America’s Moderate Liberalism: Rediscovering Montesquieu, Recovering Balance

The French philosopher Montesquieu’s principle of moderation taught the founders to reconcile Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, and Christianity—a balance we could use today.

Two decades ago, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that Americans were inured to “defining deviancy down,” and should not settle for such moral and social decline. Some might say the interval has brought improvement of our social and moral fabric, but many would not. My hope is that things have become so desperate that we might be willing to take counsel from a Frenchman.

America’s progressive liberals typically criticize markets, greed, and inequality, while America’s conservatives worry about corrosion of or attacks on basic forms of social order, moral standards, and liberty. The triumphs of progressive liberalism in public and private life—liberation from standards and traditions, with increasing reliance on the state—have provoked, in recent conservative discussion, a reaction toward an opposite extreme.

Progressive liberals have attacked America’s founding or dismissed its ideals as bygone relics for over a century. Its constitutional principles of individual rights and complex government are said to impede development of a new, fairer social state and national government. Some traditionalist conservatives have worried, for their part, that the concepts of social contract and individual rights embedded in our founding documents have corroded our culture over time, through materialism, atomism, and an inevitable decay of religious, communal, and even natural standards.

Does the deviancy or decline that we suffer arise inevitably from flaws in America’s founding principles? I answer that a now mostly neglected French philosopher, Montesquieu, was a deeper influence on the American founding than most scholars appreciate. Understanding his work can help us with both the historical question and its continuing policy relevance.

To lay my cards on the table: I admire America’s founding principles and seek to understand them properly. I believe we would suffer much less deviancy, and defining down thereof, if we better understood those principles, debated them (as the founders themselves did), and used their internal resources to address new problems and even address flaws of the principles themselves.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the late 1830s, our founding was an unprecedented alloy, or amalgam, of several traditions and ideals. Upon arrival in America, the Puritans combined “the spirit of religion” and “the spirit of liberty” as no other people had done. Later, after the Revolution, the founders forged a national constitution based on the principle of federalism, affirming not only individual rights, interests, and commerce, but also local government and associations, including religious ones.

The Declaration of Independence encapsulates this balance, and we still feel the consequences of its complexity. It proclaims the self-evident status of individual rights but also rational pious belief in “the Supreme Judge of the world”; it affirms narrow ideals of life, liberty, and safety but also that happiness requires us to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Today we can note that this blend has contributed to a society with more religious belief than most advanced liberal democracies, but just as much social decay and deviance. We have both rampant individualism and commitments to moral standards and communities.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835, 1840) is admired across the spectrum of American thought, but the genius of his insights into America’s original complexity leads us to overlook his debt to Montesquieu. Tocqueville cites Montesquieu’s masterwork The Spirit of the Laws (1748) in his own works, and more often in letters and other writings. For us, the most basic debt is that Montesquieu’s philosophy of “moderation,” or avoidance of intellectual and political extremes, taught a lesson of balance, and of reconciling diverse elements of reality, culture, and thought in a coherent whole. That is what he means by the “spirit” of laws, and why he celebrates moderation as his main principle and the proper aim for political philosophers, founders, and statesmen.

Montesquieu anchored moderation in principles of natural right and individual rights, as Paul Rahe helpfully reminds us through the Witherspoon Institute’s Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism project. But Montesquieu also argued that we are social beings, and naturally open to religious belief. We are shaped by culture and history, but philosophers and statesmen can push back. Thus he condemned slavery, harsh penal laws, religious persecution, and other forms of despotism. Montesquieu is neither a historicist liberal nor a Frenchified Lockean liberal. He embodies the moderate Enlightenment, and moderate liberalism.

Montesquieu was the single-most-cited political philosopher during our constitutional founding in the 1780s and the 1790s. Moderation is the principle invoked in the opening and closing essays of The Federalist. Publius (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) invokes Montesquieu as an authority throughout the essays, yet Locke is not referenced a single time.

Less appreciated is that Montesquieu was cited nearly as often as Locke in the 1760s and the 1770s. The most famous chapter of The Spirit of the Laws analyzes England’s constitution, characterizing it as the only one in the world devoted to liberty. This study of a “constitution of liberty” taught our founders just a few minor ideas—little things, such as our tripartite separation of powers, the first truly independent judiciary, the bicameralism of our legislatures, federalism, and a moderated system of competing parties and interests. Not one of these pillars of our social and political order is present in Locke’s philosophy.

Jefferson noted in later years that the Declaration sought to reflect “the harmonizing sentiments” of “the American mind,” and thus encompassed “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” Yet scholars Paul Spurlin and Gilbert Chinard tell us that Jefferson’s legal Commonplace Book from the 1760s and the 1770s contains more passages from Montesquieu than any other source. We forget this, since Jefferson later criticized Montesquieu. It is likely that Jefferson’s early study of Montesquieu taught him to harmonize, balance, and reconcile competing ideas in order to understand and guide a free political order. We might add that Locke doesn’t expound upon sacred honor or the great virtue invoked in the Declaration: prudence. These are ideas that Montesquieu emphasizes.

