Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755) is known for one thing and one thing only, his elaboration of the good that he thought that he saw in the British form of government, the division of governmental powers into the three natural branches of governance: legislative, executive and judiciary. He believed that this trend boded well for England. He extrapolated from the English experience to make a universal argument that division of the powers of government into the three branches of government and having different actors man each, and each defending its powers would be one way to avoid tyranny in a polity.
I am not sure that Montesquieu was actually describing what existed in the England of his time. Although the glorious revolution of 1688 appeared to have given Parliament power over the king it was doubtful that the ensuing power was really divided as Montesquieu rhapsodized.
The English system of government, to the present, concentrates all three branches of governing in one place, the Parliament. In Parliament is the legislative power, the executive power (the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are both legislators and executives) and judicial power in the sense that the House of Lords, a part of Parliament, is the court of last resort. England does not have a Supreme Court, as America has. Instead, cases are appealed all the way to the Privy Council of the House of Lords whose ruling is final. In other words the legislative branch of government has the final say so on judicial issues. So where exactly did Montesquieu see the division of powers that he was so impressed with in England?
One supposes that relative to the autocratic power of the Sun King, Louis the XVI that ruled his country, France, Montesquieu is forgiven for overstating the minor gains made by Parliament after the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688.
Montesquieu’s book, The Spirit of the Laws , it seems to me, was more like an exercise in idealism, a description of what he hoped would be the structure of governance rather than actual governance in any country at the time he wrote it in 1748.
As a pamphlet on how government ought to be structured there is no doubt that Montesquieu’s book is useful. American colonialists who were engaged in a struggle with King George and his Parliament saw the track as a propaganda instrument, something they used to make their point that the English government was not democratic enough for them. Indeed, when the Americans finally came around to writing their constitution in 1787 they appear to have borrowed heavily from Montesquieu’s ideas.
The American system of government deliberately divided governance into three branches: legislative, executive and judiciary, with the understanding that the legislative, Congress, is slightly more equal than others. But over time the judiciary gave itself the power of Judicial Review and that seem to have increased its power somewhat.
In real life American politics, as opposed to the fiction the American Constitution would lead us to believe, the executive, the President, is generally responsible for the major legislative bills that pass out of Congress and come to him for signature. It is really a myth that all three branches of American government are coequal. Some are more equal than others.
George Bush decided to go to war in Iraq and did and Congress and every one else merely rubber stamped his wish (each deluding itself that it was given false information on Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, while knowing that no such weapons existed and that Bush simply wanted to go to war for whatever reasons he wanted, perhaps to go kill Saddam for threatening his father or complete a war his father never completed and that allegedly cost him the next election, and please his father).
Much ado is made of the division of powers into three branches in America whereas that is not the case. We know that in making laws and policies certain persons play key roles: the president, the chairpersons of the various Congressional committees, senior bureaucrats and interest groups. An iron oligarchy rules the American policy making process while the masses are given the impression that power is shared among many power players.
Power was not shared in the Britain that Montesquieu supposedly wrote about, then only the aristocrats were jostling for power with the King and the masses were not part of the equation, and in the America that supposedly based its polity on Montesquieu’s ideals power is with an oligarchy of moneyed creatures, not with the masses of Americans who can hardly tell you who their president is.
What shall we make of Montesquieu? A lot is made of him in the USA; this is probably for propaganda purposes, not for accurate representation of the American polity. One dares say that if America as a political enterprise had not succeeded beyond its founders wildest dreams we would not have heard of Montesquieu. He would have disappeared from history or remained a minor footnote on the history of ideas.
Like the men of his time Montesquieu expressed opinions on several subjects. For example, he wrote that the temperate climate is the best for fostering good governance. As would be expected he said that his country, France, is the most temperate country hence the best ground for governance. He was not exactly the first to claim that the climate of his country is the best in the world and that it is correlated with good governance and intellectual productivity. When the Greeks were ruling the Mediterranean world they, too, made similar claims.
Americans whose summer climate is hotter than hell itself claim to be the ideal country on earth. These claims are nothing but exercises in ethnocentrism.
Finally, for all his rhapsody on dividing governing into three branches, Montesquieu was an aristocrat and saw the aristocratic form of governance as the best form of government. He was not a democrat by any stretch of the imagination. He was seeking for a way for aristocrats to share power so that not one of them dominates others. As for the masses it was doubtful that he was even aware of their existence.
In the end, Montesquieu and his book, the Spirit of the laws, are useful reading although the exact point he made in the book is not clear and readers project unto it what they wished he said. Let me then project my understanding of what I think that the man said or wants to say: the man wants to prevent tyranny, the rule of one man, but wants aristocrats to rule the polity and wants the aristocrats to share power among themselves.
Charles Montesquieu. The Spirit of the laws. (There are many editions).