Montesquieu on Republics Punishing Treason

Interesting advice offered by Montesquieu that might be of interest as we embark on the sesquicentennial of postwar Reconstruction. The text is taken from here.

CHAP. XVIII.: How dangerous it is, in Republics, to be too severe in punishing the Crime of High-Treason.

AS soon as a republic has compassed the destruction of those who wanted to subvert it, there should be an end of terrors, punishments, and even of rewards.
Great punishments, and consequently great changes, cannot take place without investing some citizens with an exorbitant power. It is therefore more adviseable, in this case, to exceed in lenity, than in severity; to banish but few, rather than many; and to leave them their estates, instead of making a vast number of confiscations. Under pretence of avenging the republic’s cause, the avengers would establish tyranny. The business is not to destroy the rebel, but the rebellion. They ought to return as quick as possible into the usual track of government, in which every one is protected by the laws, and no one injured.

The Greeks set no bounds to the vengeance they took of tyrants, or of those they suspected of tyranny: they put their children to death∥; nay, sometimes five of their nearest relations*; and they proscribed an infinite number of families. By such means their republics suffered the most violent shocks: exiles, or the return of the exiled, were always epochas that indicated a change of the constitution.

The Romans had more sense. When Cassius was put to death for having aimed at tyranny, the question was proposed, whether his children should undergo the same fate: but they were preserved. “They, says Dionysius Halicarnasseus, who wanted to change this law at the end of the Marsian and civil laws, and to exclude from public offices the children of those who had been proscribed by Sylla, are very much to blame.”

We find, in the wars of Marius and Sylla, to what excess the Romans had gradually carried their barbarity. Such scenes of cruelty, it was hoped, would never be revived. But, under the triumvirs, they committed greater acts of oppression, though with some appearance of lenity; and it is provoking to see what sophisms they make use of to cover their inhumanity. Appian has given us§ the formula of the proscriptions. One would imagine they had no other aim than the good of the republic; with such calmness do they express themselves; such advantages do they point out to the state; such expediency do they shew in the means they adopt; such security do they promise to the opulent; such tranquility to the poor; so apprehensive do they seem of endangering the lives of the citizens; so desirous of appeasing the soldiers; such felicity, in fine, do they presage to the commonwealth.

Rome was drenched in blood when Lepidus triumphed over Spain: yet, by an unparallelled absurdity, he ordered public rejoicings in that city, upon pain of proscription.

What do you make of this advice, as applied to Reconstruction America?

4 thoughts on “Montesquieu on Republics Punishing Treason

  1. Mark February 16, 2015 / 11:33 am

    They were treated leniently. But I think the problem is that what wasn’t done is Montesquieu assumes would be done. Namely, that actions will be taken that force acquiescence to government policy to some at least minimal degree, and that treasonous leaders would never be allowed back into the government as peers with non-treasonous leaders. Doing both of these is insane.

  2. pamela divanna February 16, 2015 / 3:15 pm

    Exactly Mark. I do not see the wisdom of widespread murder. If persons evacuated the country voluntarily, great…. but reassuming leadership positions in the government they tried to overthrow? Never.

    • Mark February 16, 2015 / 7:27 pm

      Just to clarify, by “force acquiescence to government policy to some at least minimal degree” I think it only requires maintaining law enforcement presence in the country to carry out the purpose of the freedman’s bureau. No more law enforcement presence and recourse that most of us take for granted now.

      Someone with more knowledge could comment on whether the collapse of the “occupation” such as it was came about in part because of the reinstatement of rebels to Congress. I never wondered until now. If the main reason for it was simply the hope that the Southern people would appreciate the acquiescence to their demands to restore full sovereignty, then it was indeed foolish and the other extreme to the “vengeance” that Montesquieu described. Extreme brutality Montesquieu could foresee, but a complete appeasement after a bitter war based on wishful thinking would never have occurred to him.

  3. Lyle Smith February 17, 2015 / 8:29 am

    Such logic was applied by Henry II of England to help bring closure to the “Anarchy” or “Shipwreck” in 12th century England. Henry won over nobles not loyal to him by promising them respect for their estates and respect for the rights provided to them by Henry’s grandfather Henry I. Henry also didn’t depose King Stephen. In defeat, Stephen was only forced to recognize Henry as his heir. Henry even granted land to one of King Stephen’s sons in return for renouncing any claim to the throne. After peace had been made Henry only used violence on those few nobles whose resistance to him lingered. Thus he secured his rule and the future rule of the Plantagenet dynasty in England.

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