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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Of Laws in Relation to the Nature of the Soil.


The progress of wealth and civilization, multiplying the chances of inequality among men.... inequality is the cause of servitude, and the source of all the evils and vices of human society.
Spirit of Laws, Book XVIII.


So unconnected are the nature of the soil, the long hair of Clodion, and the debauchery of Childeric, with each other, that it is difficult to discover the chain of thought which could have conducted our author from one of these topics to the other: and it is yet more difficult to say precisely what is the subject of this book.


We, in the first instance, meet with a confirmation of the propriety of the reproach which I have ventured to utter against Montesquieu in the eleventh book, for not having clearly defined the sense of the word liberty. In this book, chap. 2, he expresses himself thus.... the liberty they enjoy, that is to say.... the government they are under. It must be acknowleged that it would be a very singular kind of liberty, if the government should be oppressive, as governments generally are.


Then he says, chap. 4, the sterility of the soil renders men courageous and fit for war, while fertility induces a certain love of life: and in chap. 1, to prove that this same sterility disposes the mind for independence, he says.... the sterility of the soil of Attica established a popular government there, and the fertility of Lacedemon an aristocratical government; for at that time in Greece the government of a single person would not be permitted. It follows from these principles, and the reasonings by which they are upheld, that the Spartans were neither possessed of courage nor love of liberty: this is somewhat difficult to believe.


If then it be true, as Montesquieu says, that the government of a single person is oftener to be found in fertile countries, and the government of many in those which are not so, which is sometimes a compensation.... these are his words.... we must look for a better reason than the soil: I believe it is not difficult to be found.


Fertility of soil does not deprive man of either strength or courage, nor of the love of liberty; but it furnishes him with more means of providing for his wants. Men multiply, and being more numerous, are more easily enlightened, and more wealthy.... thus far we see only advantages; but see the inconveniencies.... having more means of acquiring knowlege and wealth, it is evident that some succeed less and others more, and that the greatest inequality of fortune and talents is established among them: now inequality, under whatever form it presents itself, is the great evil of mankind: inequality leads to the spirit of servility, to many other vices, and to a pernicious employment of accumulated riches, as we have seen in chap. 7, speaking of luxury.


This I believe is the true explanation of the general slavery, not of rich people, but of people among whom there are great riches. This distinction is very essential, for it may be remarked, that the people in general are more rich in nations called poor, than in those called rich; and when we are told of a nation enervated by luxury and riches, we must always understand that nine hundred and ninety-nine parts of the people of such a nation are languishing in penury and debased by misery: so that when mention is made of effeminacy and corruption, inequality is to be understood thereby; and thus the key will be had to all the consequences that follow.


These considerations do not explain why poor, ignorant, and agricultural nations are free; for they are really not so. We have seen in the eleventh book, that in order to establish true political liberty, and to secure it, information and means which these people are not possessed of are essential; and that perhaps it was even impossible firmly to establish liberty any where, before the invention of printing, which renders communication among the members of society easy: but it explains why such people are fond of liberty, why they seek it, and are possessed of the spirit of independence. The reason is, that these agricultural people having few means, and these the means of mediocrity equally distributed among them, they are not habituated to inequality. They are rather independent than free, so long as a greater foreign power does not subject them, which usually happens when there is any inducement to do so; or so long as superstition under the name of religion, which is a great cause of inequality in the hands of rogues and hypocrites, does not enslave them.... which too often happens.


Such, in general, is the case of the inhabitants of mountainous countries, who are not more brave than others, notwithstanding preposterous accounts of them; nor do their mountains so well defend them, whatever writers little conversant in military affairs may say; but poverty is their characteristic generally.


In this is contained an explanation of the effects attributed with reason by Montesquieu to the use or money, which no doubt favors inequality, and facilitates the partial accumulation of riches; but there is no nation in any degree improved, in which money is not to be found in use, so that all those who have not money may be ranked among the very poor and most uncivilized nations.


As it respects the inhabitants of islands, we have sufficiently explained in the eighth book, the principal cause which favors their liberty and prevents their losing their attachment to it. It is of a different kind, and takes place in all the degrees of civilization, which is, the advantage of not being obliged to maintain a large military force in constant readiness.


The simplicity of laws, another advantage of a people whose industry is yet in an unimproved state, we have already noticed in the sixth book, and shall not therefore say any thing further upon it here; I shall in like manner, pay no attention to the rights of nations, such as the Tartars.... to the Salic law.... the kings of the Franks, &c. There is little useful knowlege to be derived from the examination of such subjects.


Such are nearly all the topics of which Montesquieu has treated in this book; indeed it was not precisely of the fertility of the soil which he intended to speak, for that is not the sole source of wealth; industry and commerce at least contribute thereto as much; it is the effects of riches and civilization which our author treats of, without perhaps clearly conceiving it. By thus generalizing the question, it becomes better determined. From the observations they give rise to, the following principles may be considered as established relative to the spirit of laws. The more improved society becomes, the more the means of enjoyment and power encreases among men, but the chances of inequality are also more multiplied among them: and in all degrees of civilization the laws should tend to diminish inequality as much as possible; for it is fatal to liberty, and is the source of all our evils and vices: every evidence of experience and reasoning proves this great principle, and every thing has that tendency.

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