Name: Marshall Davies Lloyd
Project Title: Polybius and the Founding Fathers:
the Separation of Powers
Semester of Project: Summer 1998
Date: March 6, 1998

Abstract Bibliography Home Info Notes Proposal


For my individual project, I propose to explore the influence of Polybius on the Founding Fathers’ inclusion of the doctrine of the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution--a doctrine often ascribed to the influences of Montesquieu, the 18th-century Frenchman. I wish to explore the question: to what extent the ancient concept of the mixed constitution (i.e., one which incorporates monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements within the same body politic) influenced the founders as well? Using ancient texts (Polybius, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero) I will first define what the ancient theories were, in order to lay the foundations of the concept. Then, using papers, letters, and published works, I will explore the degree to which several of the Founding Fathers themselves were aware of and influenced by Polybius’ theories. Finally, I will look at the work of Montesquieu, in order to determine the degree to which he himself relies on Polybius. For, if he does, even those who are directly influenced by Montesquieu are indirectly influenced by Polybius as well. The purpose of this research is to determine the extent to which the doctrine of separation of powers is based on classical models.

I will submit the completed paper, which I project will run from 40-50 pages, to Dr. Hatch by the 8th week of the summer session (1998). I have received approval from Dr. Hatch for the writing and the objectives of this project.



The separation of powers, the concept that the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government ought to be separate and distinct, is a central feature of the United States Constitution. Through this separation, each branch works according to its own authority, forming a check or balance against any and all abuses of power by the remaining two branches--as Madison declares, "no political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value" (Federalist Papers No. 47).

Most recognize Montesquieu as the author of this system of checks and balances. The Founding Fathers repeatedly cite his work The Spirit of the Laws as the authority on the subject. Nevertheless, I propose as my final project a paper maintaining that, while Montesquieu may have presented the framers of the Constitution with the most modern incarnation of that theory, he borrows too heavily from Polybius and the ancient theory of the mixed constitution1 to be credited accurately as its originator.

The proposed study will have three focuses. The first will define and trace the origins of the theory of mixed constitution through ancient works including: Book III of Plato’s Laws, Books IV and V of Aristotle’s Politics, and Book VI of Polybius’ Histories. Although not intended to be exhaustive, this survey should be thorough enough to provide both an understanding of the classical references made by the Founding Fathers and an appreciation of the antiquity of the principle of separation of powers.

Secondary sources for this section will include recent journal articles on Polybius’ constitutional theory and von Fritz’s The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity. The questions to answer here will be: Are the similarities between Polybius’ system and that of the former Colonists sufficient to consider them a continuation of the same political thought? Is there enough similarity between them to warrant further inquiry? In what way was the Roman political situation at the time of the adoption of their constitution similar to that of early Americans?

The mere fact that Polybius’ theories and the American system share similarities will not suffice to prove, more than circumstantially, that the Constitution is founded upon ancient theories. The second focus of this paper, therefore, will be to establish whether the Founding Fathers actually knew and read Polybius. The primary sources for this section include Ferrand’s compilation of The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Elliot’s The Debates in the Several State Conventions, and the letters and papers of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine. The limitation of the aforementioned list is based on the assumption that it is sufficiently representative of the Founding Fathers to make the case that they were well aware of Polybius. A preliminary review of these materials has uncovered numerous references by the Fathers to Polybius. Jefferson in particular ordered several copies of Polybius’ Histories from Europe, inquired about the best Italian translations of the work, and may have been disseminating copies to his friends. Both Madison and Hamilton quote Polybius in the Federalist Papers and during the discussions of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Questions for this section include: What was the availability of Polybius in Colonial America? Were the Founding Fathers conversant enough with the ancient historian for posterity to presume that they had read the passages pertaining to Polybius’ interpretation of the Roman Constitution as a system of checks and balances?

The third focus of this paper will deal directly with Montesquieu himself. The methodology here will take a path similar to that of the previous section. The researcher will study The Spirit of the Laws for references to Polybius, in order to establish a link between Montesquieu and the ancient historian. Secondary sources for this section will include Richter’s The Political Theory of Montesquieu and Hulliung’s Montesquieu and the Old Regime.

