Saturday, June 27, 2009

Hume & Montesquieu: Thinking about the American Revolution

"...[the Whigs, or believers in constitutional monarchy], by founding government altogether on the consent of the PEOPLE suppose that there is a kind of original contract by which the subjects have tacitly reserved the power of resisting their sovereign, whenever they find themselves aggrieved by that authority with which they have for certain purposes voluntarily entrusted him."
— David Hume, "On Civil Liberty"

Today we will review the contributions of one Scotsman, David Hume, and one Frenchman, Montesquieu, to our founding fathers. Unlike the previous contributors, these two explored not the nature of man's 'natural state', but rather examined the structure of governments. This is not just a intellectual legacy of detached philosophers, but were contributions to the actual structure of the government. Neither of these men were necessarily a 'fan' of democracy; none the less, they identified features incorporated into our new form of government — important contributions to the structure of our country.

So, let's start our exploration with Hume...

David Hume (1711 – 1776)

"The heights of popularity and patriotism are still the beaten road to power and tyanny; flattery to treachery; standing armies to arbitrary government; and the glory of God to the temporal interests of the clergy."
— David Hume

David Hume, a Scot historian, is probably remembered most for his six volume History of Great Britain. He, however, was a prolific writer and scholar. He started attending the University of Edinburgh at the age of the age of twelve. He made significant contributions to the future of the science of psychology in his A Treatise of Human Nature at the age of twenty-six. He was also a life-long atheist and a critic of organized religion. He also did not support the concept of the 'Social Contract' as understood by earlier Enlightenment thinkers; he especially rejected their dependence on their assumptions of the 'nature of man' that was the concept's basis since he was, by heart, an Empiricist. This assumption was not 'reasonable' to him.

"All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be skeptical, or at least cautious; and not to admit of any hypothesis, whatsoever; much less, of any which is supported by no appearance of probability”
— David Hume

Hume's chief writing on politics was the Political Discourses. He believed in the importance of the rule of law, moderation in politics, and the liberty of the press. He was an optimist about social progress and was sympathetic to an ideal of a 'constrained' democracy. Furthermore, he defended a strict separation of powers, decentralization, the voting (enfranchisement) of those who owned property, and the limitating the power of the clergy. In this context, he did not endear himself to his countrymen; it even prevented him from obtaining a position in the University.

"The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modeled, by the most profound wisdom of patriots and legislators. Even the lonely savage, who lies exposed to the inclemency of the elements and the fury of wild beasts, forgets not, for a moment, this grand object of his being.”
— David Hume

Hume was influential on other European thinks of the day (as well as those who followed him). These included Voltaire, Kant, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Darwin and Thomas Huxley. His ideas about the structure of government were highly influential on James Madison — they were reflected in the Federalist Papers as well as the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.

Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat (1689 – 1755)

"If I knew something that would serve my country but would harm mankind, I would never reveal it; for I am a citizen of humanity first, and a citizen of France second, and only by accident."
— Baron de Montesquieu

Montesquieu was a social critic and political thinker within the Enlightenment group of philosophers. He promoted the separation of powers within a government. While he was a lawyer ('avocat') by profession, he helped many countries develop their own constitutions. He, above all, believed in the 'rule of law' within a civil society. He lived shortly after the Restoration of the British Monarchy in England and the unification of England and Scotland into the country of Great Britain. He saw this government structure as superior to the weak monarchy of King Louie XV in France.

While he was admired in the American colonies of Britain, he was not in favor of American independence. He was hightly influential on James Madison of Virginia who later drafted the U.S. Constitution.

"...government should be set up so no man need to be afraid of another..."
— Montesquieu

Montesquieu's thinking resulted in our government's structure of a clearly-defined and balanced separation of powers. He had written about three forms of government: a republic, a monarchy, or a despotism. While he favored the monarchy, the founding fathers opted for a representative republic form of structure with a strong executive, an independent judiciary and a bicameral legislature. This tripartate government, with distributed and balanced power, would be a new experiment in government and it has held up well over the past two plus centuries — democracy can work! This is in spite of a civil war, two world wars, and numerous other local wars. This success can be attributed, in large part, to the concepts of Montesquieu.

"There is no nation so powerful, as the one that obeys its laws not from principles of fear or reason, but from passion."
— Montesquieu

Interesting enough, Montesquieu also advocated several social changes that took many decades to accomplish. These included the abolition of slavery and the idea that women were capable of leading a government. Ironically, he didn't feel that women could be good heads of households! Furthermore, unlike our founding fathers, he believed in a hereditary aristocracy; we still have a pseudo-social class system in this country.

"The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy."
— Montesquieu

With this, we conclude the first part of our examination of the thinking that laid the foundation for the American Revolution. We will not continue our exploration about how these ideas affected the thinking, writing, and actions of our founding fathers.

Next time: We will continue to examine the writings and concepts put forward by our founding fathers. We will start with Patrick Henry. Join us next week...

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