The 28 Principles of Liberty: Principle 16
“The Government Should be Separated into Three Branches-Legislative, Executive and Judicial.”
Polybius, recognized as the greatest of all Greek Historians, lived 204 to 122 B.C. When Greece was conquered by Rome, Polybius was deported to the Roman capital. This is where he quickly recognized the advantages of the Roman republic. He was the author of 40 books of history.
During his day, there were three main types of government discussed; Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy. Unfortunately, none of these systems, when allowed to govern, provided equality, prosperity, justice or domestic tranquility for the whole of society. He felt that he understood why this was. Each form carries within itself, the seed of it s own degeneration, if allowed to operate without checks or balances. Monarchy could easily become tyranny, aristocracy sink into an oligarchy and democracy into mob rule by force and violence.
Polybius felt that there were essential elements in each form and questioned why not combine them into a single system? This idea began its birth in the Roman system, but shortly after Polybius died, the Romans abandoned their principles of a republic and chose an emperor instead. So, Polybius’s idea of a system that restrained government from acquiring enough power to abuse the people died with him, until Baron Charles de Montesquieu determined to resurrect it. He wanted to submit this mixed constitution for consideration of modern man.
Montesquieu became one of the best-educated scholars in France. He wrote a book called “The Spirit of Laws”, which has been described as one of the most important books ever written. The final writing took him two solid years. It was greatly admired by the Founders. It documented the practical possibility of a government based on ‘separation of powers’ or a mixed constitution.
In book XI, Montesquieu set forth the ingredients for a model constitution. The Founders used many portions of it as a guide in their own work. The Founders joint effort far exceeded Montesquieu, but he does deserve credit for his contribution.
A single executive was ideal to Montesquieu due to what he witnessed as a weakness of the Roman system in setting up two or more consuls. Having a single person who can make decisions quickly and decisively and cannot escape either credit or blame for the consequences would be ideal.
It was John Adams that pushed the idea of the separation of powers. It was a very revolutionary idea and very unpopular when first presented. It was only Dr. Benjamin Rush that agreed with John Adams at first. In writing a letter to Benjamin Rush, John Adams mentions how Thomas Paine came to talk to him about it. John Adams felt that politics was a divine science and dedicated much of his life to studying it, so that his children and grandchildren may be blessed by his efforts. He started by planting his seeds of separation of powers in Massachusetts.
It was quite the struggle, but he did succeed, and for the first time in the world, a constitution read:
“In the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the legislative, executive and judicial powers shall be placed in separate departments, to the end that it might be a government of laws and not of men…”
Years later, he got his ideas incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, but was never able to gain genuine acceptance for himself. Even though he had been the first U.S. vice president and the second President, he very shortly disappeared into history and was nearly forgotten. It was when scholars started digging into the origins of American constitutionalism that he came into perspective. He, himself, thought that few would remember what he had attempted to accomplish. To a friend he wrote, “Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me. Panegyrical romances will never be written, nor flattering orations spoken to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors.”
His ideas however, did catch on. Pennsylvania revised their constitution to include a separation of powers and Benjamin Franklin, one of the last to be converted, acknowledged that the Constitution of the United States was as perfect as man could be expected to produce, and urged all members of the Convention to sign it.
We close with John Adams aspiration “To see rising in America an empire of liberty, and the prospect of two or three hundred millions of freemen, without one noble or one king among them.”
The 28 Principles of Liberty are adapted from W. Cleon Skousen's book, The 5000 Year Leap and are brought to you by Fragrant Smoke.