Thanks to the grace of God, the United States is descended from the English political tradition. The last verse of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” comes to mind: “I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” This applies to countries as well as people, and here the two roads are absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchy.
England chose the less-traveled road of constitutional monarchy and “that has made all the difference.” This goes back to the Magna Carta of 1215, the accession of King James I in 1603, the Mayflower Compact of 1620, the English Civil War of 1640-1649, the regicide of King Charles I in 1649, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. In the midst of these very important events was the founding of Virginia, the first permanent English colony in the New World, in 1607, and then Plymouth colony in 1620, eventually to be followed by the other eleven.
These events have in common these principles: (1) the power of the king or government is not absolute but subject to law; and (2) the legislature is the law-making body of the realm and holds the power of the purse.
Fearing for his life, King James II fled to France in December, 1685 whereupon Parliament declared an abdication, that is, the throne was vacant. Parliament then functioned as a constitutional convention by drafting and adopting the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and inviting Mary, the elder daughter of James II, and her Dutch husband William of Orange to assume the throne as joint monarchs subject to the conditions stipulated in the Bill of Rights. Mary and William agreed and did so. This is called the Glorious Revolution, and indeed it was glorious because at this time England became a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy.
Accordingly, the English government henceforth was divided into three interlocking, interdependent parts: the Crown, the Lords Temporal and Spiritual, and the people represented by the House of Commons.
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu was a wealthy, intelligent and energetic Frenchman born near Bordeaux on January 18, 1689 during the reign of Louis XIV and at the very time the Glorious Revolution was unfolding in England. In 1728 he left France to travel abroad. After visiting Italy, Germany, Austria, and other countries, he went to England, where he lived for two years and was greatly impressed with the English political system.
After his return to France in 1731 he began work on his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, one of the most important and best-known works ever written on political philosophy, published in 1748. This book is a comparative study of three types of government: republic, monarchy and despotism, and it is clear he detested despotism.
Montesquieu’s Book XI is titled “Of the Laws Which Establish Political Liberty With Regard to the Constitution” and reads, in part, as follows: “ . . . constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, . . . To prevent this abuse, it is necessary … that power should be a check to power. . . . When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
“Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be subject to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined with the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.
“There would be an end to everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.” (emphasis added)
It should be clear, then, that, while John Locke was the intellectual father of the Declaration of Independence, Montesquieu was the intellectual father of the United States Constitution. The twin principles of separation of powers and checks and balances permeate it from beginning to end. This includes not only the national government itself but all the state governments and the principle of federalism which defines the relationships between them.
In the 47th Federalist Madison says, “The oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to the attention of mankind.”
Madison fully develops the idea in his 51st Federalist: “ . . . the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. . . . This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.” (emphasis added)
The economic situations in the United States and Germany in the early 1930s were uncomfortably similar while the political situations were, though similar in certain respects, different in others. Both countries were suffering from an economic depression with high unemployment and high inflation, plus the hopelessness and despair that went with them. Germany was alienated not only from its administration in office but also from its entire political system, and there was much unrest.
The American people were substantially alienated from their administration in office but not from their entire political system. It was, however, on trial. There was no guarantee it would survive. No one knows what might have happened if Franklin Roosevelt had not been elected in 1932 but he was elected and, as Washington was not Napoleon, Roosevelt was not Hitler.
There were several important differences between the United States and Germany at this time. One was that the American political system based on Montesquieu’s principles of separation of powers and checks and balances had been in operation for 140 years and had solidified into a strong tradition. Those holding positions in the three branches were dedicated to those principles and that tradition and were not egomaniacs interested in one-man rule.
We remained on the road less traveled, thank God, but Germany did not. Their tradition was authoritarian, one-man rule and they reverted to it—and made it infinitely worse and more evil—on January 30, 1933, when Hitler took power. Ideas and traditions matter.
Winfield H. Rose, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Murray State University.