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 the Corruption of the Principle in Each of the Three Forms of Government.


The proper extent of a state, is where it possesses a sufficient power with the best possible limits; the sea is the best boundary of all.
Spirit of Laws, Book II.


No book of the Spirit of Laws more clearly proves the erroneous classification of governments, adopted by Montesquieu, than this; and how injurious the systematic use of it has been to the profoundness and extent of his ideas; for by attributing to each exclusively as its only principle, a sentiment which is more or less common to them all, he tortures from them a reason for every thing that is, done by or happens to them.


Indeed the first circumstance that strikes us in his eighth book is, that while he announces but three kinds of government, he commences by distinguishing four kinds in substance, materially different from each other; and he concludes by uniting two kinds under the denomination of republican, which have no manner of reference to the extent of territory.... which is the topic discussed.


Seeing then that no human institution is exempt from defects, are we to look to him to inform us which are the views inherent and peculiar to each of the social forms, and to instruct us in the means proper for amending them? Not at all! in consequence of his systematic arrangement, he is taken up with abstractions; governments are not yet noticed; their principles alone being taken into consideration; and what does he inform us concerning those principles?


The principles of democracy, he says, are corrupted not only when the spirit of equality is lost, but also when every one desires to be equal to the one that is entrusted with the public authority: the second idea in this sentence he explains by many examples and arguments, which, however true, have no relation to the democratic virtue which he has in another place characterised as the abnegation of ourselves, more than any other political principle: but is there any society that can subsist when every one commands and no one obeys?


He tells us that aristocracy is corrupted, when the power of the nobles becomes arbitrary, and when they do not observe the laws: undoubtedly these excesses are contrary to that moderation, which he elsewhere assumes, as the supposed principle of this government; but what government is there, whose principles would not be corrupted in principle and in fact, when it has become arbitrary, or when the laws are disregarded.


The article on monarchy is nearly the same, only in other terms: he says that the principle of monarchy is corrupted, when the prince destroys the prerogatives of bodies who enjoy certain rights, such as the privileges of towns or corporations; when he takes from one body their established functions, and transfers them arbitrarily to others; when he follows his inclinations more than the public interests; when he becomes cruel; when under his countenance, a person may at the same time be covered with infamy and invested with dignity: certainly such disorders are pernicious to society, but there is not one of them, excepting only the last, which has any direct reference to honor, and even that is as detestable and lamentable under every other form of government, as under a monarchy.


Of the despotic government he tells us.... other governments perish because particular accidents violate the principle thereof; this perishes by its internal vice, when some accidental cause does not prevent its principle from becoming corrupted; that is to say, that it cannot maintain itself, unless some circumstance compels it to follow some order, or to admit of some regulation. I believe this to be true: it is certain that the despotic government, any more than another, cannot subsist, if there be not some kind of order established; but it must be remarked, that it is rather preposterous to consider the corruption of fear, as an orderly establishment: and after all, I must yet ask what information we derive from all that is said in this book?


I may conclude, from the quotations which I have made, that little information is to be drawn from Montesquieu's reflections, on the manner in which, according to him, the three or four assumed principles of government are weakened or destroyed; I shall take no more notice thereof: but I must take the liberty of combating, or at least discussing, an assertion which is the result of all these ideas. He pretends that it is the natural property of small states to be governed by republics: those of a moderate extent to be subjected to a monarch: those of extensive regions to be ruled by a despot: that to preserve the principles of the established government, the extent of the state should not be changed; and that states change their spirit, as their territories are diminished or augmented: this last assertion, I think, is subject to many objections.


I shall in the first place, repeat an observation which I have already more than once made: the word republic, is here very equivocal. It is equally applicable to two governments possessing no similitude, excepting their being without a single chief, and which differ very essentially in relation to the object in question. It is true, that democracy can only exist in a small compass, or within a single town; and even strictly taken, it is impracticable every where for any length of time; as we have already said, it is the infant state of society: but for the aristocracy under several chiefs, to which he gives the name of republic, I can see nothing that prevents it from governing as great an extent of territory, as the aristocracy under a single chief, called monarchy; and the Roman republic is a sufficient evidence of its possibility.


I cannot conceive, how Montesquieu could have advanced, chapter XIX. that despotism.... that is pure monarchy, is necessary for ruling a great empire effectually, after having said previously, that this government exists only by renouncing its principles; which is a contradiction.


