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

Book III

Of the Principles of the Three Forms of Government.


Principles of the governments founded on the rights of man and reason.
Spirit of Laws, Book III.


With Helvetius, I think Montesquieu would have been more judicious had he entitled this book.... Consequences of the nature of governments: for what does he here propose but to enquire, what sentiments ought to animate the members of society, in order to ensure the existence of the government established; now this may, it is true, be called the conservative principle, but not the moving principle, which is always united with some species of magistracy exercising power and giving it impulsion. The cause of conservation in a commercial association, is interest, and the zeal of its members; but its principle of action is found in the agent or agents charged with conducting its concerns, whose skill and zeal excites its determinations and ultimately accounts for their success. It is the same with all societies, unless we should at once conclude that the general principles of action are interest and necessity, which indeed is true, but in so general a sense that it becomes trivial in each particular case.


Under every circumstance it is apparent, that those different sentiments which Montesquieu considers as the moving principles of each government, should be analogous to the nature of the government established, otherwise they must overturn it. But is it certain, as he says,.... that virtue is the principle of a republican government,.... honor that of a monarchy,.... fear that of despotism: are these characteristics sufficiently perspicuous and appropriate?


There can be no doubt that fear is the cause of despotism, because the most certain means of producing oppression is the exhibition of cowardice. But we have already remarked, that despotism is an abuse, from which no description of government is wholly exempt. Now if a reasonable man resolves often, or very often, to endure abuses, through a desire to shun worse consequences, he wishes to be determined in his conduct by reason and not by fear; besides that it is not to be supposed that any man will seek the means of perpetuating or increasing the abuses under which he suffers. Montesquieu himself says, that although the manner of obeying be different in these two governments (monarchy and despotism) the power is still the same; to whatever side the monarch inclines he destroys the equilibrium and is obeyed, all the difference is this, in the monarchy the prince is enlightened, the ministers possess more talents, and are better acquainted with the affairs of government, than in a despotism. But these are not two different kinds of governments, the one is only an abuse of the other, as we have already said; and in this sense a despotism is only a monarchy, with savage or brutal manners: we shall therefore say no more of despotism, or a government of fear.


With respect to honor accompanied by ambition, which is said to be the principle of monarchy; and virtue the supposed principle of a republic, which is transformed into moderation when the republic is aristocratic; will the descriptions stand the test of sound criticism? What is honor? Is there not a true honor, which covets applause for the good it produces alone, and requires only to be exempt from unjust reproach? Is there not a false honor which exhibits merely a glittering exterior, indifferent to vice, and entitled only to contempt? And what is ambition? Is there not also a generous ambition, which aspires only at promoting the good of equals, and is satisfied with its success and the gratitude which it produces? And is there not another sort of ambition, which thirsts after power for its pomp, and is alike indifferent to every means by which its ends can be accomplished? Is it not equally notorious, that moderation, according to the circumstances in which it is exhibited, or the motives by which it is dictated, is wisdom or weakness.... magnanimity or meanness.


Then what is this virtue which is applicable to republics alone? Can true virtue be any where out of its place? And has Montesquieu seriously dared to advance this as a truth! Vice or false virtue is as frequently found in a monarchy, as qualities really meritorious; but because he draws a frightful picture of courts, in Chap. V. is it certain that it must be desirable or inevitable that they should be so. I cannot assent to such an opinion.*3


In truth what Montesquieu has said on this subject, may be reduced to two points. First, in governments where there are, and must be from their form, distinct and rival classes, interests distinct from the general body of society may answer the purpose of accomplishing the ends of the association. Second, by supposing, that in what Montesquieu calls a monarchy, the authority maybe more compact and powerful than in what he calls a republic, it can without the same danger employ vicious persons, and profit by their talents without taking their motives into consideration; to which we may add with him, that on this account there must be a greater proportion of vice in the nation at large, than under a different order of things. This appears to me, all that is plausible in his opinion; to go beyond this would evidently be to err.


As, for reasons already given, we could not adopt the classification of governments laid down by Montesquieu, so we shall not follow him in the details arising out of the subject, but make use of that which we have adopted for the elucidation of our own ideas; beginning with the governments which we denominate national; that is to say, those which are founded on the maxim, that all rights and powers belong to and emanate from the people or body of the nation.


Among the various forms which this class of governments may assume, a simple democracy is almost impracticable. It can exist but for a short time, and among hordes of savages, or among nations but a little more civilized, in some insulated corner of the earth, where the bonds of society are not closer drawn than among savages. In every other circumstance, where the social relations are more intimate and multiform, it cannot exist for any considerable time, and soon ends in anarchy, which brings on aristocracy or tyranny through the necessity of repose. History in all times confirms this truth:*4 besides actual democracies can only exist in territories of small extent: we shall therefore say no more concerning them.


After this form of society, which is the infancy of a state, comes the representative democracy, that in which, according to forms expressed in an act or law freely deliberated, and agreed upon, and called a CONSTITUTION, all the associates called citizens, concur equally in choosing their representatives, define the authorities with which they are entrusted, and fix limits beyond which they must not trespass. This is democracy rendered practicable for a long time and over a great extent of territory. Simple democracy is the true state of nature; representative democracy is that of nature, in a perfect state, without having been sophisticated, and which acts neither by stratagems nor expedients. Representation, or representative government, may be considered as a new invention, unknown in Montesquieu's time; it was almost impossible to put it into practice before the invention of printing, which so much facilitates the communication between the constituents and the representative, and renders it so easy for the former to control, and the latter to account for his conduct; and above all, which averts those sudden storms, so often excited by the force of an impassioned and popular eloquence. It is by no means surprizing, that it should have remained undiscovered until about three hundred years after the discovery of that art which has changed the face of the universe: it was necessary that other great effects should have been produced, before such a conception could be matured.