Preliminary research divulges that Montesquieu had not only read Polybius but even produced summaries of the ancient historian's work. The secondary material of this section reinforces both the fact that "more often than not, Montesquieu derived his inspiration from works of Aristotle, Polybius, or some other classical author" (Hulliung, 2), and that Charles I considered England a mixed government as early as 1642 (Richter, 87), some fifty years before Montesquieu was even born. The questions to answer here are: To what degree does Montesquieu’s system differ from that of Polybius? To what extent are they the same? If Montesquieu described the English as having a mixed constitution a full generation after Charles I had done so himself, can the former be considered the author of that system?

Upon reviewing the materials outlined above and researching new ones, the conclusion of the paper will try to come to terms with why the Founding Fathers cite Montesquieu and not Polybius as their source. Was there some advantage in citing Montesquieu and not Polybius as the source for the doctrine of the separation of powers? The conclusion will also summarize Polybius’ direct influence on the Founding Fathers (as evidenced by their readings, citations, and use of him as a source of exempla) and his indirect influence (through Montesquieu’s use of him).

I believe I am ready to study this topic. Several of my MALS courses were on classical themes under Drs. Hatch, Boughner, and Kemp. I have an M.A. in Classics from the University of Georgia (my thesis was on the political context of Cicero’s poetry), so I will be able to read the Latin and Greek authors in the original. I have had over 8 years of French and Italian, so I will be able to make my way through the Montesquieu and the Machiavelli. My undergraduate minor at William and Mary was in Political Philosophy and I have continued to study the Colonial period while researching the genealogy of the Livingston and Ten Broeck family in New York. Professor Hatch has agreed to be my primary reader while Professor Bourdon has agreed to be a secondary reader.

I selected this topic because it fits in well with my course of studies at Mary Washington College. I took Roman Philosophical Thought with Dr. Boughner, studied Herodotus with Dr. Hatch, and read Homer with Drs. Hatch and Kemp. MALS 511-512 also struck me with the importance of classical influence in the modern age. While it may appear obvious to others, this was a new consideration for me. I had always studied classics for its own sake. Anything not ancient was irrelevant. I knew, in general terms, the classical world was significant to modern times but I did not appreciate how much until I began the MALS program. This project proposal reflects the culmination of a variety of interests brought about by my studies at Mary Washington College. Throughout my coursework (especially in the colloquia) I have been struck by the importance of interdisciplinary studies and that a solitary approach often is a myopic one. This project will allow me to merge a variety of interests: the Founding Fathers, American political philosophy, the Constitution, French literature, and ancient political philosophy.

I am currently in my final course for the MALS program, so I will be completing this project this summer (1998). As a teacher, I will have most of the summer off. This will allow me to work on the project full time. I will enroll in MALS 590 for the summer (1998). I propose to work on each of the three sections of the paper over a two-week period. I will submit a draft of each of the three to Dr. Hatch as I finish it. This will allow me to work with her on the submitted work (revising and editing) while I continue to work on the next section. I will subequently turn in a draft of the complete work to Dr. Hatch by the seventh week, allowing her time to make additional suggestions. I will submit for final approval in the eighth week of the summer term. I project the length to be roughly 40-50 pages.

Project was approved by the MALS committee 04/07/98

1The ancients identify three simple forms of constitution based on the number of the ruling body: monarchy (rule by the one), aristocracy or oligarchy (rule by the few), and democracy (rule by the many). Polybius stated that each of these constitutions is inherently unstable. For monarchy degenerates into aristocracy, aristocracy into democracy, and democracy into tyranny (only another form of monarchy). Thus the state comes full circle, a cycle Polybius called anakyclosis politeion. In a mixed constitution, Polybius notes, the state adopts aspects of all three contstitutions at once. Three separate branches of a single government take on the qualities of a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. Each branch then is empowered to balance the weakness and check the strengths of the other two branches, thereby avoiding the perpetual instability of anakyclosis. Aristotle divides these branches into the Executive, the Deliberative, and the Judicial.




Adams, John. The Familiar Letters of John Adams and his Wife Abigail Adams. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876.

