Great Antidote Extra: Henry Clark on Montesquieu

french enlightenment montesquieu separation of powers spirit of the laws

Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Host Juliette Sellgren does her best with returning guest Henry Clark to help a new generation discover the importance (and the fragility) of Montesquieu's wisdom.
Henry C. Clark returns to The Great Antidote podcast with host Juliette Sellgren to expand on their previous discussion of the intellectual influences of 1776 and the French and Scottish Enlightenments. This time, Clark and Sellgren focused on Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu), his life and the political environment in Europe in the early 18th century, especially in following the death of Louis XIV after a 72-year rule. 

You can listen to the podcast here: Henry Clark on Montesquieu.

Clark has been a visiting professor in the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College since 2014. He is a Senior Lecturer and the Program Director of the Political Economy Project.He is the author of Liberty Matters: Montesquieu on Liberty and Sumptuary Law, a translator of Baron de Montesquieu's My Thoughts (Mes Pensées), and the editor of Commerce, Culture, and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith.

Of course, the idea of separation of powers and how it influenced Europe and America gets well deserved airtime but there’s also an extended discussion of how Montesquieu influenced Adam Smith and how they had similar projects in, respectively, The Spirit of the Laws and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

In fact, the conversation sparked a recently released AdamSmithWorks essay by Clark on how to think about the relationship between these two very influential thinkers, “Baron de Montesquieu and Adam Smith: Equivalents or Complements?” 

Key Quote (lightly edited): 
For an American, the quick elevator pitch is that, if you value the separation of powers, if you value checks and balances in your government (and those are among the few things that are valued across the political spectrum in a bipartisan and multi-partisan way), then you have partly, maybe largely, Montesquieu to thank for that. He was the one who really devised and developed the ideas of limited government and of separation of powers, checks and balances. And from his working out of that whole problem, the American founders relied extensively on his formulations in the debates that they had over how to design the US Constitution. And, similar debates took place in other countries as well, in England and France during the revolution of 1789. Uh, Montesquieu was a lively presence as well. But I don't know that there is really any place where Montesquieu has been more present at the creation, so to speak, than in the case of the Americans... 

And, of course, it's one of those things, you hear it so often, it does become a cliche, and it seems maybe like a crusty, old-fashioned 18th century cliche, until somebody from the opposite party does something that you intensely don't like. And then, all of a sudden, people rediscover the importance, the enduring importance, as well as the, the enduring fragility, of the separation of powers and checks and balances.. 
these things are not settled achievements, settled accomplishments, that we can just kind of squeeze into our back pocket and forget about them. Every generation has to grapple with their meaning. Every generation has to struggle with a new set of specific issues and specific challenges to the ideals of limited government. And every generation has to rediscover the wisdom of Montesquieu.

Want to explore more?
Read Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws at the Online Library of Liberty.
Ryan Patrick Hanley’s essay The French Enlightenment: An Introduction  
An Interview with Henry C. Clark  at Online Library of Liberty
Book reviews and articles by Clark at Law & Liberty
Liberty Fund Books Videos with Clark on  Montesquieu
Eat like Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Try your hand at Garbure (Basque cabbage soup) with our recipe in #WhatAdamSmithAte.