It is evident that the principle of preservation, in this form of government, is love of country, and equality of rights, and if you will, the love of peace and justice.


The people, under such a government, would seem to be naturally more engaged in preserving and enjoying what they already possess, than solicitous of acquiring what was not necessary to their security or happiness; or at least, that they should resort to no other means of acquiring it than the exercise of their individual faculties; nor think of obtaining authority, or power, by the invasion of the rights of other individuals, or an improper appropriation of the public wealth; that from the principle of attachment to the rights which vest in then all, each citizen should feel and be affected by the injustice done to his neighbor by the public force, as a danger which menaced and concerned them all, and for which no personal favor could compensate. A people, under such a government, who should once overlook the wrongs of their fellow citizens, or prefer their individual advantages to the security of the rights of the whole, would soon be found willing to place the government itself in a situation to dispose of the public liberties according to its caprice, if there should appear a prospect of individual benefit accruing from the perfidy.


Simplicity, habits of industry, a comtempt for frivolity, the love of independence so inherent in every being endowed with a rational will, naturally dispose men to such sentiments. If these had been the definitions of republican virtue, given by Montesquieu, there would be no difficulty in assenting to his principle; but we shall see in the next book, that he makes this virtue to consist in voluntary privations, in self-denials. Now as no human being is so constituted by nature, it is impossible to found any general or even rational principles thereupon, because we cannot renounce our nature, but momentarily or through fanaticism: so that this principle requires of us a false and a fluctuating virtue.


That disposition to simplicity and independence which I have just described, is so conformable to our nature, that a little habit, sound sense, a few wise laws, the experience, of only a few years, which may shew that violence and intrigue are too often successful, will infallibly and necessarily excite it in us.


Let us now continue the examination of the different forms of government which we have denominated national, or of common right, in opposition to those which we have styled special, or of partial or exclusive rights.


When the primitive democracy, through the want of a well organized representative system, or through whatever cause, is unable to maintain itself, and submits to be converted into an aristocracy of some species, and thereby establishes a higher, or privileged class, and a lower, or common class, it is evident that.... the pride of the one, and the humility of the other.... the ignorance of these, and the knowlege of those.... ought to be considered as the principles of conservation in an aristocratical government, since the dispositions of mind in each class, are exactly adapted to preserve the established order of that form of government.


In like manner, when a democracy resolves to transform itself into a monarchy, by submitting to the authority of a single chief, either for life or in hereditary succession, it is obvious, that the pride of the monarch.... the exalted idea he entertains of his dignity.... his superiority over those who surround them.... the importance attached to the honor of approaching him; on the other hand, the haughtiness of the courtiers.... their devotedness.... their ambition.... even their superciliousness to the lower class; and added to all these circumstances, the servile or superstitious respect for all this artificial grandeur, and their eagerness to please those who are clothed with it;.... all these dispositions, I say, contribute to the maintenance of this form of government, and consequently, in such an order of society, must be deemed useful to the ends to which they appertain, whatever may be our opinion of them in a moral view, or whatever may be their effects on society at large.


It must be kept in view, that we only speak of the different forms of government which we have denominated national, and which are to be understood as professing that all rights and power are inherent in the body of the nation; now in these it is not necessary that all the different particular opinions favorable to the formation of an aristocracy or a monarchy, should be defined, and expressly established; it is sufficient that the general principle of respect for the rights of men, always predominates, without which predominancy the fundamental principle will soon be forgotten or disavowed, as almost universally has been the effect.


We shall now proceed to the examination of the governments which we have called special; that is to say, those in which various legitimate sources of particular or exclusive right are recognized, and which are acknowleged to exist, though inconsistent with general or national rights. It is evident that the different forms, to which this principle is applicable, admit of the same opinions and sentiments which we have pointed out as favorable to the analogous forms of national government; and even in these, such opinions and sentiments, instead of being subordinate to the principle of the rights of men, can and must be limited, only by the respect due to the different legitimate particular rights established: the general rights of men have no being here.


This is, I believe, all that can be said, on what Montesquieu calls the principles of the different governments. But to me it appears of much more moment to enquire into the nature and tendency of the opinions and sentiments which each kind of government forms and propagates, than to enquire into those which are necessary to the support of each. I have taken notice of them only in conformity with the order which Montesquieu has thought proper to follow, in his immortal work. The other description of enquiry is much more important to human happiness; and may probably be treated of in the sequel of this work. Let its now return to our model.

Notes for this chapter

The following are the expressions of the man so often quoted as the great partisan of monarchy.

"Ambition in idleness, meanness in pride, the desire of becoming rich without industry; aversion from truth; flattery, treason, perfidy; infidelity to engagements; contempt for the duties of a citizen, apprehension from virtue in the prince, and hope from his imbecility; above all, the invariable ridicule thrown upon virtue; constitute I believe the characteristics of the greater number of courtiers in all places and times: now it is very improbable that the greater part of the leaders of a state should be dishonest, and those under them honest; that those should be deceivers and these consent to be dupes.

"If among the people there should unfortunately be some honest man, Cardinal Richelieu, in his political testament, intimates that a monarch ought to be cautious of him; so certain it is that virtue is not the spring of this government."

After this it is not easy to conceive what kind of honor that is, which is the spring of action in monarchies.

Particularly the History of Greece. The democracies of Greece, so much boasted of, never existed by their own internal power, but through the protection of a confederation by which they were united; yet their duration was short; and besides, they were actually aristocracies in relation to the great mass of the population, and among them was a prodigious number of slaves who had no share in the government.

Book IV

End of Notes

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