Contains a letter from Abigail, mentioning Polybius.

________. The Works of John Adams. Edited by C. F. Adams. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851.

Contains Adam’s A Defense of the Constitutions, a chapter of which summarizes Polybius’ constitutional theories.

Aristotle. Politics. Translation by H. Rackham. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944; reprint, 1990.

Contains Aristotle’s view on mikte or mixed constitution.

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Translation by R. D. Hicks. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925; revised 1931; reprint, 1995.

Attests to the centrality of mikte to stoic philosophy.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The Roman Antiquities. Translation by E. Cary. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1943.

Praises the virtues of mikte or mixed constitution.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by B. B. Oberg. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Franklin is sent a false fragment of Polybius by a friend.

__________. The Works of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Jared Sparks. Boston: Hilliard Gray and Company, 1839.

Contains the text of a false fragment of Polybius.

Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Translation by A. D. Godley. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920; reprint, 1990.

Earliest listing of the three simple forms of constitution: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

Harrington, James. The Political Works of James Harrington. Edited with an Introduction by J. G. A. Pocock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

English political scientist writes on separation of powers before Montesquieu.

Hamilton, Alexander. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Edited by H. C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Shows tremendous expertise in ancient political philosophy. Mentions Polybius.

__________, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Edited with an Introduction by Clinton Rossiter. New York: Mentor, 1961.

References Montesquieu directly, citing him as the "oracle" of separation of powers.

Hunt, G. and J. B. Scott, ed. Index to the Debates in the Federal Convention. New York: 1920.

Useful in ferreting out classical references during the debates.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Charles T. Cullen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Shows Jefferson actively seeking out multiple editions of Polybius and disseminating them to his friends.

Madison, James. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Introduction by Adrienne Kock. New York: W. W. Norton: 1969; reprint, 1987.

More source material on the Federal Convention.

__________. The Papers of James Madison. Edited by W. T. Hutchinson and W. M. E. Rachal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Cites Polybius in the Federalist Papers.

Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat Baron de. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated by Thomas Nugent. With an Introduction by Franz Neumann. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1949; reprint, 1959.

The man himself cites Polybius in the midst of discussing separation of powers.

Plato. The Laws. Vol. 1. Translation by R. G. Bury. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926; reprint, 1984.

Praises the virtues of mikte or mixed constitution.

Polybius. The Histories of Polybius. Vol. 3. Translation by W. R. Paton. The Loeb Classical Library. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928.

Lays out the three simple forms of government. Ascribes Rome’s success to the strength of its constitution--specifically, the balance of powers.

Sowersby, E. Millicent, ed. Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson. Washington: Library of Congress, 1953.

Shows numerous volumes of Polybius in Jefferson’s library.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translation by C. F. Smith. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935.

Describes the efficacy of the mixture of elements in a government.

United States. Constitutional Convention (1787). The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Edited by Max Farrand. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911; reprint, 1937, 1966.

Shows multiple classical allusions, including Polybius. Same for the following two.

_____. State Conventions. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Compiled by Jonathan Elliot. Philadelphia: 1861.

_____. The Federalist and Other Constitutional Papers. Edited by E. H. Scott. Chicago: 1894.


Adair, Douglas. "A Note on Certain of Hamilton’s Pseudonyms." William and Mary Quarterly 12 (1955): 282-97.

Attests to Hamilton’s use of the classics.

Ames, R. A. and Henry C. Montgomery. "The Influence of Rome on the American Constitution." Classical Journal 30 (Oct. 1934): 19-27.

Points directly to Rome and the Roman Constitution as a model for the American Constitution.

Bailyn, Bernard. Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Points to several classical sources, including Polybius. Same for next two.

__________. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

__________. The Origins of American Politics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.

Bartholomey, Paul C. "Checks and Balances." Article in Encyclopedia Americana. Danbury, Connecticut: 1989.

Credits Montesquieu as the innovator over the so-called "antiquated" forms (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy).

Boas, George. "Cycles." Article in Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968; reprint, 1973.

Describes Polybian anacyclosis.

