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Montesquieu and the US: explaining the US’s Presidential aberration

October 23, 2019 - 12:42 -- Admin

That pioneer political scientist Montesquieu‘s theory of the separation of powers was both a very odd take on the English system of government (which he claimed it to be) but also very influential in the drafting of the US Constitution.

Listening to a paper on considerations of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws by Louis Althusser and Albert Hirschman, a plausible reason for the appeal of Montesquieu to the US Founding Fathers occurred to me. The notion of executive, legislature and judiciary as separate and balancing branches of government solved a problem the separating US colonies had: what to do with the office of governor in each of the revolting colonies.


The 13 colonies that revolted against British rule had the normal government pattern of British colonies. There was a governor, appointed by the Crown, and a locally elected/selected legislature.

Separation from Britain was separation from the Crown. So, how was the governor to be appointed and what did his office mean and do? Having the governor elected by the local populace and heading the executive branch of government was an obvious solution, one that Montesquieu’s theory gave an intellectual framing to.

Hence, the governor-and-local-legislature pattern leads to gubernatorial/presidential government in the US but parliamentary government everywhere else that began as British colonies, because they either do not separate from the Crown at all (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc) or do so after an initial period of still having the crown (India, Pakistan, Malta, etc) and so, in the latter cases, ended up with a figurehead President and a Prime Minister with the real power–provided they have a majority in the lower house of the Parliament.

A late C19th newspaper wrote:

Great Britain is a republic, with a hereditary president, while the United States is a monarchy with an elective king.

The notion being that in Great Britain, the Parliament is the seat of power and members of Parliament run the government while, in the US, voters elect a ruler who has a status approaching that of ruling monarch. (And the dynastic principle keeps popping up.)

The English Parliament

Montesquieu’s notion of the separation of powers was not a very sensible analysis of British government. (Historian David Starkey is characteristically rude about Montesquieu and even more so here.) The office of Lord Chancellor, who was the presiding officer of the House of Lords, head of the judiciary and a member of Cabinet, was as great an offense against separation of powers as can be imagined.

Moreover, the notion of the separation of powers gets quite wrong why the English Parliament survived when most of the comparable medieval legislatures were eventually abolished. It was precisely because in England, the executive and the legislature were not separated. The members of Henry VIII‘s Privy Council were members of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. The Parliament was where the political nation met the government and therefore operated as a central instrument of government. A pattern that continued. It was the breakdown of that pattern under the first two Stuart monarchs, but particularly Charles I, that led to the (English and other) Civil Wars in the British Isles.

In the C12th century, Song Dynasty China had one imperial official per 15,000 people. In 1750, Qing China averaged one civilian official per 11,250 people while there was one per 10,000 people in Tsarist Russia.

C16th England could manage an official per 4000 people (pdf), making it by far the most intensely governed of contemporary territorial states. It could have such a level of official penetration because the information flows from the society, and about such officials, was strong enough to make it work, and the deep involvement of the executive government in the Parliament was the essential capstone of that. British colonial governments replicated the pattern (albeit initially with appointed members of the Legislature Councils) because those information flows were so central to making the system work,

The American Revolution

Only 13 of 35 British colonies in the Americas revolted in 1775-6. The 13 colonies that revolted were the 13 that least needed the Crown–that is, they least needed the protection of the Royal Navy against French or Spanish aggression.

Island colonies did not revolt, as, without the protection of the Royal Navy, they would be desperately vulnerable to French or Spanish naval power. The Canadian colonies did not revolt, as they needed the Crown to arbitrate between British and French settlers. It was the “in between” colonies who revolted.

While various taxes and Navigation Acts were definitely irritants to all the colonies, the notion of no taxation without representation was a brilliant formulation of deeper issues. The wish within the seceding colonies to appropriate Amerindian land, blocked by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and to defend slavery, threatened by Somersett’s case (1772), generated much more visceral reasons to not defer to authority in London if and only if the need for Royal Navy protection was no longer a constraining factor.

But keeping slavery, and seizing Amerindian land, does not make for grand legitimacy–most needed, if one was going to revolt against the Crown. Hence the necessary utility of no taxation without representation, which has the great advantage of being a perfectly reasonable take on the British constitution. The underlying intent might have been to grab land and keep slaves, but the engine of justification used as cover (above all, to themselves) had much greater implications, implications that still resonate through American history down to the present.

Slavery clearly deformed the US Founding, but it did not invalidate it because the Founders were forced to erect this notion of a government by consent to justify (including to themselves) what they were about. The ejection of the US Tories meant there was no substantial internal objection to the Revolution Settlement, an advantage of that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did not have achieve, with resistance to its Revolutionary Settlement still prompting armed rebellion in 1745. Nor did the French Revolution, which parts of France have never reconciled themselves to.

With the status of the American Revolution uncontested within the US, both sides of the US Civil War invoked the Revolution in its defence; the North as defending the Union created by the Revolution and the ideals that underpinned it; the South as defending the right to withdraw consent (so as to, of course, defend the interest of slavery against distressingly natural extension of the legitimating ideas of the American Revolution).

