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The “doctrine of the separation of powers” is by no means a simple and immediately recognizable, unambiguous set of concepts.On the contrary it represents an area of political thought in which there has been an extraordinary confusion in the definition and use of terms.
The revolutionary potentialities of the doctrine of the separation of powers in the hands of the opponents of aristocratic privilege and monarchical power were fully realized in America and France, and its viability as a theory of government was tested in those countries in a way which all too clearly revealed its weaknesses.
Their transmission through medieval writings, to provide the basis of the ideas of constitutionalism in England, enabled the doctrine of the separation of powers to emerge as an alternative, but closely related, formulation of the proper articulation of the parts of government.
Yet if we define the doctrine in the terms suggested below, it was in seventeenth-century England that it emerged for the first time as a coherent theory of government, explicitly set out, and urged as the “grand secret of liberty and good government.”1 In the upheaval of civil war the doctrine emerged as a response to the need for a new constitutional theory, when a system of government based upon a “mixture” of King, Lords, and Commons seemed no longer relevant.
Vile traces the history of the doctrine from its rise during the English Civil War, through its development in the eighteenth century - when it was indispensable to the founders of the American republic - through subsequent political thought and constitution-making in Britain, France, and the United States. In this new edition, appearing thirty years after the first, I have not attempted to revise the text of the original.
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. At the same time, although I could easily add more material, I do not believe that doing so would necessarily alter the broad outlines of the book, nor would it alter the argument it presents.To substantiate this view it will be necessary to attempt to define and use terms in a more precise way than has been generally the case in the past, and to review the evolution and history of the doctrine, important enough in itself, in order to understand its significance in the past and its relevance today.