When the First World War ended, there was a brief period when it seemed as if the world really had become safe for democracy—when it seemed as if history had come to an end and liberal democracy had achieved a lasting hegemony. The same thing happened again just over 70 years later when the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe liberated itself, the Soviet Union fell apart, and the Cold War came to an end.
On neither occasion, however, were the heady hopes of the victors borne out. In both cases tyranny gradually re-emerged, and disappointment dogged those who had imagined that the dream articulated by Immanuel Kant in his “Essay on Perpetual Peace” would be fulfilled.
None of this should come as a surprise. Tyranny in one form or another has been the norm throughout human history, and it is not apt to disappear. As Montesquieu observed 270 years ago in his Spirit of the Laws, its avoidance requires artifice. “To form a moderate government,” he tells us, “it is necessary to combine powers, to regulate them, to temper them, to make them act, to give, so to speak, a ballast to one in order to put it in a condition to resist another; this is a masterpiece of legislation, which chance rarely produces & prudence is rarely allowed to produce.” Though it constitutes an assault on human nature, he adds, despotism is, in a sense, natural. It “jumps up, so speak, before our eyes; it is uniform throughout: as the passions alone are necessary for its establishment, the whole world is good enough for that.”
If we are to understand our present predicament, we will have to take into account just how fragile liberal democratic regimes are and the preconditions for their survival. In this regard, as Montesquieu insisted, size matters. As he noticed, the first republics known to man relied on civic virtue; and, to sustain themselves, they had to be small enough for shame to be a formidable force. In antiquity, as he also pointed out, all of the polities situated on an extended territory were despotisms—where fear was brought in as a substitute for shame as a source of political and social discipline.
In a large republic, Montesquieu observed, “interests become particular; a man senses then that he can be happy, great, glorious without his fatherland; & soon that he can be great solely on the ruins of his fatherland.” One consequence of such a republic’s size is that “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations; it is subordinated to the exceptions; it depends on accidents.” The situation “in a small” republic is more favorable: There, “the public good is more fully felt, better known, closer to each citizen; the abuses are less extensive there & as a consequence less well protected.”
By way of contrast, Montesquieu added, “A large empire presupposes a despotic authority in the one who governs.” One cannot deny that “promptness in decision-making is required to compensate for the distance of the places to which orders are sent”; that “fear is required to prevent negligence on the part of the governor or magistrate operating at a great distance”; that, in such circumstances, “law must be lodged in a single head” and that “it must change unceasingly,” for “accidents” really do “multiply in a state in proportion to its magnitude.” This, he did not have to say, was the experience of Rome. That polity’s expansion was fatal to its republican character.
It was Montesquieu’s analysis that occasioned the great debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists in the United States in 1787 and 1788. As everyone understood at the time, the fledgling polity was far too large to qualify as a small republic. Federalism was the remedy suggested by Montesquieu. A loose confederation of republics could command sufficient resources to provide for the common defense while its member republics remained small enough to maintain free institutions. Unfortunately, however, most of the states composing the nascent American union were themselves too large to be considered small republics; and, under the constitution proposed by the Federal Convention, the national government had much greater scope than the confederations Montesquieu had in mind.
To meet the challenge posed by Montesquieu’s analysis of the lessons to be learned from the history of republics, James Madison and his colleagues looked to the French philosophe’s analysis of a third form of government—the species of law-bound monarchy, limited in scope, that emerged in medieval Europe—and to his discussion of the form of government that subsequently developed out of this in England as its monarchy evolved. These two species of government had upheld constitutionalism and the rule of law in polities situated on territories of intermediate size; and the latter of the two—equipped, as it was, with a House of Commons capable of imposing its will on the monarch—was quasi-republican in character.
In framing the proposed constitution, the delegates at the convention had combined two institutions that Montesquieu had praised—federalism and the separation of powers perfected by the English—and Madison even argued, counter-intuitively, that the multiplication of special interests attendant on the size of the fledgling nation could be put to good use. It would, he suspected, turn out to be an obstacle to the formation of a majority faction, and it would thereby encourage within the new republic’s legislature a spirit of accommodation and compromise conducive to the pursuit of justice and the common good.
In the 1790s, however, quite soon after the American republic was established, some of those quite deeply involved in the Founding came to have misgivings. It was in response to the legislative program proposed by George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton that James Madison began thinking about the prospect his compatriots would eventually face—“a consolidation of the States into one government”—and the consequences that might follow from such an eventuality.
First, he argued, the “incompetency of one Legislature to regulate all the various objects belonging to the local governments, would evidently force a transfer of many of” those objects “to the executive department.”
Then, he contended that, if the state and local governments were made subject to the Federal government, the sheer size of the country “would prevent that control” on the Federal Congress, “which is essential to a faithful discharge of its trust, [since] neither the voice nor the sense of ten or twenty millions of people, spread through so many latitudes as are comprehended within the United States, could ever be combined or called into effect, if deprived of those local organs, through which both can now be conveyed.”
In such circumstances, Madison warned, “the impossibility of acting together, might be succeeded by the inefficacy of partial expressions of the public mind, and this at length, by a universal silence and insensibility, leaving the whole government to that self directed course, which, it must be owned, is the natural propensity of every government.”
In short, Madison revisited Montesquieu’s argument concerning republics and the extent of territory suitable to them. And, at a time when the territory was much smaller than it is now, and the population was not even one-fifteenth of what it is now, he began to worry that the extent of territory encompassed by the United States and the size of its population might be too great. He was, moreover, virtually certain that, if the Federal government were allowed to encroach on the prerogatives of the states and the localities, as he believed Hamilton intended, despotism of one sort or another would be the result.