The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

An essay on this question, which is the best form of government?

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 single person.”

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 legitimate government?

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 subjects miserable.

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 uncomfortable.

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 government.

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 stronger light.

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 slavery.

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.1

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 to find.

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 single person.

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 evils.

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 fewest inconveniences.

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, etc.