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A Revolutionary Reading List:
The Intellectual Tradition that Influenced the U.S. Founding Fathers

(Released April 2010)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations






During the Enlightenment, as now, classical Roman history continued to exert considerable influence on the governments, laws, and literature of Europe and the United States. Recognizing this influence, the founding fathers were particularly interested in the question of why republics fail. Montesquieu addressed this in his work Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. This book was first published in 1734 and was revised and republished in 1748. It also served as inspiration to Edward Gibbon's multivolume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1787. Montesquieu traces the history of Rome from the overthrow of monarchy and establishment of the republic, the empire's expansion, the loss of the republic, through the decline of the empire and eventual fall.

portrait of Montesquieu
Montesquieu attributed the fall of the republic and weakening of the empire to a number of factors. He believed that one of the early republic's strengths was the comparative economic equality of the inhabitants. Over time, wealth and land passed into the hands of a smaller segment of the population. As land moved from the many to the few, it eroded both the motivation and financial capacity to maintain as strong a citizen army. On another side, Montesquieu also attributes the republic's own military success as helping to undermine it. As the empire expanded, and the soldiers were stationed farther from their homes, the fighting became more an expression of might, and less about defending the homeland. Also, people in the territories surrounding Rome became so desirous of obtaining citizenship that Rome was eventually forced to substantially expand its citizenship. As a result, the Roman republic became increasingly difficult to rule, both because of its continuing expansion, and because of the growing divisiveness of its interests. Under these conditions, the republic could no longer effectively govern, and with the Caesars, Rome reverted to a monarchical government.

The Spirit of Laws represents the culmination of Montesquieu's life work. He spent 20 years working on this text, which opens by defining laws as, "the necessary relations arising from the nature of things." Both the physical and intelligent world is governed by laws, though the intelligent world conforms less perfectly to its laws than the physical one. Law, in its ideal form, is the expression of human reason as it conforms to the particular needs of each given society. Montesquieu identifies three primary forms of government: democracy, monarchy, and despotism (a rule of fear and absolute authority). Through much of the text he compares the working of laws under these different types of government. He also spends a considerable amount of time discussing law in different historical and cultural contexts. The American revolutionaries were particularly interested in a rational basis for law and governance and natural law such as that expounded by Montesquieu.

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