Montesquieu
 

II.2 On republican government, and laws relative to democracy

When, in a repu­blic, the peo­ple as a whole holds the sove­reign autho­rity, it is a demo­cracy. When the sove­reign autho­rity is in the hands of a por­tion of the peo­ple, that is cal­led an aris­to­cracy.

The peo­ple, in a demo­cracy, are in cer­tain res­pects the monarch, and in other res­pects they are the sub­jects.

They can be the monarch only through their bal­lots, which are their will. The will of the sove­reign is the sove­reign itself. The laws which esta­blish the right of suf­frage are the­re­fore fun­da­men­tal in this govern­ment. Indeed it is as impor­tant to spe­cify how, by whom, to whom, and about what, votes are to be gran­ted, as it is in a monar­chy to know who is the monarch, and in what man­ner he is to govern.

Libanius1 says that “in Athens an out­si­der who atten­ded the assem­bly of the peo­ple was puni­shed by death.” That is because such a man was usur­ping the right of sove­rei­gnty.

It is essen­tiel to fix the num­ber of the citi­zens who are to cons­ti­tute the assem­blies ; other­wise one could be unsure whe­ther the peo­ple have spo­ken, or only a por­tion of the peo­ple. In Lacedæmon ten thou­sand citi­zens were requi­red. In Rome, born small and fated for gran­deur ; in Rome, des­ti­ned to suf­fer all the vicis­si­tu­des of for­tune ; in Rome, where some­ti­mes almost all the citi­zens were out­side its walls, at other times all of Italy and part of the world within its walls, this num­ber had not been fixed,2 and that was one of the main cau­ses of her ruin.

The peo­ple that holds the supreme autho­rity must itself do eve­ry­thing it can do well, and what it can­not do well it must do through its minis­ters.

Its minis­ters are not its own unless it names them : it is the­re­fore a fun­da­men­tal maxim of this govern­ment that the peo­ple names its own minis­ters, in other words its magis­tra­tes.

The peo­ple, like monarchs, and even more than they, needs to be led by a coun­cil or senate. But for there to be confi­dence, the peo­ple must elect the mem­bers, either by choo­sing them directly, as in Athens, or through some magis­trate which they have ins­ti­tu­ted to elect them, as was prac­ti­ced in Rome in some ins­tan­ces.

The peo­ple are admi­ra­ble for choo­sing those to whom they must entrust some part of their autho­rity. They have only to judge solely by things they can­not fail to know and facts that are pal­pa­ble. They know very well that a man has often been to war, that in it he has had such and such accom­plish­ments : they are the­re­fore quite capa­ble of elec­ting a gene­ral. They know that a judge is devo­ted, that many leave his court satis­fied with him, that he has not been convic­ted of cor­rup­tion : this is enough for them to elect a præ­tor. They have been impres­sed by a citi­zen’s splen­dor or wealth, which suf­fi­ciently ena­bles them to choose a coun­ci­lor. All these things are facts which they learn bet­ter in the public square than a monarch does in his palace. But will they be capa­ble of conduc­ting a piece of busi­ness, of exa­mi­ning the sites, the occa­sions, and the moments, and taking advan­tage of them ? No, that they can­not do.

If we could doubt the peo­ple’s natu­ral capa­city for dis­cer­ning merit, we have only to look at the conti­nual suc­ces­sion of remar­ka­ble choi­ces made by the Athenians and the Romans, which we will doubt­less not ascribe to chance.

We know that in Rome, although the peo­ple had accor­ded them­sel­ves the right to raise ple­beians to public office, they could not bring them­sel­ves to elect them ; and that in Athens, although, by the law of Aristides, magis­tra­tes could be drawn from all clas­ses, it never occur­red, says Xenophon,3 that the popu­lace cal­led on the ones that could affect their wel­fare or their glory.

As most citi­zens who have enough com­pe­tence to elect have too lit­tle to be elec­ted, in the same way the peo­ple, who are capa­ble enough of over­seeing mana­ge­ment by other peo­ple, are not them­sel­ves qua­li­fied to manage.

Business must be done, and at a cer­tain pace that is nei­ther too slow nor too fast. But the peo­ple always take too much action or too lit­tle. Sometimes with a hun­dred thou­sand hands they upset eve­ry­thing ; some­ti­mes with a hun­dred thou­sand feet they move no fas­ter than insects.

In the popu­lar state the peo­ple are divi­ded into cer­tain clas­ses. It is in the man­ner of making this divi­sion that great legis­la­tors have excel­led, and on it the dura­tion of the demo­cracy and its pros­pe­rity have always depen­ded.

Servius Tullius, in the com­po­si­tion of his clas­ses, fol­lo­wed the spi­rit of aris­to­cracy. We learn from Livy4 and Dionysius of Halicarnassus5 how he put the right of suf­frage in the hands of the prin­ci­pal citi­zens. He had divi­ded the peo­ple of Rome into one hun­dred ninety-three cen­tu­riæ, which made up six clas­ses ; and pla­cing the weal­thy, but a smal­ler num­ber of them, into the first cen­tu­riæ, and the less weal­thy, but in grea­ter num­ber, into the fol­lo­wing ones, he cast the whole mass of indi­gents into the last one ; and as each cen­tu­ria had but one vote,6 it was means and wealth that confer­red suf­frage, rather than per­sons.

