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Montesquieu, Charles Secondat de (1689-1755): One of the philosophers who helped bring us modern democracy. He defined the classic division of powers into the executive, legislative and judicative/jurisdictive powers. This was based on the reasoning that:

  • If the executive and legislative powers are in one hand, a tyrant could make laws at his will to give legitimation to unjust actions. (Examples: Nazi Germany 1933-1945, the GDR 1949-1989, countless others)
  • If the legislative and jurisdictive powers are in one hand, judges could make laws at their will in order to convict whomever they want.
  • If the executive and jurisdictive powers are in one hand, a tyrant or a judge could use excessive and oppressive force to execute their (possibly unjust) verdicts resp. justify their excessive and oppressive force by court decisions. (Examples: Revolutionary France, and again, Nazi Germany)

All modern democracies have to a varying degree implemented Montesquieu's ideas. At his time (the heyday of absolutism in France), our hero saw the division of power implemented best in Great Britain:

  • Executive Force: The Crown
  • Legislative Force: The Houses of Parliament
  • Judicative Force: Independent Judges

Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1689 to a wealthy family. Despite his family's wealth, de Decondat was placed in the care of a poor family during his childhood. He later went to college and studied science and history, eventually becoming a solicitor (/lawyer)]. De Secondat's father died in 1713 and he was placed under the care of his uncle, Baron de Montesquieu. The Baron died in 1716 and left de Secondat his fortune, his office as president of the Bordeaux Parliament, and his title of Baron de Montesquieu. Later he was a member of the Bordeaux and French Academies of Science and studied the laws and customs and governments of the countries of Europe. He gained fame in 1721 with his Persian Letters, which criticized the lifestyle and liberties of the wealthy French as well as the church. However, Montesquieu's book On the Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, was his most famous work. It outlined his ideas on how government would best work.

Montesquieu believed that all things were made up of rules or laws that never changed. He set out to study these laws scientifically with the hope that knowledge of the laws of government would reduce the problems of society and improve human life. According to Montesquieu, there were three types of government: a monarchy, a republic , and a despotism. Montesquieu believed that a government that was elected by the people was the best form of government. He did, however, believe that the success of a democracy - a government in which the people have the power - depended upon maintaining the right balance of power.

Montesquieu argued that the best government would be one in which power was balanced among three groups of officials. He thought Britain - which divided power between the king, Parliament, and the judges of the English courts - was a good model of this. Montesquieu called the idea of dividing government power into three branches the "separation of powers." He thought it most important to create separate branches of government with equal but different powers. That way, the government would avoid placing too much power with one individual or group of individuals. He wrote, "When the law making and law enforcement powers are united in the same person... there can be no liberty." According to Montesquieu, each branch of government could limit the power of the other two branches. Therefore, no branch of the government could threaten the freedom of the people. His ideas about separation of powers became the basis for the United States Constitution.


Montesquieu Time Line


liveforever points out that Montesquieu did not devise the idea of separation of powers - he merely adapted the theories of John Locke. The "train of thought" runs from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke to Charles Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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