Interpretations of Montesquieu in the Federalist Papers

January 17, 2024   Joseph Kochanek

  • Rights and Liberties
  • Blog

Interpretations of Montesquieu in the Federalist Papers

Montesquieu was an eighteenth-century political theorist who is best known for writing The Spirit of the Laws, a work that (to put the matter too briefly) discussed laws with reference to a range of political, social, and economic phenomena, such as forms of government, popular customs and beliefs, and the character of commerce. Madison and Hamilton tip their caps to Montesquieu at a few key points in the Federalist Papers, expressing admiration for his ideas and using those ideas to inform their own political theory in defense of the Constitution. But it is worth noting that key uses of Montesquieu’s theory involve not just citation of Montesquieu’s thought but interpretation of it as well.

Is Republican Government Only Fitting for Small Countries?

Montesquieu’s discussion of the question of the size of republics was cited in Federalist 9. Montesquieu believed that small countries would be more apt to government by republics than large countries. Hamilton cited Montesquieu’s ideas about this, but coupled this claim with a different claim, quoting Montesquieu on the benefits of bringing together many smaller republics under a larger-scale political form: “This form of government is a convention by which several smaller STATES agree to become members of a larger ONE, which they intend to form. It is a kind of assemblage of societies that constitute a new one, capable of increasing, by means of new associations, till they arrive to such a degree of power as to be able to provide for the security of the united body.” So on this point – concerning whether the USA could be governed as a republic – there was an argument less about what Montesquieu said, than about what conclusions should be drawn from what Montesquieu said.

How Should We Put Separation of Powers Into Practice?

On the question of separation of powers in Federalist 47 once again we see citation of Montesquieu, and on a question that saw claims from Montesquieu animating both sides. The focus here was on separation of powers, and how it can be achieved: is separation of powers an end realized by means of separation of powers alone, or does achieving this end require the use of intermixture of powers as a means? Once again, an important argument in the Federalist Papers is grounded in an interpretation of Montesquieu, an interpretation that was contested.

The Constitution, Familiarity, and Novelty

And perhaps there is a lesson to consider here about the Constitutional project: in the creation of a new institution, that novelty may be an objection in its own right, so in defending it one might seek to ground it in something familiar. One of those familiar things was The Spirit of the Laws. But a new institution is created to serve a need, so that requires defending change. Insofar as Publius was engaged in defending the creation of something new, part of that newness may well be conceived to be a function of interpretation, which considers things that are not familiar in light of something that is familiar.