Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

MONTESQUIEU'S NATURAL RIGHTS CONSTITUTIONALISM

Paul A. Rahea1

a1 History, Hillsdale College

Abstract

When Woodrow Wilson, in the course of his campaign for the Presidency in 1912, attacked Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, he knew what he was about—for the constitutionalism articulated by the latter and embraced, in turn, by the Framers of the American Constitution was a systematic attempt to put into practice something very much like the first principles spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu was not a doctrinaire. He feared that, in his own country and elsewhere, revolution would eventuate in the establishment of a despotism, and so he gently, quietly promoted unobtrusive reform. But the cautious, prudential political science that he outlined in his Spirit of Laws was anything but value-free. If the American framers found his legislative science of use, it was because the hatred of despotism and love for liberty animating its author was grounded in an account of natural right closely akin to the one, espoused in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, that had inspired their revolution.

Paul A. Rahe is Professor of History at Hillsdale College, holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage, and is the author of Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (1992), Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (2008), Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic (2009), and Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (2009). Professor Rahe has been awarded research fellowships by the Center for Hellenic Study, the National Humanities Center, the Institute of Current World Affairs, the Olin Foundation, Washington University's Center for the History of Freedom, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D. C., Clare Hall at Cambridge University, All Souls College at Oxford, the American Academy in Berlin, and the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.

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