Our third of our three philosophers of the Framers – Baron de Montesquieu

It would be fun to see how many Americans are aware of the fact that two of the three main governmental philosophers that inspired the authors of American self-government were French. Perhaps the concept of “freedom fries” should not be seen as critical of the French!

Baron de Montesquieu, or “Montesquieu” as most refer to him, made one of the most important contributions to the structure of how self-government could work. He theorized about the most critical element that would allow a representative government to wield sufficient power to run a nation the size of the new American republic (that would grow exponentially over the next 200 years) without giving way to a new tyranny, would be a divided government.

It’s important to remember the issues that were most important at the founding of the new republic: taxation, representation, and a means of limiting the power of the new federal government so that the individual felt he still had control over most of his life’s work, ambition, and expression. Montesquieu’s solution was to divide the power. Almost every young child who has been taught about the US government over the last 100 years has heard the phrase “checks and balances.” Long before Americans became convinced of the “rights” of healthcare, income equality, or gender-neutral bathrooms, the main concern of the recently independent American citizenry was to protect against a new governmental tyranny.

Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Law had the answer: divide the power into three branches. He identified the legislative, executive, and judicial as the three branches of the administrative government. He considered that separate from the ruling power of the monarchy. Still, his radical ideas got his work banned by the Catholic Church and the French government. But the new American revolutionaries, particularly James Madison, embraced his ideas and incorporated them into the new Constitution of 1787.

All through the sweltering summer of that Philadelphia Convention, the attendees massaged Madison’s original Virginia Plan until the result assigned differing powers each of the three branches of the new Federal government they had created. They assigned the powers to each branch in a way that the other two branches kept any one branch from having too much power in any broad areas. The resulting year long debate over ratification of the Constitution in 1788 produced the amendments we call the Bill of Rights. These amendments were written in order to assure the people that the new government could not repeat the removal of individual rights they had seen occur under King George III’s Parliament in the years leading the the American War of Independence. Most of the issues addressed by the Bill of Rights were result of the Intolerable Acts that had been passed by Parliament as a response to the Boston Tea Party’s destruction of government property.

But there were plenty of new problems they knew would arise as the nation grew, expanded, and matured. The population would continually transform through immigration and prosperity. Only the calculated competition for power between these three branches, structured by the administrative branches as articulated in the first three articles of the Constitution, could hope to restrict the power of a government’s natural inclination to impede and regulate the desires and designs of a new and ambitious populace. Power always seeks to be exercised. The Founders knew this and spent most of their efforts in writing the Constitution in debating how to limit the powers of the new federal government without handicapping it’s ability to carry out it’s main mission in protecting the new nation while allowing a certain amount of state autonomy.

When one understands that the Constitution was designed to identify a contract between the government and the people (Locke), the people and each other (Rousseau), and the balance the power between competing branches (de Montesquieu) then you can understand that the Constitution was more about limiting the power of government than in identifying how the government should be more involved in regulating the lives of individual Americans.

Click on the links from each name in the paragraph above to read my take on each man’s contribution to the philosophy of American self-government.

Part 2 – Jean Jacques Rousseau – Social Contract theory

The Author beside a statue of Rousseau –the Pantheon-Paris

When I taught about the origin of the US Government, I would follow my explanation of John Locke’s Contract Theory with a comparison of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract theory.

Rousseau’s social contract, and other parts of his philosophy in regards to self-government, have been hotly debated for over 250 years. Many critics of Rousseau cite the attempts of the Jacobins to force human equality in the French Revolution as a natural extension of some of his theories. They point to the (literal) decapitation of the nobility, and to a lesser extent the French Roman Catholic hierarchy, in the height of the French Reign of Terror as an example of Rousseau’s vision of “egalite.” I don’t think that is fair to lay the excesses of Robespierre and Saint-Just at the feet of Rousseau.

While it would be hard to do justice to Rousseau’s philosophy in a short blog post like this, we can make a few generalizations: 1) He advocates a society where love of man in a family sense is better than selfish love; 2) man is in competition with each other as we are also more dependent on each other; 3) a social contract between each citizen would benefit all. His philosophy contains much more, but these points are the ones that seem to be debated so frequently when it comes to assessing his impact on the creation of the American consciousness in independence.

How do we see his ideas in today’s modern America? Many aspects of modern America have leaned more towards Rousseau’s social contract as opposed to Locke’s contract between citizen and government. Social Security is the most obvious example. It was sold as insurance but we know better now. I have put in for years in order to make sure that my parents had at least a subsistence living in their retirement. It’s a contract that even babies are entered into at birth as part of our society.

Another example of the “social contract” are student loans and aid. American society has decided that it is in the nation’s interest to allow as broad a section of our youth to have the opportunity to seek higher education as possible. At some point, we will probably reassess that judgement to include newer forms of specialized education such as trades and technical schooling. Many would argue that most of LBJ’s Great Society was “social contract” on steroids. Adding areas like housing, education, law enforcement, and social welfare programs have had varying amounts of success. Another problem is that it took substantial confiscation of individual property, through heavy taxation, in order to meet the promises made in these areas of social contract.

