An essay on this question, which is the best form
I. IT is certainly one of
the most important questions in politics, and has most exercised the men of
genius to determine the best form of government.
II. Every form of government has its advantages and inconveniences
inseparable from it. It would be in vain to seek for a government absolutely
perfect; and however perfect it might appear in speculation, yet it is certain,
that in practice, and under the administration of men, it will ever be attended
with some particular defects.
III. But though we cannot arrive at the summit of perfection in this
respect, it is nevertheless certain, that there are different degrees, which
prudence must determine. That government ought to be accounted the most
complete, which best answers the end of its institution, and is attended with
fewest inconveniencies. Be this as it may, the examination of this question
furnishes very useful instructions both to subjects and sovereigns.
IV. Disputes on this subject are of a very ancient date; and there is
nothing more interesting upon the topic, than what we read in the father of
history, Herodotus, who relates what passed in the council of the seven chiefs
of Persia, when the government was to be reestablished after the death of
Cambyses, and the punishment of the Magus, who had usurped the throne under the
pretext of being Smerdis, the son of Cyrus.
V. Otanes was of opinion, that Persia should be formed into a republic,
and spoke nearly in the following strain. "I am not of opinion that we should
lodge the government in the hands of a single person. You know to what excess
Cambyses proceeded, and to what degree of insolence the Magus arrived. How can
the state be well governed in a monarchy, where a single person is permitted to
act according to his pleasure? An authority uncontrolled corrupts the most
virtuous man, and defeats his best qualities. Envy and insolence flow from
riches and prosperity; and all other vices are derived from those two sources.
Kings hate virtuous men, who oppose their unjust designs, but caress the
wicked, who favor them. A single person cannot see every thing with his own
eyes; he often lends a favorable ear to false accusations; he subverts the laws
and customs of the country; he attacks the chastity of women, and wantonly puts
the innocent to death. When the people have the government in their own hands,
the equality among the members prevents all those evils. The magistrates are,
in this case, chosen by lot; they render an account of their administration,
and they form all their resolutions in common with the people. I am therefore
of opinion, that we ought to reject Monarchy, and introduce a popular
government, because we rather find these advantages in a multitude, than in a
single person." Such was the harangue of Otanes.
VI. But Magabyses spoke in favor of Aristocracy. "I approve," said he,
"of the opinion of Otanes with respect to exterminating Monarchy, but I believe
he is wrong in endeavouring to persuade us to trust the government to the
discretion of the people; for surely nothing can be imagined more stupid and
insolent, than the giddy multitude. Why should we reject the power of a single
man, to deliver up ourselves to the tyranny of a blind and disorderly populace?
If a king set about an enterprise, he is at least capable of listening to
advice; but the people are a blind monster, devoid of reason and capacity. They
are strangers to decency, virtue, and their own interests. They do every thing
precipitately, without judgment, and without order, resembling a rapid torrent,
which cannot be stemmed. If therefore you desire the ruin of the Persians,
establish a popular government. As to myself, I am of opinion, that we should
make choice of virtuous men, and lodge the government in their hands." Such was
the sentiment of Magabyses.
VII. After him Darius spoke in the following terms. "I am of opinion,
that there is a great deal of good sense in the speech, which Magabyses has
made against a popular state; but I also think, that he is not entirely in the
right, when he prefers the government of a small number to Monarchy. It is
certain, that nothing can be imagined better, or more perfect, than the
administration of a virtuous man. Besides, when a single man is master, it is
more difficult for the enemy to discover his secret counsels and resolutions.
When the government is in the hands of many, it is impossible but enmity and
hatred must arise among them; for, as every one desires his opinion to be
followed, they gradually become mutual enemies. Emulation and jealousy divide
them, and then their aversions run to excess. Hence arise seditions; from
seditions, murders; and from murders a monarch insensibly becomes necessary.
Thus the government at length is sure to fall into the hands of a single
person. In a popular state there must needs be a great store of malice and
corruption. It is true equality does not generate hatred; but it foments
friendship among the wicked, who support each other, till some person or ether,
who by his behavior hag acquired an authority over the multitude, discovers the
frauds, and exposes the perfidy of those villains. Such a man shews himself
really a monarch; and hence we know that Monarchy is the most natural
government, since the seditions of Aristocracy and the corruption of Democracy
are equal inducements for our uniting the supreme power in the hands of a
The opinion of Darius was approved, and the government of Persia
continued monarchic. We thought this passage of history sufficiently
interesting to be related on this occasion.
