Montesquieu: Who Was the Mind Behind the Separation of Powers?

Ever wondered who invented the modern separation of powers of government functions? Learn about Montesquieu, the originator of this idea.

May 24, 2023By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology

montesquieu separation of powers


Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, was a member of the generation of liberal philosophers that defined the revolutionary era. Like many of his contemporaries, he would not live to see the fruits of his philosophical labor. Still, his pen changed the way society and the common people understood politics, which manifested in a handful of revolutions, freeing people from the shackles of oppressive monarchies.


In the formulation of young new governments, great care had to have been taken to ensure the precarious balance of power to ensure corruption would be avoided. Who was Montesquieu, and what was his contribution to such a tumultuous and volatile era of human history?


The Early Life of Montesquieu

montesquieu portrait
Portrait of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, artist unknown, c. 18th century, via Palace of Versailles


Montesquieu was born into an extremely volatile historical moment. He was born in the year 1689, the very year the English declared themselves a constitutional monarchy and installed William of Orange on their throne as William III (r. 1689-1702), ending decades of religious bloodshed. On his home turf in France, the long-reigning “Sun King” Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) would die and leave his massively powerful and indebted French state to his five-year-old great-grandson Louis XV (r. 1715-1774).


The French thinker saw early success as a writer. In 1721, he published a satirical work criticizing contemporary French society through the eyes of ethnic foreign visitors. The work, Persian Letters, was an instant success.

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By 1728, Montesquieu was traveling throughout Europe, studying and writing. He enjoyed observing various cultures, customs, laws, and practices throughout the continent and writing about them. The works he penned quickly gained traction as some of the most profound pieces of political philosophy at the time. Though many of his works would be censored and even banned in his home country, they gained the most traction across the pond in the British American Colonies.


Montesquieu’s family was of Huguenot origin — French people of the Protestant faith. Huguenots were heavily persecuted by the French state — which was fervently Catholic — and many fled Europe for the new world over time due to persecution and religious violence.


The Ideology

general george washington surrendering
General George Washington Resigning His Commission, by John Trumbull, c. 1826, via United States Capitol Rotunda


Though Montesquieu would die some twenty years before he and a generation of thinkers would take the world by storm — manifested in a revolution or two — he was held in extremely high regard amongst the Founding Fathers.


When liberal ideology swept the revolutionary generation, their grievances were fuelled by the previous generation of political enlightenment. Enlightened despots spent the generation prior expanding governmental authority and central power, taking a role in every facet of society under the guise of benevolent stewardship of society. The reality was oppression and interference on behalf of these oversized (and expensive) governments — taxes went up and central authorities wielded too much power.


Montesquieu had a knack for categorization, in the Aristotelian fashion. Comparably, Aristotle began his categorization strictly anthropologically, though it would eventually translate into politics as he delved further into his arguments. Modern thinkers, such as Montesquieu and Immanuel Kant, were fascinated by the ancient Greek mind and continued this trend strictly politically.


The most important categorization made by Montesquieu was his description of the separation of powers within government. Most importantly, he noted the division of power between the sovereign and his administration; the administration was then subdivided into the three branches of government as we know them today: legislative, executive, and judicial.


Montesquieu, the Revolutionary

liberty leading people
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1830, via the Louvre Museum


Montesquieu’s basic blueprint remains within the formulation of governments to this day. Early statecraft, the modern rendition of which came to fruition alongside the United States, was intricately designed. Borne from the oppression of tyrannical monarchy, the young democracy was woven specifically to avoid endowing too much power into one corner of the system.


It was here that Montesquieu’s perception influenced the young revolutionaries. The distinctions observed by Montesquieu in the separation of powers (or lack thereof) between sovereign and administration became everything young democracies sought to avoid. Branches of government were expanded or curtailed, and the web of modern government was born.


Montesquieu held a quasi-cynical view of humankind. His critique was rooted in our hubris and ambition; if Caesar had not distorted the Roman Republic and created the Empire, someone else would have exploited the weakness of the democracy and done the same. With Montesquieu’s wisdom in mind, governments were forged with a very specific set of checks and balances to avoid any tip in the balance of power.


The Balance of Power

george washington delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, c. 1851, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Ever wonder what the difference is between a president and the prime minister? We can thank Montesquieu for ensuring that these two roles exist separately. The three distinctly separate branches of government each play crucial roles in their function; certain states have them set up differently in their constitutions.


The executive branch of a government is, by definition, the body that upholds the practice of law. In many ways, the executive branch of government is the “face” of the government: in the context of the United States, this branch would be headed by a President, Vice President, and Presidential Cabinet. In similar states such as Canada, the executive branch is instead represented by a Prime Minister (a slightly different position) who also has a Cabinet.


The legislative branch of government is the body responsible for proposing and enacting changes to law and society. In the United States, this would be Congress. Congress meets regularly to debate, discuss, propose, and amend laws that exist within the country. Once an agreement is made regarding a bill or law, it is sent to the executive to be signed into law. In the case of Canada, the Prime Minister is the leader of the dominant party in the legislative body. A Prime Minister, therefore, has – in theory – more power than a President, since they have a hand in both executive and legislative bodies of government.


The judicial branch of government is the body that interprets the law and passes judgment regarding crimes committed and rules broken within a society. In the case of the United States, this would be the Supreme Court.


The Legacy of Montesquieu

the early republic
America Guided by Wisdom, by John J. Bartlett, c. 1815, via Library of Congress


The forging of young liberal democracies was evidently heavily influenced by Montesquieu and his contemporaries. Those who established them, often victims of some form of persecution or oppressive authority, designed these young governments to be as incorruptible as possible.


Montesquieu’s separation of powers was an instrumental ideology to inject into these early republics. As the victims of (often religious) persecution, these governments were intended to be honest in that no one person could wield massive central authority. The separation of powers plays a crucial role in just that: when all three branches mesh into one political individual, we have absolutism.

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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.