Contemporary slavery posing

The current fascination with slavery is a simplistic narrative designed to feed the arrogance of the progressivist human capital (education) elite by reinforcing how inadequate the past was (and so what we have received from the past) because it was not blessed by such moral and intellectual paragons as themselves. (Folk spouting ideas utterly conventional in their own social milieus pretending to themselves, and others, that they would not been equally conventionally conformist if they had lived back then is a risible sight.)

Canada, Australia and New Zealand had no slavery but ended up very similar societies to the US (though without its enormous geographical advantages for sustaining a prosperous population). The section of the US which had no slavery was much productive than the section that did, something that de Tocqueville remarked upon of 1830s US. The United Kingdom abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the Empire in 1833-4 and proceeded to become much richer.

Mass slavery or serfdom was what happened across human history when labour is much more valuable than land so bondage can eliminate their scarcity premium and force them down to subsistence wages (plus the costs of imposing the bondage). If the population is local, you get some form of serfdom (binding them to the land or the landowner). If the labour has to be imported, you get slavery (turning people into property, so they can be moved around). This pattern of mass human bondage occurs again and again in such circumstances, the only sizeable exceptions to the pattern across the whole of human history being (1) the failure to have re-enserfment in medieval Europe after the Black Death and (2) the abolition of slavery in the C19th. Both achievements of Eurosphere civilisation and no other.

Sub-Saharan Africa was a centre of slavery because it was where humans evolved, so there were many diseases and predators who preyed on humans, which kept the human population down and so labour more valuable than land, leading to pervasive slavery. Something intensified by, first, the Arab-Muslim slave trade and then the Atlantic slave trade that the British Empire, through the Royal Navy, eventually sought (successfully) to suppress. For example, the British forced all the signatories to the Congress of Vienna treaties to agree to the abolition of the slave trade.


The striking thing about slavery and Eurosphere civilisation was not that slavery occurred, it was not even the scale of slavery (that just reflected the expansive capacities of that civilisation), it was the (ultimately successful) campaigns to abolish it. In the UK, it was the first of what became the Emancipation Sequence, which starts with abolition of slavery and ends with queer emancipation.

In the case of the US, abolitionism led to the creation of the Republican Party as an anti-slavery Party and Abraham Lincoln in particular mobilising the rhetoric, and legitimating ideas, of the American Revolution against one of its basic motivations, the preservation of slavery. Those ideas have, admittedly somewhat fitfully, and often far too tardily, continually trumped slavery and its destructive legacies (notably Jim Crow). Which is a remarkable legacy from an enterprise whose founding documents were largely written by slave owners.

As economic historian and Nobel memorial Laureate Robert Fogel pointed out in his Without Consent or Contract: the Rise and Fall of American Slavery, in the US in the 1840s and 1850s, mass migration was adversely affecting the income of resident workers in the US (so seriously it can be seen in declining height of local National Guard recruits), leading to strong support for Nativism. But there were too many immigrants for that to be a viable election strategy, so the Republican Party finessed Nativism by supporting trade protection and focussing hostile attention on “the Slave Power”. In other words, the Republicans finessed the pressures of mass migration by demonising (Southern) slave interests and politics. (A very easy target, it has to be said: and just because it was good electoral strategy does not mean the revulsion against slavery was anything other than sincere.)

The most bloody trumping of the legitimating ideas of the American Revolution over slavery being, of course, the American Civil War itself. There are persistent nonsense claims that the American Civil War was not about slavery. It absolutely was, one can tell simply by reading the Confederate Constitution (pdf) and the debates of the various secession conventions of the seceding states.

The Presidential capstone

The normal claim is that the North, the Union, won the Civil War because it had a greater and more productive population (even though it took 4 bloody years to do so). Well, yes, but that obscures the reason why that was so–it was because the North retained the Presidency. Not all the slave states seceded, substantial sections of the Southern population remained loyal to the Union, and a key residue of the armed forces remain loyal to their Commander-in-Chief. If, say, anti-slavery New England had revolted against the Union under a Southern president, then the balance of advantage would have been with the pro-slavery forces.


There is increasing speculation in the US about the possibility of another civil war, given the intense political and territorial polarisation. See, for example, this podcast. Or these YouTubes. The idea being that it would be the urban archipelago up against the ruralist homeland.

A similarity with the lead up to the original Civil War that is not much noted is that, once again, political interests within a Party with their base in New England and the West Coast are demonising the supporters of a Party with much of its base on the South as a strategy to finesse mass migration. They are even using the taint of slavery to do so. History may not repeat, but sometimes it can rhyme pretty strongly.

Both sides in this putative civil war have some clear advantages and disadvantages. The ruralist homeland has better geography, a more armed populace and controls the domestic food supply. The urban archipelago has more economic activity and the march-through-institutions leaves the progressivist side with better organising capacity. If such a war did break out, I would again predict that, again, whoever retained the Presidency would win, though far more slowly and bloodily than people would expect.

But a strong argument can be made that the Presidential system is much of the problem. That putting so much power and status in the hands of a single figure actually helps the polarisation. After all, Clinton Derangement Syndrome has been followed by Bush Derangement Syndrome, Obama Derangement Syndrome and, the most intense of all, Trump Derangement Syndrome (most intense because there are so many legitimate grounds of criticism of President Donald).

There could be a very strong cost for the US Founders using Montesquieu’s (daft) theory about the English constitution to give the newly Crownless colonial governors a role and a legitimacy.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]