Brink, C. O. and F. W. Walbank. "The Construction of the Sixth Book of Polybius." CQ n.s.4 (1954): 97-122.

Analyses Book VI, which contains Polybius’ analysis of the Roman Constitution.

Bryce, James. American Commonwealth. New York: Macmillan Company, 1911.

Refers to Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws as the oracle of political philosophy for the Founding Fathers.

Carey, George W. "Government." Article in Encyclopedia Americana. Danbury, Connecticut: 1989.

More accurately than the above notes Montesquieu’s influence here but cites that the theories have their roots in antiquity.

Carrithers, David W. "Montesquieu, Jefferson and the Fundamentals of 18th-Century Republican Theory." The French-American Review 6 (Fall 1982): 160-88.

While noting Montesquieu’s influence on Jefferson, also cites classical authorities.

Chinard, Gilbert. Honest John Adams. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1964; reprint, 1976.

All three of Chinard’s works firmly join the classical and the colonial world of political thought.

__________. "Polybius and the American Constitution." In The American Enlightenment, ed. Frank Shuffelton, 217-37. Library of the History of Ideas. New York: University of Rochester Press, 1993.

__________. "Thomas Jefferson as a Classical Scholar." American Scholar 1 (April, 1932): 133-43.

Cohler, Anne M. Montesquieu, Comparative Politics, and the Spirit of American Constitutionalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.

Provides good background for understanding Montesquieu’s influence.

Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South 1585-1763. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1978.

Good evidence for the availability of Polybius.

Duff, Mountstuart E. Grant. "Presidential Address" (1897). Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, New Series, 11 (1897): 1-17. Quoted in "Polybius." Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.

Bemoans the loss of understanding of America’s indebtedness to the ancient world, and especially to Polybius.

Friedrich, Carl Joachim. "Separation of Powers." Article in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970.

Gives broad treatment of the political concept.

__________. "Constitutions and Constitutionalism." Article in International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills. New York: Macmillan Company: 1968.

Mentions Polybius.

Fritz, Kurt von. The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity. Roman History, ed. T. James Luce, Jr. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Excellent survey of the theory in antiquity.

Govan, Thomas P. "Alexander Hamilton and Julius Caesar: A Note on the Use of Historical Evidence." William and Mary Quarterly 32 (1975): 475-80.

Further article on Alexander’s identification with the classical world.

Gummere, Richard M. "The Classical Ancestry of the Constitution." Chap. in The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Gummere’s articles provide strong connections between the classical and colonial world. His article on the Constitution shows strong reliance on ancient principles.

__________. "Church, State and Classics: The Cotton-Williams Debate." CJ 54 (Jan. 1959): 223-32.

__________. "The Heritage of the Classics in Colonial North America: An Essay on the Greco-Roman Tradition." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 99 (April 1955): 68-78.

__________. "John Adams, Togatus." Philological Quarterly 19 (April 1934): 203-10.

__________. "John Dickinson, the Classical Penman of the Revolution." CJ 52 (Nov. 1956): 81-87.

__________. "Some Classical Side Lights on Colonial Education." CJ 55 (Feb. 1960): 223-32.

Gwyn, W. B. The Meaning of the Separation of Powers. Tulane Studies in Political Science, no. 9. New Orleans: Tulane, 1965.

Non vidi. Discusses the seventeenth-century origins of separation of power and its blurring with the concept of mixed government.

Hulliung, Mark. Montesquieu and the Old Regime. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Admits Montesquieu gets his ideas from the classical world and Polybius "more often than not."

Hutchison, David. The Foundations of the Constitution. With an Introduction by Ferdinand Lundberg. Secaucus, New Jersey: 1975.

Work on the general source materials for the Constitution.

Levin, Lawrence M. The Political Doctrine of Montesquieu’s Esprit des Lois: Its Classical Background. New York: Publications of the Institute of French Studies, Columbia University, 1936; reprint, 1973.

Affirms that Montesquieu relied on classical models for the formation of his political doctrines.

Mayer, David N. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

More evidence of the classical influences on Jefferson.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: the Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

States from page 1 that the Founding Fathers were familiar with Polybius.

