During the debates over whether or not to ratify the United States Constitution, both sides in the debate quoted from a French philosopher named Montesquieu. They did so in an attempt to show that their views conformed more with Montesquieu's than their opponents' views did. (This might aptly be compared to different religious groups claiming to have better conformity with scripture than rival religious groups have.)
There were Founding Fathers on both sides of the ratification debates - which could have gone either way, as they were close and hard-fought. But among the ones on the pro-Constitution side were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, two of the most prestigious. These two men co-wrote a series of articles that we today call "The Federalist Papers," in which they use Montesquieu's name no less than 12 times. This post, strictly speaking, is not about either Montesquieu or the Founding Fathers per se; but about Montesquieu's influence on the Founding Fathers, as evidenced by what these two particular Founders (Hamilton and Madison) said about him in the Federalist Papers.
Title page of the Federalist Papers (first printing)
I have divided this blog post into two parts, because I discovered when writing it that there was enough material for two separate blog posts. This part is the first half, dealing with the topic of "confederate republics" (a major source of interest at the time of the ratification debates), and how Montesquieu influenced our Founding Fathers on this topic. The second half deals with the topic of separation of powers, where Montesquieu did his most famous work; and how he influenced our Founding Fathers with regards to this topic.
So now to what the Federalist Papers quoted about "confederate republics." (All quotations are from Federalist No. 9, except where noted otherwise.)
The opponents of the Constitution were in favor of strong state governments, believing that democracy worked better in a loose group of small republics, than in the combined whole of one large republic. Because of the popularity of Mr. Montesquieu's ideas, they claimed that his writings agreed with their assertion - something which was partially true; but in the words of Alexander Hamilton, "they seem not to have been apprised of the sentiments of that great man expressed in another part of his work," where some important context is given that is lacking in the anti-Constitution arguments. Hamilton said that "when Montesquieu recommends a small extent for republics, the standards he had in view were of dimensions far short of the limits of almost every one of the States." Thus, the states - particularly the larger states - cannot be taken as models of size, as the Constitution's opponents claim. Hamilton notes that some of the Constitution's opponents were even calling for division of the larger states into smaller states - something which underscores his point that the states were not models of republican size, as the Constitution's opponents claimed they were.
Alexander Hamilton, the chief author of the Federalist Papers
Furthermore, Montesquieu was an advocate of what were then called "confederate republics" - or alliances of sovereign [a.k.a. self-ruling] states into a unified league of states. The word "confederate" here refers not to the Confederate States of America (which was still many years in the future), but "united in a confederacy or league" - with a confederacy being defined here as "a union of political organizations," rather than as the union of several states in a single nation (like the thirteen states later became). In fact, the "Confederate States of America" got its name from its being considered a union of independent states, rather than a single unified nation (which contradicted the "states' rights" doctrine of the South). Thus, if Montesquieu advocated having small republics unite together into a "confederate republic" (thus forming a larger republic), then the idea that he supported a smaller size for republics loses much of its force as an argument. Thus, Hamilton undermines the argument used by the Constitution's opponents.
Baron de Montesquieu
Hamilton bolsters his "confederate republics" argument by quoting Montesquieu on the subject: "A republic of this kind, able to withstand an external force, may support itself without any internal corruptions. The form of this society prevents all manner of inconveniences ... If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme authority, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great influence over one, this would alarm the rest. Were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free might oppose him with forces independent of those which he had usurped and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation." (emphasis added)
With this interpretation supported, Hamilton cites Montesquieu on one more advantage of confederate republics with this quote: "Should a popular insurrection happen in one of the confederate states the others are able to quell it. Should abuses creep into one part, they are reformed by those that remain sound. The state may be destroyed on one side, and not on the other; the confederacy may be dissolved, and the confederates preserve their sovereignty." (This quote was also later used by James Madison in a later Federalist Paper - Federalist No. 43, to be quite precise.) With his case for the Montesquieu interpretation now bolstered, Hamilton then says that this extended quote was proper to show that the pro-Constitution arguments echo Montesquieu's own; and that unifying the states into a stronger league fits squarely with the advice of Montesquieu.
Another picture of Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton then challenges another "states' rights" argument used by the Constitution's opponents, by showing the example Montesquieu gave for a confederate republic: "Were I to give a model of an excellent Confederate Republic," Montesquieu himself said, "it would be that of Lycia" - with the irony here being that its common council "had the appointment of all the judges and magistrates of the respective cities," and thus had tremendous power over the local governments - undermining the "states' rights" interpretations of Montesquieu used by the Constitution's opponents. These interpretations, Hamilton says, are "the novel refinements of an erroneous theory." (Didn't the man have a way of putting things?)
James Madison, the other chief author of the Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers also put forward another argument for the union, by saying that the states have similar principles and forms of government - thus making a union between them easier. Here, the arguments are made not by Hamilton, but by James Madison - the other chief author of the Federalist Papers. Madison says that "Governments of dissimilar principles and forms have been found less adapted to a federal coalition of any sort, than those of a kindred nature." He then quotes Montesquieu as saying that "As the confederate republic of Germany ... consists of free cities and petty states, subject to DIFFERENT princes, experience shows us that it is more imperfect than that of Holland or Switzerland." (Source: Federalist No. 43, emphasis added) He then completes the quote by saying that "Greece was undone ... as soon as the king of Macedon obtained a seat among the Amphictyons" - thus mixing different principles and forms of government. Such is not the case with the Americans, whose principles and forms of government are much the same. Thus, a union between them would be easier; and the thirteen states should unite together under the new Constitution.
So those are all the references to Montesquieu about "confederate republics" in the Federalist Papers. The second and final part of this blog post discusses what they quoted about separation of powers, Montesquieu's most famous contribution.
See Part 2 here