A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws"

Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de
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Thomas Jefferson, trans.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: William Duane
Pub. Date
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Book XIV

Of Laws in Relation to Climate.

Book XV

The Manner in which the Laws of Civil Slavery Relate to the Climate.

Book XVI

How the Laws of Domestic Slavery Relate to the Climate.


How the Laws of Political Servitude Relate to the Climate.


Certain climates have different inconveniencies for man: institutions and habits may remedy them to a certain point: good laws are those which effect this end.
Spirit of Laws, Book XIV.


I have united these four chapters, because they relate to the same subject, which will occupy very little time, for I cannot perceive much instruction to be derived from them, and the subject offers no important question for discussion; I shall, therefore, confine myself to a small number of reflections.


In the first place I shall observe, that to form a just idea of climate, we must understand by this word, the aggregate of all the circumstances which form the physical constitution of a country: now this is not what Montesquieu has done; he appears to consider nothing else than the degree of latitude and the degree of heat: but it is not in these facts alone, that the difference of climate consists.


In the next place I must remark, that if there be no doubt that the climate has a great influence over every living creature.... even over our vegetables, and consequently on man, it is nevertheless true, that it has less effect on man than any other animal; the proof is, that man not only inhabits every climate, but can accommodate himself to them all, in all positions, and under all circumstances; the reason whereof is to be found in the extent of his intellectual faculties, which, by exciting in him other wants, render him less dependant on those purely physical, and in the multitude of arts by which he contrives to provide for these different necessities; to which must be added, that the more variously and actively his faculties are employed, the more are these arts multiplied and improved. In other words, the more man becomes civilized, the less is the influence of climate upon him. I believe, therefore, that Montesquieu has not perceived all the causes of the influence of climate, and that he has exaggerated its effects: I may even venture to say, that he has endeavored to prove it by many doubtful anecdotes, and false or frivolous narratives, some of which are even very ridiculous.


After these preliminaries, he considers the influence of climate, as a cause of the use of slaves, which he denominates civil slavery.... and the slavery of women, he calls domestic slavery.... and to the oppression of the citizens, he gives the title of political servitude; these are in effect, three particulars very important in considering the state of society.


But after having first very energetically represented the use of slaves, as an abominable, iniquitous, and atrocious thing, which corrupts the oppressor more than the oppressed, and for whom it is impossible to form any reasonable laws, he himself acknowleges that no climate requires, nor absolutely could require, such excess of deprivation; and that in fact slavery has existed in the frozen marshes of Germany, and may be dispensed with in the Torrid Zone: it must not then be attributed to climate, but to the ferocity and stupidity of mete.


Secondly, in respect to political servitude, we see people subjected to it in the extreme, in those nations of Italy, and Greece, and Africa, where the people were of old very free, or at least, very fond of freedom, though they knew not well of what it consisted, nor how to secure it; it is, therefore, more the state of society than the climate, which determines these things.


In respect to women, it is too true that the misfortune of being marriageable when almost in a state of childhood, and to be in a state of decline on the verge of youth, must prevent them in general, from having many good qualities of head and heart; and that consequently, they easily become the playthings and victims of man, and rarely their companions or friends. This is, without doubt, a very great obstacle to true morality, and true civilization; for if man becomes corrupted when he oppresses his fellow creature, he yet more extremely perverts his nature, when he reduces the object of his most lively desires to a state of servitude. The passion for sensuality being destructive of maturity, by prematurely preventing beings from becoming perfect, and while it lasts, putting reason itself astray, were great evils, and it cannot be denied that they exist in certain countries; though we should be cautious in believing all that Montesquieu says on this last point. But every thing reduced to its proper weight, what is the result? That there are circumstances of inconvenience attached to certain climates: keeping always in view, that the effects which we often see produced thereby, are far from being inevitable; that institutions and habits may very much correct them, and that reason always is, and should in every situation, be our guide. From all this, then, there is no other conclusion to be drawn, but to repeat, with Montesquieu, that bad legislators alone, favor the vices of climates, and the good seek every means do avert them. Let us then, pursue another subject.

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