VIII. To determine this question we must trace matters to their very
source. Liberty, under which we must comprehend all the most valuable
enjoyments, has two enemies in civil society. The first is licentiousness and
confusion; and the second is oppression, arising from tyranny.
IX. The first of these evils arises from liberty itself, when it is not
kept within due bounds.
The second is owing to the remedy, which mankind have contrived against
the former evil, that is, to sovereignty.
X. The height of human felicity and prudence is to know how to guard
against those two enemies. The only method is to have a well constituted
government, formed with such precautions, as to banish licentiousness, and yet
be no way introductive to tyranny.
XI. It is this happy temperament, that alone can give us the idea of a
good government. It is evident, that the political constitution, which avoids
these extremes, is so justly fitted for the preservation of order, and for
providing against the necessities of the people, that it leaves them a
sufficient security, that this end shall be perpetually held in view.
XII. But here we shall be asked, which government is it, that approaches
nearest to this perfection? Before we answer this question, it is proper to
observe, that it is very different from our being asked, which is the most
XIII. As for the latter question, it if certain, that governments of
every kind, which are founded on the free acquiescence of the people, whether
express or justified by a long and peaceable possession, are all equally
legitimate, so long at least as, by the intention of the sovereign, they tend
to promote the happiness of the people. Thus no other cause can subvert a
government, but an open and actual violence, either in its establishment, or in
its exercise; I mean usurpation, or tyranny.
XIV. To return to the principal question, I affirm, that the best
government is neither absolute Monarchy, nor that, which is intirely popular.
The former is too violent, encroaches on liberty, and inclines too much to
tyranny; the latter is too weak, leaves the people too much to themselves, and
tends to confusion and licentiousness.
XV. It were to be wished, for the glory of sovereigns and for the
happiness of the people, that we could contest the fact above asserted with
respect to absolute governments. We may venture to affirm, that nothing can be
compared to an absolute government in the hands of a wise and virtuous prince.
Order, diligence, secrecy, expedition, the greatest enterprizes, and the most
happy execution, are the certain effects of it. Dignities, honors, rewards, and
punishments, are all dispensed under it with justice and discernment. So
glorious a reign is the era of the golden age.
XVI. But to govern in this manner a superior genius, perfect virtue,
great experience, and uninterrupted application, are necessary Man, in so high
an elevation, is rarely capable of so many accomplishments. The multitude of
objects diverts his attention; pride seduces him, pleasure tempts him, and
flattery, the bane of the great, does him more injury than all the rest. It is
difficult to escape so many snares; and it generally happens, that an absolute
prince becomes an easy prey to his passions, and consequently renders his
XVII. Hence proceeds the disgust of people to absolute governments, and
this disgust sometimes is worked up to. aversion and hatred. This has also
given occasion to politicians to make two important reflections.
The first is, that, in an absolute government, it is rare to see the
people interest themselves in its preservation. Oppressed with their burdens,
they long for a revolution, which cannot render their situation more
The second is, that it is the interest of princes to engage the people
in the support of their government, and to give them a share therein, by
privileges, tending to secure their liberty. This is the best expedient to
promote the safety of princes at home, together with their power abroad, and
glory in every respect.
XVIII. It has been said of the Romans, that, so long as they fought for
their own interests, they were invincible; but, as soon as they became slaves
under absolute masters, their courage failed, and they asked for no more than
bread and public diversions; panem et circenses.
XIX. On the contrary, in states, where the people have some share in the
government, every individual interests himself in the public good, because
each, according to his quality or merit, partakes of the general success, or
feels the loss, sustained by the state. This is what renders men active and
generous, what inspires them with an ardent love of their country, and with an
invincible courage, so as to be proof against the greatest misfortunes.
