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Did Montesquieu base his theory of separation of powers on the Bible?

Barron Charles Louis Joseph de Secondat Montesquieu was a nobleman who wrote extensively about political theory. In his famous work The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu became the first to articulate in a detailed way the doctrine of separation of powers (i.e., the theory that liberty is best protected when government distributes executive, legislative, and judicial power among three branches of government, so that no one branch can control all three). By all accounts America's founding fathers were deeply influenced by Montesquieu; citations to Montesquieu pop up with great frequency in the political discourse of revolutionary America, and his work was a major justification for the structure of the American Constitution.

In his book America's God and Country (p. 453), William Federer claims that Montesquieu based his theory of divided powers on two Biblical passages: Isaiah 33:22, and Jeremiah 17:19. The Isaiah passage reads as follows:

The Jeremiah passage reads: According to Federer, the Jeremiah passage provides the motive for separated powers; since the heart is wicked, it's best to divide powers to minimize the amount of power that any one individual person can possess. The Isaiah passage, on the other hand, provided Montesquieu with the structure for a divided government. Federer references these verses to page 457 of Anne Cohler's 1989 translation of The Spirit of the Laws. These same verses are also referred to by David Barton in his work The Myth of Separation, pp. 195-196. Unlike Federer, however, Barton does not explicitly claim that Montesquieu based his work on these verses, and does not provide relevant citations to Montesquieu's text.

The problem with Federer's argument is that it is not true. Montesquieu develops his argument for separation of powers in Book XI of The Spirit of the Laws, and nowhere in this book does he reference Isaiah, Jeremiah, or any other book of the Bible. On the contrary, Montesquieu's examples in this section are all drawn from contemporary European and pre-Christian Roman and Germanic history. Nor can we find references to Isaiah and Jeremiah elsewhere in the book. While Montesquieu does occasionally reference the Bible in The Spirit of the Laws, these references are mostly to the Pentateuch, and are never to the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

It is difficult to argue that Montesquieu based his theory of divided powers on Isaiah and Jeremiah when he doesn't quote from these books, and when he bases his examples on other sources. We conclude that Federer has either misunderstood Montesquieu, is simply repeating someone else's inaccurate argument, or is intentionally misleading his readers.

But what of Federer's reference to page 457 of Cohler's translation of The Spirit of the Laws? We've located a copy of this work, and this page turns out to be nothing more than the title page for the fifth section of Cohler's translation; it has no text except the words "Part 5." We will charitably assume that the reference is a misprint, but sloppy editing on Federer's part does little to convince us that he knows what he's talking about with respect to Montesquieu. Additionally, Cohler's work contains an detailed appendix in which she indexes all the sources Montesquieu used in writing The Spirit of the Laws, and while we find several references to various books of the Bible, there are no references to Isaiah and Jeremiah. Far from proving his argument, Cohler's translation is further proof that Federer's claim is incorrect..

For what it's worth, we don't think Federer is the originator of the myth that Montesquieu derived his theory from the Bible. Barton's The Myth of Separation predates Federer, and Barton makes essentially the same argument (albeit without footnotes). The idea was probably circulating long before either Federer or Barton wrote their books. But it makes no difference. It is a myth. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Montesquieu derived his ideas from the Bible. The myth should be put to rest before it does any more disservice.

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