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 XIX

Of Laws in Relation to the Principles which Form the General Dispositions, Morals, and Manners of a Nation.


For the best laws the mind should be prepared: wherefore, the legislative power should be exercised by delegates freely chosen for a limited period, from all parts of the territory.
Spirit of Laws, Book XIX.


There is a great deal of wit in this book of Montesquieu; the French character is rendered very amusing; the English character is very well drawn.... that is, to shew what it should be, and sometimes to produce a reason for what does not exist: but is not all this more dazzling than substantial, and mixed with assertions that are unfounded?


All errors should not be corrected: is this proposition questionable? Then mark why should they not. Why, for fear of committing errors still worse! But is it to be presumed, that vanity is a good resource for the support of a government and that by rendering the mind frivolous, commerce will be augmented? Surely, the most commercial nations are not the greatest triflers. Should it be established as a general maxim, that vices against morals are not vices in politics? I may venture to say it should not, if politics be the science of human happiness: if it be an art to deprave, only with a view to oppress, then I have no objection to the assumption: but such political principles as these shall not occupy my attention.


Can it be very singular then, as the author says, that a people like the Chinese, enslaved even by their manners, and continually occupied by the rules of ceremony, should be such great cheats? To explain so simple a fact, could it be possible for any one to affirm, that in China deception is tolerated. I may venture to say that deception is to be found every where; but that the laws never authorise any; no, not even in Lacedemon, notwithstanding their alleged allowance of robbery.


I may also affirm, that it is not the detestable manner of writing in China, that has established emulation among them, any more than industry or esteem for learning; it has, without doubt, contributed to make them respect rites and ceremonies, by rendering them incapable of learning any thing else; or in other words, it has assisted in subjecting, by debasing them. But if it be in this way the Chinese government triumphs, as our author says, it did not become him to extol this triumph; a philosopher should bestow his applause with more discrimination.


There is also a little want of reflexion in praising Rhadamanthus without some qualification, for deciding all disputes with celerity, by only taking the oath on each head. I believe we know very little, notwithstanding the authority of Plato, about the acts of Rhadamanthus; but we very well know, and we have seen in the sixth book, that laws are more likely to be simple in proportion as society is less improved, and interests less complicated. We are also assured, that the more incapable a people are of writing, the more requisite it becomes, to make use of testimonial proof, and affirmation on oath: ignorance then, should not always be taken for innocence, nor rusticity for virtue.


Another singular assertion is, that a free nation may have a deliverer; an enslaved one, can have only another oppressor. It must follow, that a nation once oppressed, can never cease to be so.... and it is yet more difficult to comprehend what is meant by a deliverer of a nation which is already free!


These absurdities do not prevent our author from discovering what is very true, when he says, that it is bad policy to attempt to change by laws, what should be changed by manners; and it is for this reason, that in the sixth book, where he holds a contrary opinion, I have disapproved of sumptuary laws. See also the seventh book.


Respecting the celebrated saying of Solon, to which the apologists of such institutions confessedly have always had recourse, I have said in the eleventh book to what value it ought to be reduced, and what ought to be thought of it; I have even explained how such institutions as are fundamentally bad, may possess some relative good; and why on the contrary, good laws have in certain cases been inadmissible; so that in this opinion I entirely agree with our author, that for the best laws it is necessary that the mind should be first prepared by cultivation. This principle appears to me excellent, and the only good one that is to be met with in this book; but I draw this conclusion from it, that it is necessary that the legislative power should be exercised by delegates freely elected for a limited term, and from all parts of the territory of a nation; for this is the best way of being assured that the laws are well accommodated to the general disposition of the nation.

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