When I went to college, my major was Political Science. The field is very
broad, and I focused on my own areas of interest, the American political
system. I also dabbled in comparative political systems and international
politics. In all that time, I seem to have been able to avoid almost any
contact with much in the way of classical political theory. As time has gone
on, I've read about the political influences of the Framers and had others ask
me, or tell me, about classical political theory. Because I've found some
background in this area to be helpful, I present here a very shallow overview
of some of what I've learned.
By no means is this page complete, and by no means do I present myself as an
expert in this area. What I do hope to do is present a few of the important
classical influences on the Framers and on modern theory, and to give links to
sites where visitors can go to learn much more. I welcome suggestions for more
to add to this page. I also welcome corrections. Contact the Webmaster me with any of either.
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Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
In The Prince, Machiavelli focuses on the monarchy. He describes
the virtues that a Prince must have, while noting that some virtues will lead
to his destruction while some vices will allow the Prince to survive.
Generosity, for example, is a virtue - but if done in secret, there will be no
recognition, and the people will view the Prince as greedy. If done openly,
generosity can lead to financial downfall. This could lead to demands for money
from his subjects which can lead to upheaval. All virtues must be examined from
both sides to determine if it is a sustaining virtue or a destructive one.
The Prince should be feared rather than loved, but care must be taken that
he not be hated. Five virtues must be exhibited to the outside, even if they
are insincere: mercy, honesty, humaneness, uprightness, and religiousness.
In Leviathan, Hobbes describes the state as a large person. Each
part has a parallel in the human body. As humans created the state, to
understand the state one must understand human nature. In the absence of
society, everything that a person does is done purely out of self-interest,
even when something is done that benefits another. Any theory must be
consistent with this overriding self-service.
In nature, all men are essentially equal, even with inherent differences in
size or strength - even the weakest man can kill the strongest. The individual
has the right to do anything in nature - even kill another. Quarrel between
people is natural. The natural condition, then, is that of constant war and
constant fear. This constant fear forces men to find a way to prevent the
Natural laws derive from reason - they are those things that prevent harm.
The first law of nature is that peace should be sought, and when it cannot be
obtained, war ensues. The second law supports the first - to have peace we must
give up certain rights, such as the right to kill or steal. The transferral of
these rights between people is the social contract. The right to self defense
is one which cannot be released, as it is the only motive for entering into the
The third law states that contracts made must be kept. Power must be given
to a person or assembly to ensure that the laws are maintained. The social
contract tells the ruler that we give up the right to self-government in
exchange for requiring others to maintain the contract. Hobbes notes that three
forms of government can best maintain the contract: monarchy, aristocracy, and
democracy. Hobbes prefers monarchy.
James Harrington's Oceana was first published in 1656. In it he
describes the governments of ancient Israel, Rome, Sparta, and Venice, and
those of contemporary nations. He wrote of Oceana, a fictitious state with a
Utopian government. His government, which was a thinly veiled caricature of
England, consisted of a government separated into three bodies with different
roles: proposing, resolving and debating, and executing. He proposed several
bodies chosen by the people, including a senate and a body of the people to
make the laws, and a magistracy to execute the laws.
The text of Oceana was seized during printing, but an appeal to the
daughter of Oliver Cromwell had the text released and published.
Oceana was widely read and attacked, and seen as an attack on
Cromwell. He continued to criticize the Commonwealth and was eventually
arrested for his writing, and he was held without charge until his health was
in utter disrepair. Weak and sickly, he was finally returned to his family,
said to be insane from scurvy.
In Two Treatises on Government, Locke refuted the divine right of
Monarchy, and established a theory where personal liberty could coexist with
political order. Labor is the origin and justification for property. Contract
or consent is the basis for government and fixes its limits. Behind both
doctrines is personal freedom. The state of nature knows no law, but men are
subject to moral law (the law of God).
Men are born free and equal. In the primitive world, all that man worked for
became his, when there was enough for all. When man multiplied and resources
were not so free, rules were needed. Moral law is always valid, though not
always kept. Civil society must set rules to punish transgressors. To do this,
men agree to delegate this function to others. Government, then, is a social
contract with limited powers, and has obligations to its creators. Government
can be modified by the creators at any time.
Expanding on Locke in The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu added the
judiciary to Locke's executive and legislature. He admired the English system,
and wrote of the separation of powers.
Montesquieu wrote of the three forms of government he recognized:
"republican, monarchial, and despotic." He further divided republican
government into democracy and aristocracy. He wrote of pure democracy, but
quickly dismisses this as folly. He also discounted bodies that advised a
monarch, unless the body is chosen by the people. Montesquieu noted that in a
republic, education is an absolute necessity. He noted the point of education
in the three forms: "in monarchies they will have honour for their object; in
republics, virtue; in despotic governments, fear." He felt that democracies
are corrupted, and devolve to despotism or monarchy, when the feeling of
equality and fairness evaporate. In this way, a fair and objective judiciary is
essential to the health of a democracy.
Paine wrote of the two main types of government in The Rights of
Man: monarchy and republic. He notes that government is formed on two
bases, reason and ignorance. Only when reason triumphs over ignorance can the
best form of government, a republic, emerge. Otherwise ignorance allows
monarchy to survive.
He rejects a mixed government as being driven by corruption. In a mixed
government, there is no responsibility, as the King can defer, or blame, the
Prime Minister; the Prime Minister can defer to the Parliament; the Parliament
can defer to the people; and the people to the King. He expounds on three
principles. First, that men are born and remain always free and equal in their
rights. Political associations are created solely to preserve these rights. The
nation, as it is based upon the people, can only have rights granted to it by
Paine also wrote Common Sense, a popular pamphlet that was
distributed as the colonies were debating revolution; and The Age of
Reason, a critique of the Bible, for which he was best known, and loathed
for, while he lived.
Mill and his writing was not an influence on the Constitution, but he
expounded on some of the most precious concepts presented in the Bill of Rights. Mill, an Englishman, was born into
a family of philosophers. His father's aim with Mill was to create a successor.
James Mill was a proponent of utilitarianism, the basic tenet of which is "it
is best that which provides the most happiness to the people." Such a
philosophy could be used to support nationalism and racism, but Mill's works,
Utilitarianism and On Liberty, took on this issue by stating
that the only time the will of an individual should be suppressed is when that
will harms another.
In this, Mill's theories mirror the philosophy of the United States: that
majority should rule but that the minority should always be protected. In
On Liberty, Mill argued for freedoms of conscious and speech, writing
that even the most outrageous or offensive opinions have value, even if that
value is to bolster the opinion held by the majority, by forcing it to be
constantly reexamined. Additionally, Mill, well versed in history, saw time
and again how widely held beliefs had been replaced by new truths, previously
thought to be heretical.