for Tuesday

key“Those people who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.”~ William Penn

Charles Montesquieu

Famous for his theory of Separation of Powers

montesquieuCharles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (/ˈmɒntɨskjuː/;[1] French: [mɔ̃tɛskjø]; 18 January 1689 – 10 February 1755), generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French lawyer, man of letters, and political philosopher who lived during the Age of Enlightenment. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. He did more than any other author to secure the place of the word despotism in the political lexicon,[2] and may have been partly responsible for the popularization of the terms feudalism and Byzantine Empire.[citation needed]

Montesquieu’s early life occurred at a time of significant governmental change. England had declared itself a constitutional monarchy in the wake of its Glorious Revolution (1688–89), and had joined with Scotland in the Union of 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In France the long-reigning Louis XIV died in 1715 and was succeeded by the five-year-old Louis XV. These national transformations had a great impact on Montesquieu; he would refer to them repeatedly in his work.

Montesquieu withdrew from the practice of law to devote himself to study and writing. He achieved literary success with the publication of his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721), a satire representing society as seen through the eyes of two imaginary Persian visitors to Paris and Europe, cleverly criticizing the absurdities of contemporary French society. He next published Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, 1734), considered by some scholars, among his three best known books, as a transition from The Persian Letters to his master work. De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws) was originally published anonymously in 1748. The book quickly rose to influence political thought profoundly in Europe and America. In France, the book met with an unfriendly reception from both supporters and opponents of the regime. The Catholic Church banned l’Esprit – along with many of Montesquieu’s other works – in 1751 and included it on the Index of Prohibited Books. It received the highest praise from the rest of Europe, especially Britain.

Montesquieu was also highly regarded in the British colonies in North America as a champion of liberty (though not of American independence). Political scientist Donald Lutz found that Montesquieu was the most frequently quoted authority on government and politics in colonial pre-revolutionary British America, cited more by the American founders than any source except for the Bible.[9] Following the American revolution, Montesquieu’s work remained a powerful influence on many of the American founders, most notably James Madison of Virginia, the “Father of the Constitution“. Montesquieu’s philosophy that “government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another”[10] reminded Madison and others that a free and stable foundation for their new national government required a clearly defined and balanced separation of powers.

Besides composing additional works on society and politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and 18 months in England where he became a freemason, admitted to the Horn Tavern Lodge in Westminster,[11] before resettling in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755. He was buried in the Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris.

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One comment on “Champion of Liberty: Charles Montesquieu

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