Solon divi­ded the peo­ple of Athens into four clas­ses. Guided by the spi­rit of demo­cracy, he did not make them to deter­mine who should elect, but who could be elec­ted ; and lea­ving to each citi­zen the right of elec­tion, he wan­ted7 jud­ges to be elec­ta­ble from each of these four clas­ses, but magis­tra­tes to be taken only from the first three, where the affluent citi­zens were to be found.

As the divi­sion of those who are entit­led to vote is, in the repu­blic, a fun­da­men­tal law, the man­ner of confer­ring it is ano­ther fun­da­men­tal law.

Suffrage by lot is in the nature of demo­cracy ; suf­frage by choice is in the nature of aris­to­cracy.

Lots are a method of elec­tion that aggrie­ves no one ; it lea­ves each citi­zen with a rea­so­na­ble expec­ta­tion of ser­ving his coun­try.

But as it is defec­tive in itself, it is in regu­la­ting and amen­ding it that great legis­la­tors have out­done them­sel­ves.

In Athens, Solon esta­bli­shed that all mili­tary func­tions would be named by choice, and that sena­tors and jud­ges would by elec­ted by lot.

He wan­ted the civil magis­tra­cies which entail great expense to be assi­gned by choice, and the others assi­gned by lot.

But as a cor­rec­tive to chance he decreed that the elec­tion could be made only among those who were can­di­da­tes ; that the man elec­ted would be exa­mi­ned by jud­ges,8 and that anyone could object that he was unwor­thy9 : it all depen­ded on chance and choice at the same time. When a man’s term of magis­tracy was over, he had to undergo ano­ther judg­ment on the man­ner in which he had conduc­ted him­self. Unqualified men must have been quite reluc­tant to put their names into the dra­wing.

The law that spe­ci­fies the man­ner of cas­ting votes is ano­ther fun­da­men­tal law in demo­cracy. It is a great ques­tion whe­ther voting should be public or secret. Cicero10 wri­tes that the laws11 that made it secret in the last pha­ses of the Roman repu­blic were one of the major cau­ses of its fall. As this prac­tice varies in dif­fe­rent repu­blics, here is, I believe, the way we should consi­der the mat­ter.

When the peo­ple cast their votes, they should no doubt be public12 ; and this should be regar­ded as a fun­da­men­tal law of demo­cracy. The popu­lace needs to be gui­ded by the prin­ci­pal citi­zens and contai­ned by the gra­vity of cer­tain per­so­na­li­ties. Thus, by making the voting secret in the Roman repu­blic they des­troyed eve­ry­thing ; it was no lon­ger pos­si­ble to guide a popu­lace that was hea­ded toward ruin. But when, in an aris­to­cracy, the body of nobles casts its votes,13 or in a demo­cracy the senate,14 as there the only point is to avoid intri­gues, the votes can­not be too secret.

Intrigue is dan­ge­rous in a senate ; it is dan­ge­rous in a body of nobles ; it is not dan­ge­rous among the peo­ple, whose nature it is to act on impulse. In sta­tes where the peo­ple have no part in the govern­ment, they will get wor­ked up for an actor as they would have for cau­ses. It is a repu­blic’s mis­for­tune when there are no more intri­gues, and that hap­pens when the peo­ple have been cor­rup­ted by money ; they become dis­pas­sio­nate, ena­mo­red of money, but no lon­ger of cau­ses : unconcer­ned for the govern­ment and for what it is pro­po­sing, they tran­quilly await their remu­ne­ra­tion.

It is again a fun­da­men­tal law of demo­cracy that the peo­ple alone should make laws ; yet there are a thou­sand situa­tions where the senate must be able to make deci­sions ; it is even often appro­priate to test a law before esta­bli­shing it. The cons­ti­tu­tions of Rome and Athens were most wise. The senate’s decrees15 had force of law for one year, but became per­ma­nent only by the will of the peo­ple.

Declamations, 17 and 28.

See Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of their Decline, Paris, 1748, ch. ix.

Pages 691 and 692, Wechelius edition of 1596.

Book I.

Book IV, arts. 15 and following.

For the way this spirit of Servius Tullius was preserved in the republic, see Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of their Decline, ch. ix.

Dionysius of Halicaranassus, Isocrates, vol. 2, p. 97, Wechelius ed. [Catalogue no. 2831] ; [Julius] Pollux [Catalogue no. 2346], book VIII, ch. x, art. 130.

See the oration of Demosthenes, De falsa legatione [‘On the embassy’], and the oration Against Timarcrates.

They even drew two coupons for each position, one of which assigned the position, and another which named the successor should the first be rejected.

Books I and III of De legibus.

They were called tabulary laws : each citizen was given two tablets, the first marked with an A for antiquo, the other with a U and an R, for uti rogas. [The former represents dissent (i.e., for the status quo) and the latter assent (‘As you propose’).]

In Athens they raised their hands.

As in Venice.

The thirty tyrants of Athens wanted the ballots of the Areopagites to be public, in order to direct them as they pleased (Lisias, Orationes, Against Agoratus, ch. viii).

See Dionysius of Halicarnassus, books IV and IX.