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Ramgotra, Manjeet (2014) 'Republic and Empire in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws.' Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 42 (3). pp. 790-816.

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In The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu claims that commerce brings peace. His ideas on the separation and balance of powers and commerce form the cornerstones of liberal democratic theory. Yet it is often overlooked that they were conceived in the context of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Most scholars interpret his constitutional theory as promoting freedom against the absolutist French monarchy and most argue that he rejects imperialism and despotism in favour of international and democratic peace that advances trade relations between republics. By contrast, I present a new reading that interprets his theory in the light of commerce and colonialism. Montesquieu’s constitutional theory provides the conditions for the republic to pursue empire without collapsing. It further underlies the development of democratic institutions that incorporate a greater number of people and support a market economy, as the benefits of international trade transformed both global and domestic orders. Montesquieu ‘s ‘fundamental constitution’ establishes a strong central executive power and a distinct legislative power that incorporates the landed nobility and the upwardly mobile portion of the popular social classes on a hierarchical basis. Executive power mediates social conflict and facilitates expansion. This paper examines the institutions that constitute this expansive republic as well as Montesquieu’s arguments on climate, orientalism and commerce that justify eighteenth-century colonial empire. It is important to understand the elements of Montesquieu’s argument since these inform contemporary understandings of the standard civilization and the international order seen to be comprised of moderate democratic republics, developing states and immoderate despotic states.

Item Type: Journal Article
Keywords: civilisation, colonialism, commerce, empire, Montesquieu, republicanism
SOAS Departments & Centres: Legacy Departments > Faculty of Law and Social Sciences > Department of Politics and International Studies
Legacy Departments > Faculty of Law and Social Sciences > Department of Politics and International Studies > Centre for Comparative Political Thought
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JC Political theory
ISSN: 03058298
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 12 Aug 2014 13:55

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