The Spirit of Governments

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In a 1792 column in the National Gazette, James Madison* touched briefly on Charles de Montesquieu’s three operative principles of government: fear in despotisms, honor in monarchies, and virtue in republics. From this starting point, the genius Madison divided governing principles into three species which reflect their predominant spirit.

Madison:

May not governments be properly divided, according to their predominant spirit and principles, into three species of which the following are examples?

First. A government operating by a permanent military force, which at once maintains the government and is maintained by it; which is at once the cause of burdens on the people and of submission in the people to their burdens. Such have been the governments under which human nature has groaned through every age. Such are the governments which still oppress it in almost every country of Europe, the quarter of the globe which calls itself the pattern of civilization and the pride of humanity.

Secondly. A government operating by corrupt influence; substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty; converting its pecuniary dispensations into bounties to favorites or bribes to opponents; accommodating its measures to the avidity of a part of the nation instead of the benefit of the whole: in a word, enlisting an army of interested partisans, whose tongues, whose pens, whose intrigues, and whose active combinations, by supplying the terror of the sword, may support a real domination of the few under an apparent liberty of the many. Such a government, wherever to be found, is an impostor. It is happy for the new world that it is not on the west side of the Atlantic. It will be both happy and honorable for the United States if they never descend to mimic the costly pageantry of its form, nor betray themselves into the venal spirit of its administration.

Thirdly. A government deriving its energy from the will of the society, and operating by the reason of its measures on the understanding and interest of the society. Such is the government for which philosophy has been searching, and humanity been sighing, from the most remote ages. Such are the republican governments which it is the glory of America to have invented, and her unrivalled happiness to possess. May her glory be completed by every improvement on the theory which experience may teach; and her happiness be perpetuated by a system of administration corresponding with the purity of the theory.

End

In the second category, Madison had in mind the corrupted British government. But, does it not describe what our once republic has become? Our politicians quietly enrich themselves over decades, pass laws to help supporters and suppress opponents, pass laws that burden the people yet exempt themselves, and illegally assign or defer law making power to the president’s agencies and scotus which are unaccountable to the people.

Madison said such government was an impostor. John Locke used the term, “state of war” when government operates outside of its limits while simultaneously enforcing the laws as they apply to the people. The sole purpose of government is to secure our God given rights. We have descended into what Madison feared, the hollow shell of a republic, that “mimics the costly pageantry of its form,” and betrayed itself.

Reference:
*Madison, James. Madison Writings. New York: Literary Classics of America, 1999. Page 509.