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Excerpts from Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws (1748)

Excerpts from Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws (1748)

Guiding Question: How are republican principles of limited government, separation of powers, and checks and balances reflected in the U.S. Constitution?

  • I can explain the purpose of separate branches of government.

Introduction: The Spirit of Laws was an Enlightenment political treatise [a long essay] published in France in 1748. The work was translated into other languages and was widely read by the Founders of the Constitution, including James Madison.

Essential Vocabulary

expedition speed
treatise a long essay



In every government there are three sorts of power; the legislative; the executive … [and] the latter we shall call the judiciary power…


There would be an end of every thing were the same man, or the same body … to exercise those three powers that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and that of judging … crimes…


The executive power ought to be in the hands of a monarch; because this branch of government, which has always need of expedition [speed], is better administered by one than by many: Whereas, whatever depends on the legislative power, is oftentimes better regulated by many than by a single person…


When once an army is established, it ought not to depend immediately on the legislative, but on the executive power, and this from the very nature of the thing; its business consisting more in action than in deliberation.


  1. How should power be divided in a government, according to Montesquieu?
  2. What difference(s) exist(s) between Montesquieu’s framework for a government and the framework created in the U.S. Constitution?

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