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
25 of 32


Of Laws in Relation to Population


Population is stopt among savages, by want of the abundant means of subsistence.... among civilized people, by a pernicious distribution of the means possessed. In every place where there is sufficiency, liberty, equality, and correct information, population encreases: still it is not the encrease of mankind that is so desirable as their happiness.
Spirit of Laws, Book XXIII.


If we are astonished on seeing a chapter of politics commencing with a translation, and even one that cannot be considered the best, of a part of Lucretius, we are still more surprised on a perusal of the matter of which the book is composed; the book is cited without discussion, and even without approbation.... on the means of augmenting or diminishing the number of citizens in a state.... on the rights of fathers over the lives of their children, and over their marriage.... of the interference of government in all these concerns, &c. It is impossible to follow ideas so promiscuous as these, with minuteness; we shall, therefore, commence with some ideas more general, and then endeavor to investigate more closely, the nature of the human character; because it is in relation to man that the social art should at all times regulate and model its conceptions and institutions. Every animated being is inclined to re-produce itself by the most irresistible of all inclinations. A man and woman, arrived at the age of maturity, well formed, and possessed of all the means of providing for their subsistence, may, during the time that they are constitutionally tempered for propagation, have more than two, more than four, even more than six children; so that when we suppose, that according to the course of nature, the half, or even two thirds of these children, perish before they are enabled to propagate their species; suppositions certainly much exaggerated.... the man and woman in question, will then, before their death, have a posterity more than sufficient to replace them, and the population must always encrease. But if we see population stationary, and this among savage people, and almost stationary among more numerous but ancient and civilized nations, we should enquire into the cause. Among savages, without doubt, the reason is, that great scarcity, unforeseen accidents, intemperance, and epidemics, often destroy a part of the adults, and alter the sources of production for the remainder; and that privations, want, and the impossibility of assuring necessary care in particular circumstances, the want of intelligence, and of affection, occasion the greatest part of the children who are born to die in infancy.


In respect to civilized nations, though the improvement of industry, the encrease of means, the multiplication of resources, have permitted population to encrease more rapidly; the progress is checked as soon as the advantages of civilization are unequally distributed. A small number of men in those ancient nations, who form a portion of the privileged classes, make away with the subsistence of a great multitude. However they are enervated by excess, by indolence, by intellectual labor, by the passions; whether the effect be produced by physical or moral causes, or their nature changes under their circumstances, they do not proportionably multiply. In the mean time, the men and women of the poor classes, from whom a considerable part of the fruits of their daily labor is taken, are weakened by excessive fatigue, they languish in penury, and become prematurely old; yet they have a great many children, but they are feeble, and they cannot know how to take care of them when in health, nor succor them in sickness; a prodigious number of them perishes; as these unfortunate people are the most numerous in all old nations, their distress considerably increases the bills of mortality; and I am persuaded that this is the phenomenon which has occasioned the discovery to be made in Europe, that about one half of the number of children die before the age of seven years; whatever it may be, certain it is that among savage people there exists as many men as their unimproved state can defend against all the chances of death, and that is but little. Civilized people, on the contrary, have more powerful means; they are more numerous on a like extent of territory; but not as numerous as they might be: among them men exist only in proportion as the government, the grandees or nobility, the rich, and in general all the idle, leave means of subsistence to the laborious and poor classes, who produce more than they consume. When government becomes more mild and less rapacious, as soon as it reforms some abuses, as soon as it prevents some oppressions; in short, as soon as the idle classes are under the necessity of paying the industrious a reasonable recompense for their labor, we immediately see population encrease almost suddenly. This is so true, that in the United States of America, where we have the advantages of civilization without its inconveniencies; where the people are intelligent and their faculties untrammelled by absurd institutions or establishments, their labor is very productive, and they enjoy the fruits of it; they are neither burthened with tithes nor glebe rents, for generally the ground that is cultivated is the property of the cultivator; neither have they burdensome taxes, nor the still greater burthen of idleness and ignorance, the usual attendants and consequences of social misery and oppressive institutions or usages; therefore the population doubles in every twenty years, and whatever may be said of emigration, the addition is too small to be taken into any account of the proportion of encrease: we may even on the contrary observe, that whatever the cause may be, we have very few old men, few remarkable examples of longevity, so that the mean duration of the life of man is shorter among us than in Europe, if in Europe the prodigious number of children who perish did not diminish the mean rate. It is very certain that when we shall have no more cultivated lands to settle, men will then incommode each other a little more, and this progression may diminish; but so long as every man exercises his faculties with equal freedom and intelligence, and reaps the fruit of his own usefulness, there can scarcely be a family that will not leave after it more children than are necessary to replace it. In general it may be said, that in our species, natural fecundity being very great, it encreases as individuals better their condition; and there will always exist men in a country, in proportion to their knowlege of the means and power of procuring subsistence. Yet though this maxim be strictly true, we should not understand by means of subsistence, provisions or food alone, but all the knowlege, all the resources, and all the succors by which we may preserve ourselves against the miseries and misfortunes which our nature is liable to. So much for what concerns the possibility of population. By this manner of considering the subject, we already clearly perceive the means by which it may be augmented, that these principally consist of sufficient subsistence, liberty, equality, and liberal information: and all the regulations of an Augustus, or a Louis XIV. on marriages, are miserable and ridiculous expedients.