To be fair, it is not only Montesquieu who taught Americans about a “constitution of liberty”; this was also a theme in the classic common law tradition. Still, while America’s founders were deeply shaped by William Blackstone’s blend of liberalism and common law in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), Blackstone’s declaration that the English constitution was alone devoted to liberty cited Montesquieu as its source. Blackstone knew that Montesquieu was a lawyer and a judge, and considered England’s common law a cousin to the Gothic law that Montesquieu sought to revive against absolutist monarchy in France. This intellectual lineage helps Americans to understand, as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has explained, why America’s revolution was moderate in contrast to the radical, totalizing transformation sought by the French Revolution and later upheavals.

Edmund Burke also cited Montesquieu among the most formative influences on his own philosophy and statesmanship. Peter Berkowitz recently reminded us in Constitutional Conservatism that Burke invoked moderation not as mushy centrism or a kind of relativism but as a potent principle for reconciling and balancing rival principles, avoiding extremes in thought and action, and informing a complex constitutional order of decent liberty.

Some scholars try to reduce political phenomena or a political philosopher to one idea, but this single-minded approach often distorts what it purports to illuminate. The American capacity for reconciling rival intellectual traditions and principles is not just a wishful muddle, or a temporary historical compromise; it is a consciously cultivated virtue learned from philosophers and the common law.

Montesquieu, who wrote a history of the Romans, often invoked classical republicanism as well as liberal rights and constitutionalism; his philosophy is friendlier to religion, history, mores, and culture than that of either Locke or Hobbes. Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, a prominent Catholic priest inducted into the French Academy in 1861, praised The Spirit of the Laws as “the most beautiful defense of Christianity in the eighteenth century.” Yet many single-minded scholars no longer see such attributes in Montesquieu’s work. Neglect of his philosophy of moderate liberalism also prevents us from fully understanding why Tocqueville, its greatest nineteenth-century heir, noticed and admired the complexity of our founding.

Balancing moral principles and civic virtue with individual rights and reason with religion is the great American tradition. Understanding the intellectual roots of our founding and its continuing legacy in our national life is a complex task, because it requires openness to a philosophy that sought to balance seemingly opposed principles in order to avoid intellectual and political extremes. Those who think it can’t be done should reexamine the Declaration, as well as the complexity and moderation of our greatest statesmen, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

We might also notice the invocations in The Federalist to virtue, honor, and civility, as well as the classical biographer of statesmen, Plutarch. Washington’s Farewell Address, a decade later, is the great alloy of these and other elements of the American founding, just as his statesmanship made possible and initially held together the American amalgam.

This deeper understanding of the founders’ achievement does not entail worship of the founding as flawless. Tocqueville saw cracks in the American alloy and diagnosed problems with America’s effort to follow the moderation of Montesquieu’s philosophy. Indeed, Tocqueville abhorred slavery as much as Montesquieu did, and he criticized America’s betrayal of Christian and enlightened principles of justice. Nonetheless, he did not deem the founding irredeemably flawed or recommend that we replace its basic principles. He sought to rediscover the philosophical and moral moderation in America, and defend its more sober elements—especially religion and higher ideals of law and right—against the nascent elements of radical liberalism and rationalism he detected.

My story of a French connection is not a solution, but a challenge to take our proper bearings as we debate how we got where we are, whither we should go, and what internal resources we should rediscover for the intellectual, political, and moral work ahead. Moderation, balance, and prudence can address our current dilemmas in public discourse, domestic policy, and foreign policy.

Our polarized discourse is in part a product of Progressive zeal to replace our constitutional complexity of federalism, and its amalgam of moral and political ideals, with narrowly rational projects of national transformation. Those who disagree with the Progressive viewpoint are often branded as backward or mean-spirited. Too often, conservatives fall for such terms of debate and respond in kind. Our educational institutions and public culture might restore a little enlightened, scientific doubt about Progressivism and make space for the ideas of the moderate Enlightenment, with its inclusion of classical and medieval ideals. If this were to take place, our public debates would become less shrill and more constructive.

In domestic affairs, we should work to rediscover that the spirit of moderation is also the spirit of sustainability and balance. Such a spirit is attuned to the moral and social dimensions of a healthy polity as well as fiscal and institutional issues. This is ground on which economic and social conservatives could meet and undertake more constructive debates with Progressives about the need to shift toward a healthier middle ground that balances equality, liberty, and basic moral order.

Our foreign policy discourse also is dominated by single-minded schools, which variously urge America to devote itself to global governance and human rights, to our own narrow interests, or to fostering democracy among other peoples. Our first and best principles for foreign policy were developed by George Washington, and they strike a thoughtful balance among such competing alternatives. His Farewell Address (1796) calls not for isolation but for the “moderation” to resist unjust wars and alliances that would overwhelm our principles and liberty. He calls for alliances and engagement that “our interest, guided by justice” would counsel as prudent means to sustain a polity devoted to ideals of liberty, “good faith,” and “benevolence” both at home and abroad.

There are reasons to worry about the sustainability of the American experiment, but we also have resources to restore a sound course and keep an even keel so as to avoid the shoals of decline. One such resource is recovery of the breadth and balance of thinking evident in our founding principles, especially their recommendation of prudence and moderation in debating and shaping an uncertain future.

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