Mendle, Michael. Dangerous Positions: Mixed Government, the Estates of the Realm, and the Making of the Answer to the XIX Propositions. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

References the Proposition of Charles I, in which he refers to the English Constitution as mixed (half a century before Montesquieu’s birth).

Miles, Edwin A. "The Young American Nation and the Classical World." In The American Enlightenment, ed. Frank Shuffelton, 237-53. Library of the History of Ideas. New York: University of Rochester Press, 1993.

Chronicles the classical nature of American education in the colonial period.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Polybius’s Reappearance in Western Europe." Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, 79-98. Wesleyan University Press, 1977.

Delineates the textural history Polybius and his re-introduction after much neglect.

Mullet, Charles F. "Classical Influences on the American Revolution." Classical Journal 35 (Nov. 1939): 92-104.

More on classical training in colonial times.

Padover, Saul K., ed. The World of the Founding Fathers: Their Basic Ideas on Freedom and Self-Government. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1960.

Attests to the influence of Polybius.

Persons, Stow. "The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth-Century America." American Quarterly 6 (Summer 1954), 147-63.

Draws on principles of Polybius and the cycles of anacyclosis.

Podes, Stephan. "Polybius and His Theory of Anacyclosis: Problems of Not Just Ancient Political Theory." History of Political Thought 12 (1991): 577-87.

Rahe, Paul A. Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

More on classical influences in colonial times.

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Harvard: The Harvard University Press, 1995.

Contains a chapter on "The Classical Conditioning of the Founding Fathers" and another on "Mixed Government and Classical Pastoralism."

Richter, Melvin. The Political Theory of Montesquieu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Contains the text for the proposition of Charles I.

Robatham, Dorothy M. "John Adams and the Classics." New England Quarterly 19 (Mar. 1946): 91-98.

Influences on John Adams’ work.

Ryffel, Heinrich. Metabole politeion: der Wandel der Staatsverfassungen. Bern: 1949; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1973.

An article on Polybian anacyclosis.

Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: a Critical Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Reveals Montesquieu read Polybius and made extracts of his work.

__________. "Montesquieu, Bolingbroke, and the Separation of Powers." French Studies: a Quarterly Review 3 (1949): 25-38.

Affirms separation of powers was an ancient concept which Montesquieu brought up to date.

Spurlin, Paul Merrill. Montesquieu in America: 1760-1801. New York: Octagon Books, 1969.

Montesquieu’s influence in America and on American political theory.

Taylor, Hannis. The Origin and Growth of the English Constitution. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889.

Credits Montesquieu as the oracles consulted on balance of power.

Taylor, Thomas Marris. A Constitutional and Political History of Rome: From the Earliest Times to the Reign of Domitian. London: Methuen and Company, 1899.

Background material on the foundations of the Roman Constitution.

Walbank, F. W. A Historical Commentary on Polybius. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.

Walbank is the authority on Polybius. His commentary provides several notes on mixed constitution.

__________. Polybius. Sather Classical Lectures. Vol. 42. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972; paperback 1990.

__________. "Polybius and the Roman State." GRBS 5 (1964): 239-60.

__________. "Polybius on the Roman Constitution." CQ 37 (1943): 73-89.

Walsh, Correa Moylan. The Political Science of John Adams: a Study in the Theory of Mixed Government and the Bicameral System. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915.

Highlights the primary role of Polybius on Adam’s work in mixed constitution.

Weston, Corinne Comstock. English Constitutional Theory and the House of Lords, 1556-1832. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

Gives the history of the mixed constitution in England.

Wood, Neal. "Essentials of the Mixed Constitution." Chap. in Cicero’s Social and Political Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Cicero’s endorsement of the mixed government as best.

Wright, Benjamin F. "The Origins of the Separation of Powers in America." Economica 13 (May 1933): 169-185.

Notes several points on which the Founding Fathers did not follow Montesquieu’s lead, and that Adams found more to comment on in Polybius than the Frenchman.

Wright, Louis B. "Thomas Jefferson and the Classics." Proceedings of the American Philological Society 87 (1944): 223-33.

More on Jefferson’s indebtedness to the classical world.

Copyright © 1998 by Marshall Davies Lloyd.