We shall now consider this subject under another point of view. Is the encrease of men so much to be desired in a country, as that of rabbits in a warren? None of our politicians have imagined that there can be any doubt thereof, and no despot has hesitated to give an answer. One of the ablest men that reigned, Frederick the second, has sullied one of his letters to Voltaire, with the following sentence: "I look upon (men) as a horde of stags in the park of a great lord, who have no other functions to fulfil than to stock the enclosure."*29 It is true, Voltaire severely reproached him for so barbarous an idea, and answered him by quoting another maxim from Milton.... "amongst unequals there's no society"....*30 a terrible truth for oppressors. Yet such were the sentiments of a king still young, who had passed his early years in adversity, and had not been longer than a year on the throne; and this king was one of the best that ever existed: we may judge of the rest by comparison. Upon this principle, the necessity of multiplying the game in the park is perceived; for the greater the number is, the more may be killed, and the more that may be killed, the more will be to be eaten! As for us, who have in view only the happiness of these poor animals, and not the true or false gratifications of royal or noble masters, it appears evident to us, that the principal object should be to render them happy, and not to encrease their numbers to an excess. We have seen, in speaking of commerce, that when twenty men labor without art or implements, they procure enjoyment as twenty, and each enjoys as one; and that when by working with some intelligence, they render it more productive, they may attain to procuring an hundred times more enjoyment, and each to enjoy an hundred times more, if they continue to be of the same number; but they will enjoy only each as ten, if during that period, they have become ten times more numerous. This is a simple calculation: it is however true, that when ten times more numerous, they perform ten times more labor, and that so their encrease is not detrimental to their means; or at least, their means are not more decreased than the amount of the sum employed in the education of their children, who compose the encreased number.... and this is not any evil, but a provision for future production and protection, unless when men have become so numerous as to incommode each other, and obstruct the exercise of each others faculties, in pursuits in which, with a less numerous population, they might employ themselves beneficially: nevertheless, it is certain, that the augmentation of the number of individuals, is a consequence of their happiness, which is the true end of society, and that their encrease is sometimes only a concommittant, and in unpropitious circumstances not to be desired. Moreover, if it should be made the principal object, the means we have indicated would yet be the only efficacious ones to produce this encrease, so much coveted and frustrated. All that is contrary to nature, which injures natural liberty, which chills or freezes up the feelings of the heart, which takes from every individual either the partial or the total use of his free dispositions and of his personal faculties, all those in a word, which require the violent exertion of power, in order to obtain an authority which no one would be willing to give to another over himself, cannot attain the object. For men are not passive machines, but sensible beings, and those feelings which are the cause of their sentiments, are the great springs of their lives, particularly those which are intimately constitutional. When I say that it is to be desired that the number of men should not encrease beyond a certain point, we must not conclude that a power can be given to any one to abridge the number of those in existence: no animated being once born, and capable of enjoyment and suffering, is, or ought to be, the property of any one; neither of his father nor of the state.... he belongs to himself alone: by his existence, he has the right of self preservation: to deprive him of his life, is a crime authorised by many legislators, against whom the theologians of those countries have not protested. On the other hand, to take measures in advance, to prevent animated beings from being born, when they could only have been unhappy and rendered their species so, is an act of prudence which some theologians have considered a crime; and barbarous legislators have been sufficiently ignorant to support their decisions, by the fear of punishments. Thus it is, that the affairs of the world are too frequently conducted: but this leads us naturally, to the subject of Montesquieu's two following books.

Notes for this chapter

Letter 24 August, 1741.
It is, in a word, placing out of the pale of law, all those who pretend to be above the common rule. The miserable, says Voltaire, and often the best men, flatter the powerful. It is true, that to encourage powerful men, Voltaire has often praised to excess the good they have done; but he has never applauded their bad actions nor their wicked sentiments; nor even their bad maxims: but he has frequently censured them very severely: could any of his vile slanderers justly boast of having done as much?


End of Notes

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