Tag Archives: Montesquieu

Separation of Powers

One of the most important aspects of our Constitution is something that we all learned we were in elementary school, the separation of powers. Recently, in constitutional/presidential debates, several things have come up that make me think of this political structure.

Though there were many forms of mixed government going all the way back to Aristotle and even Polybius argued that Roman Republic was a mixed form of government, what we think of as multiple parts of government really is developed by first John Calvin, who develops the notion of a bipartite government between democracy and the aristocracy in the 16th century and is ultimately mirrored in the British tradition. However, if you had a good political science teacher in high school, you probably know that the true separation of powers is listed in our Constitution comes from the French nobleman Montesquieu.

In his book the Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu divides up all political power into three parts; executive, legislative, and judicial. In our country we make them slightly more complicated, mirroring other facets of the world at the time. While we do have the executive (the president and cabinet), the Congress mirrors English Parliament by being bicameral with a House of Representatives and the Senate, and the federal court systems with the Supreme Court at the top. We even make it more complicated with our tiered federal system which we call federalism; which gives power to the states and local governments individually. Though much more complicated than I have time to get into here, though if you are Presbyterian you may recognize the structures within structures (this is not coincidental), this mirrors the complexities of social and religious governments in Europe. While within a nation there were monarchs, there was also the religious monarch of the papacy that ruled over most of Europe, and include Protestant nations the monarch was also often the religious head.

However, all this is a step up/challenged by the old separation of powers. Looking at the oft repeated example of the French Revolution, the monarchy was against the old separation of powers, monarch, people, Army. In most traditional governments, was impossible to separate the monarchs from any other branch. They had the powers of executor, legislator, and judge. The only real check was the idea that the military could overthrow them, often placing a new king on the throne. By the French revolution, the third group made itself known. Destroying the bonds of feudalism, the people rose up and overthrew the government, splitting the military and mostly standing on their own.

In many Third World nations, the military is the branch that is the decider. When a king or ‘president’ is too powerful and the people threatened to rise up, it is the military that steps in and deposes the leader, so that people don’t gain too much power.  The reason this came up to me, or that there are several news articles recently on both the left and the right that are talking about the military in regards to presidential candidate Donald Trump. Articles on both the left  and the right are threatening that the military and intelligence sectors could well ignore Trump is elected. In an election year in which the people were so mobilized, it makes one wonder if the old separation of powers may rear its head again.