XX. When Hannibal had gained four victories over the Romans, and killed
more than two hundred thousand of that nation, when, much about the same time,
the two brave Scipios perished in Spain, not to mention several considerable
losses at sea and in Sicily, who could have thought, that Rome could have
withstood her enemies? Yet the virtue of her citizens, the love they bore their
country, and the interest they had in the government, augmented the strength of
that republic in the midst of her calamities, and at last she surmounted every
difficulty. Among the Lacedæmonians and Athenians we find several
examples to the same point.
XXI. These advantages are not found in absolute governments. We may
justly affirm, that it is an essential defect in them not to interest the
people in their preservation; that they are too violent, tending too much to
oppression, and very little to the good of the subject.
XXII. Such are absolute governments; those of the popular kind are no
better, and we may say they have no advantage but liberty, and their leaving
the people at their option to choose a better.
XXIII. Absolute governments have at least two advantages; the first is,
that they have happy intervals, when in the hands of good princes; the second
is, that they have a greater degree of force, activity, and expedition.
XXIV. But a popular government has none of those advantages; formed by
the multitude, it bears a strong resemblance to that many-headed monster. The
multitude is a mixture of all kinds of people; it contains a few men of parts,
some of whom may have honest intentions; but far the greater number cannot be
depended on, as they have nothing to lose, and consequently can hardly be
trusted. Besides, a multitude always acts with slowness and confusion. Secrecy
and precaution are advantages unknown to them.
XXV. Liberty is not wanting in popular states; nay, they have rather too
much of it, since it degenerates into licentiousness. Hence it is that they are
ever tottering and weak. Intestine commotions, or foreign attacks, often throw
them into consternation. It is their ordinary fate to fall a prey to the
ambition of their fellow citizens, or to foreign usurpation, and thus to pass
from the highest liberty to the lowest slavery.
XXVI. This is proved by the experience of different nations. Even at
present Poland is a striking example of the defects of popular government, from
the anarchy and disorder, which reigns in that republic. It is the sport of its
own inhabitants and of foreign nations, and is frequently the seat of intestine
war; because, under the appearance of Monarchy, it is indeed too popular a
XXVII. We need only read the histories of Florence and Genoa to behold a
lively exhibition of the misfortunes, which republics suffer from the
multitude, when the latter attempt to govern. The ancient republics, especially
Athens, the most considerable in Greece, are capable of setting this truth in a
XXVIII. In a word Rome perished in the hands of the people; and monarchy
gave birth to it. The patricians, who composed the senate, by freeing it from
the regal dignity, had rendered it mistress of Italy. The people, by the
encroachment of the tribunes, gradually usurped the authority of the senate.
From that time discipline was relaxed, and gave place to licentiousness. At
length the republic was reduced, by the people themselves, to the most abject
XXIX. It is not therefore to be doubted, but popular governments are the
weakest and worst of all others. If we consider the education of the vulgar,
their laborious employments, their ignorance and brutality, we must quickly
perceive, that they are made to be governed; and that good order and their own
advantage forbid them to interfere with that province.
XXX. If therefore neither the government of the multitude, nor the
absolute will of a single person, are fit to procure the happiness of a nation,
it follows, that the best governments are those, which are so tempered, as to
secure the happiness of the subjects by avoiding tyranny and licentiousness.
XXXI. There are two ways of finding this temperament. The first consists
in lodging the sovereign in a council so composed, both as to the number and
choice of persons, that there shall be amoral certainty of their having no
other interests, than those of the community, and of their being always ready
to give a faithful account of their conduct. This is what we see happily
practised in most republics.
XXXII. The second is to limit the sovereignty of the prince in monarchic
states, by fundamental laws, or to invest the person, who enjoys the honors and
title of sovereignty, with only a part of the supreme authority, and to lodge
the other in different hands, for example in a council or parliament. This is
what gives birth to limited monarchies.
XXXIII. With regard to Monarchies, it is proper for example, that the
military and legislative powers, together with that of raising taxes, should be
lodged in different hands, to the end, that they may not be easily abased. It
is easy to conceive, that these restrictions may be made different ways. The
general rule, which prudence directs, is to limit the power of the prince so,
that no danger may be apprehended from it; but at the same time not to carry
things to excess, for fear of weakening the government.
