Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Influence of Continental Thinkers - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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The Influence of Continental Thinkers - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Influence of Continental Thinkers
It should come as no surprise that only a handful of contemporary European thinkers on the continent had much influence in the colonies. Most European states were governed by powerful monarchs who were strangers to constitutional government. Germany and Italy, divided into principalities, did not even exist as sovereign nations. Although the Europeans had experimented with confederation government, political power was almost everywhere centralized, and there was no tradition, as in the American colonies, of local self-government to serve as a model for building a modern federal system with two levels of government. The predominant view in Europe, as expressed by Jean Bodin in his De Republica (1576), was that national sovereignty could not be divided and was “unrestrained by laws.” The European legal system, based on the civil law of ancient Rome, but differing from one nation to the next because of the infusion of local customs and practices, differed substantially from Anglo-American common law. It was far less hospitable to the kinds of civil liberties that the English-speaking peoples had come to expect, and as we have already seen did not even allow for jury trials.
A few educated Americans were familiar with the works of some of the great international law jurists—Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Emmerich Vattel, Samuel Pufendorf, and Hugo Grotius—who wrote on the law of nations and had much to say about the meaning of justice and ethical practices in international relations; but probably the bulk of their influence in America came later, after the United States had become an independent country, adopted the Constitution, and entered into diplomatic relations with foreign governments.
There was considerable intellectual activity in France, which in the eighteenth century had become the center of radical political theory; but the Americans showed little interest, and when they did, as in the case of John Adams, they often expressed profound disagreement. Few American leaders embraced the wild and visionary doctrines of Jean Jacques Rousseau (the patron saint of French revolutionaries), or subscribed to the views of Helvetius, Turgot, or Condorcet. Holbach’s System of Nature (1773), an attack on religion and government anticipating in many respects the ideas of Karl Marx, seems to have had few if any followers in the American colonies. Many of the French works, in fact, had not been translated into English.
The single great exception was Charles Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), one of the most widely read and frequently cited authorities relied upon by the Americans in framing a new system of government. Montesquieu did not advocate utopian solutions to the problem of despotism in his age. He favored constitutional reform. His practical aim was to analyze the constitutional conditions upon which freedom depends, in the hope of restoring the ancient liberties of Frenchmen. The Spirit of the Laws provided a learned, though not always correct, analysis of governments of all ages and nations. Montesquieu admired the English Constitution in particular, and argued convincingly that the preservation of liberty required a separation of powers.
American constitution-makers were much attracted to his separation of powers doctrine but had difficulty applying it. It was based, in part, on an erroneous interpretation of the English Constitution, and Montesquieu’s treatment of the subject lacked clarity and precision. The separation of powers system that he advocated only vaguely acknowledged the need for an accompanying check and balance system, and there was some doubt whether the system could be implemented in America, because Montesquieu believed that a republican form of government could work only in a small territory. The Anti-Federalists were therefore critical of the proposed Constitution of 1787 because it departed from Montesquieu’s ideas. Ingenious at adapting Old World ideas to the American situation and revising them to suit their needs, the Framers argued on practical and theoretical grounds that Montesquieu’s principles, though basically sound, required some modification. The State constitutions written between 1776 and 1780, particularly the Massachusetts Constitution, showed that a system of checks and balances actually strengthened the separation of powers. Montesquieu’s assumption that only small territories were suited for republican government was brilliantly challenged by James Madison in Federalist No. 10. Montesquieu’s ideas, while serving as an inspiration and catalyst for constitutional change before the Revolution, thus lost some of their purity when the Framers got down to the business of putting them into practice.