Today’s American taxpayer is seeking a review of the successes and failure of the federal government’s attempts at Rousseau’s theories. While these debates often deteriorate into accusations of poverty vs. “paying one’s fair share”, it seems clear that the balance of Locke vs. Rousseau will continue, even if it’s not being recognized as such. As the nation continues to debate healthcare, what is referred to as “Obamacare,” what we are really debating is whether Rousseau’s social contract is supportable in a modern society, especially with some of the drastic declines we are seeing in fertility in many western nations. Food for thought…

Founding Philosophers – part one – John Locke

Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, president of the United States, and an important voice for freedom and individual rights in the formation of the United States of America.  What’s important to understand is that all the Founders were well-educated men who read all the crucial philosophers of their day and used that knowledge to debate the possibility of self-government.

It’s difficult for today’s Americans to understand how radical an idea self-government was in the late 18th century.  Most Western powers were monarchies because few of the ruling class (those with assets) trusted the masses to choose a government.  The few experiments in democracy from antiquity were considered failures by the American revolutionaries.  When people realized that they had a majority, they might vote to remove money from the smaller in number wealthy classes and transfer that money to themselves.  Since money is power, the powerful decided they did NOT want a system that could enable the majority (mostly poor) to simply vote to play “Robin Hood.”

John Locke had a solution:  create a government that enabled rights, but also limited the power of government.  Since property was the essence of wealth in Locke’s day, the key was to limit governments’ ability to separate your property from you and give it to someone else.  Locke put the issue succinctly:  government should be used chiefly to protect life, liberty…and property.  Where have we heard that before?  Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was a less money-grubbing way to make the case for the protection of the assets of the American gentry.  It was the gentry class, those with land, that had the most to gain from the American independence that Jefferson’s document was advocating.  Their intent was to promote a system of government that enabled anyone to someday achieve the success that they had achieved by carving a business out of the wilderness in the New World.

Locke’s theory of self-government also entailed what has been known as the contract theory of government.  People choose representatives to create laws, collect taxes, and provide services and infrastructure that benefit those taxpayers.  As long as they are responding to the needs of the voters, the representatives can keep their jobs.  That represents a contract between the voters and the government.  If they break that contract— vote laws the voters don’t like— the people have to the right to fire them, and in extreme cases, overthrow them.  In Locke’s lifetime, England had experienced civil war, the execution of the king, parliamentary rule, restoration of the monarchy, etc.  He even fled to the Netherlands for a short period of time because his views put his life in danger.  His philosophy was not just theory to him, but something that had life and death consequences.

This is an important difference in the attitude Americans have regarding their government.  Once in a while, they remember that THEY are the boss.  Their elected representatives are employees NOT the other way around.  “Government money” is actually the people’s money that has been acquired through taxation, fees, etc.  It’s the people’s money.  It does NOT belong to “the government.” 

Americans can be very generous but don’t like being taken for granted.  As any individual would, they want to make sure that the money spent is well-used, accounted for, and properly appreciated.  Great examples in the past are the Marshall Plan, the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after World War II, and projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hoover Dam, and educational assistance.  It’s when they see money wasted, fraudulently used, or spent in ways that were dishonestly sold to the voters that they use their freedom of speech to speak out.   The American voter will then say “enough!” and produce a surprise at the voting booth.  In those instances, voters innately sense that the “contract” has been broken, and the resulting “overthrow” tosses out individuals, and sometimes a political party is “set straight.”  This is a bi-partisan practice that we celebrate from time to time in a little process we call an “election.” 

Next up:  a second version of “contract theory.”  A little gift from France…

What this is…

I believe, contrary to popular opinion, that there are certain common thoughts that actually unite citizens of the United States of America.

This may seem like an impossible dream considering the state of American politics and social discourse today, but I stand by my premise.

As a former US history and US Government teacher, I taught and emphasized certain commonalities of principles, ambitions, dreams, rights, and beliefs that threaded their way throughout the term of the American Experiment.

We constantly surprise even ourselves.  I could easily point to all the examples of offenses, massacres, wars, injustices, and so on.  American history is rife with them, and to our credit, we fess up to them and teach them in our classrooms.  I did this for 14 years.  My international students would ask how such things could happen.  I would explain, “we are as human as everyone else.”  So what is my explanation?

We ARE everyone else.  Every nation on this planet has had someone who has emigrated to the USA and become a participant in this republic’s development.

Posts to this blog will be one different aspects of these uniting thoughts, often, but not always, provoked by current events in politics, culture, education, and other stimuli that impact the direction of this nation.  Again, this is NOT some jingoistic “USA USA!” rant.  More than anything, I hope to be able to provide some context for the attitudes that make up our national “DNA.”

I hope you will drop by, respond in the comments, and be a part of the discussion.  I will endeavor to respond when possible and be available for explanations.

One additional note:  I intend to begin a weekly podcast.  These will be a short story of someone who significantly contributed to the American experience.  Some of them will be well-known, others will be completely unknown, but all should be stories that will surprise and delight the listener and perhaps make your commute or busy time a little more enjoyable.

Hope to see you here often!