XXXIV. By following this just medium, the people will enjoy the most
perfect liberty, since they have all the moral securities, that the prince will
not abuse his power. The prince, on the other hand, being as it were under a
necessity of doing his duty, considerably strengthens his authority, and enjoys
a high degree of happiness and solid glory; for, as the felicity of the people
is the end of government, it is also the surest foundation of the throne. See
what has been already said on this subject.
XXXV. This species of Monarchy, limited by a mixed government, unites
the principal advantages of absolute Monarchy, and of the Aristocratic and
popular governments; at the same time it avoids the dangers and inconveniences
peculiar to each. This is the happy temperament, which we have been endeavoring
XXXVI. The truth of this remark has been proved by the experience of
past ages. Such was the government of Sparta, Lycurgus, knowing that each of
the three sorts of simple governments had very great inconveniences; that
Monarchy easily fell into arbitrary power and tyranny; that Aristocracy
degenerated into the oppressive government of a few individuals; and Democracy
into a wild and lawless dominion; thought it expedient to combine these three
governments in that of Sparta, and mix them as it were into one, so that they
might serve as a remedy and counterpoise to each other. This wise legislator
was not deceived, and BO republic preserved its laws, customs, and liberty,
longer than that of Sparta.
XXXVII. It may be said, that the government of the Romans, under the
republic, united in some measure, as that of Sparta, the three species of
authority. The consuls held the place of kings, the senate formed the public
counsel, and the people had also some share in the administration.
XXXVIII. If modern examples are wanted, is not England at present a
proof of the excellency of mixed government? Is there a nation, every thing
considered, that enjoys a higher degree of prosperity or reputation?
XXXIX. The northern nations, which subverted the Roman empire,
introduced into the conquered provinces that species of government, which was
then called Gothic. They had kings, lords, and commons; and experience shows,
that the states, which have retained that species of government have flourished
more than those, which have devolved the whole government into the hands of a
XL. As to Aristocratic governments, we must first distinguish
Aristocracy by birth, from that, which is elective. The former has several
advantages, but is also attended with very great inconveniences. It inspires
the nobility with pride, and entertains, between the grandees and the people,
division, contempt, and jealousy, which are productive of considerable
XLI. But the latter has all the advantages of the former, without its
defects. As there is no privilege of exclusion, and as the door of preferment
is open to all the citizens, we find neither pride nor division among them. On
the contrary a general emulation glows in the breasts of all the members,
converting every thing to the public good, and contributing infinitely to the
preservation of liberty.
XLII. Thus if we suppose an elective Aristocracy, in which the
sovereignty is in the hands of a council so numerous, as to comprehend the
chief property of the republic, and never to have any interest opposite to that
of the state; if besides this counsel be so small, as to maintain order,
harmony, arid secrecy; if it be chosen from among the wisest, and most virtuous
citizens; and lastly if its authority be limited and kept within rule; there
can be no doubt but such a government is very well adapted to promote the
happiness of a nation.
XLIII. The most difficult point in these governments is to temper them
in such a manner, that, while the people are assured of their liberty, by
giving them some share in the government, these assurances shall not be carried
too far, so as to make the government approach too near to Democracy; for the
preceding reflections sufficiently evince the inconveniences, which would
result from this step.
XLIV. Let us therefore conclude, from this Inquiry into the different
forms of government, that the best are either a limited Monarchy, or an
Aristocracy tempered with Democracy, by Some privileges in favour of the body
of the people.
XLV. It is true there are always some deductions to be made from the
advantages, which we have ascribed to those governments; but this is owing to
the infirmity of human nature, and not to the establishments. The constitution
above described is the most perfect, that can be imagined; and, if we
adulterate it by our vices and follies, this is the fate of all sublunary
affairs; and since a choice must be made, the best is that, attended with the
XL VI. In a word, should it still be asked, which government is best? I
would answer, that every species of government is not equally proper for every
nation; and that, in this point, we must have a regard to the humor and
character of the people, and to the extent of the country.
XLVII. Great states can hardly admit of republican governments; hence a
monarchy, wisely limited, suits them better. But as to states of an ordinary
extent, the most advantageous government for them is an elective aristocracy,
tempered with some privileges in favor of the body of the people.
1. See part i. chap. viii section 26, &c.
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