This authorises me again to repeat my assertion, that despotism, like democracy, is a, state of society yet unformed, and that these two defective orders of things, both impracticable for any considerable length of time, do not merit our attention. There remains then only aristocracy under several chiefs, and aristocracy under one, or monarchy, which both may equally take place in all states, from the smallest to the largest; with this difference, however, that the last, besides the expences and sacrifices, which the maintenance and prerogatives of the higher class or privileged bodies cost the nation, it is also required of the governed to defray the expences of a court, which is a necessary part of its establishment: so that really, in order to be competent thereto, the state should have a certain degree of extent, or at least of riches, honor, moderation, or any other fantastical idea adopted at random: to answer every question without rendering it any more comprehensible, is not the object to be taken here into consideration, but calculations and possibilities; a king could not subsist upon the income arising from a small number of men, not very industrious, and consequently not very rich: for as the amiable and profound Lafontaine says.... A king is not supported by a few. There is more philosophy and sound politics in these words than in many systems.


The representative government, with one or several chiefs, which I have always placed in opposition to aristocracy and its several forms, as being that form proper for a third degree of civilization, has, like it, the property of being applicable to all political societies from the smallest to the greatest. It even has the advantage in a greater degree, for by its nature it is less expensive to the governed, and to the support of administration it does not add sacrifices still more burthensome resulting from the privileges of some men; consequently it can subsist more easily in small states; beside joining the physical power of its executive, to the moral power of each of the members of the legislature, deriving their authority from every part of the state, it is better calculated to execute the laws over a vast extent of territory; consequently it can better maintain order in a large state. It only being required that the legislative power be not placed in opposition to the executive power, as it often happens in aristocracies under a single chief, that the privileged classes oppose their chief, and there are many means by which they can effect it: but this is not the subject of our present consideration.


This is, I believe, all that can be said on the extent of territory of a political society; considering it only in relation to the power of government, as Montesquieu has done; but it seems to me that this subject may be investigated under other points of view, overlooked by him, but which afford occasion for many useful observations.


First: in whatever manner a state be governed, it should have a certain extent: if it be very small, the citizens may assemble in a few days, and confer with each other, and bring about a revolution in a week; so that considering the versatility of the minds of men, and their great sensibility to present evil, it would never be secure from sudden changes, and could not calculate with certainty on the permanent enjoyment of liberty, tranquillity, or happiness.


A state should also be possessed of sufficient power: if too weak, it cannot enjoy a true and secure independence; it holds only a precarious existence, dependant on the jealousy of its more powerful neighbors, suffers from all their quarrels, or falls a victim to their reconciliation; their influence is exercised even in the state against its interests, and it often ends by being consolidated with its most powerful neighbor; or what is yet worse, of being left with the shadow of an existence, without possessing the real power of governing itself according to its best interests: it is governed by the policy and interests of its neighboring states; so that it is subject to be overthrown, not only by revolutions within itself, but by those which take place elsewhere.


Genoa, Venice, and all the small states of Italy, and all those of Germany, notwithstanding their confederacy; Geneva, though united in the Helvetic confederation, are so many proofs of these truths; Swisserland, and even Holland, possessed of greater power, are yet more striking examples. It was said, and believed too long, without due reflection, that the one was sufficiently defended by its mountains, the outer by its dykes, and both by the patriotism of their inhabitants. But what can such feeble obstacles, even united with zeal, without intellectual or pecuniary resources, accomplish against a nation possessed of both, or the power to bring them forth? Experience has proved, that their existence was to be attributed to the reciprocal deference of great neighboring states for each other; for they were invaded, as soon as one of the powers ceased to feel that deference. I know of no more humiliating or miserable condition, than that of the citizens of a feeble state.


On the contrary, the political body should not exceed certain proportions: it is not the too great extent of territory in itself, that appears an inconvenience. In the refinement of modern societies, relations are so much multiplied, communications so easy; printing particularly facilitates so much the promulgation of laws, the transmission of orders, instructions, and even opinions, and in return with the same ease, the reception of information on the state of affairs in all directions, the instant communication of intelligence, even of the capacities and interests of individuals, that it becomes no more difficult to govern a great nation than a small province, and the distance appears to me a very small obstacle, to the proper exercise of a necessary power or authority. I even think that great extent of territory, is an incalculable advantage, for neither internal troubles nor external aggression, can impede the political machine, because the evil cannot arise in every place, at the same time; there always remains some sound part, whence succor may be obtained for the assailed part. But it is important, that the extent of a state be such as not to contain within itself, people differing too much in manners, character, and particularly language, or which may have particular or opposite interests. This is the principal consideration which should set bounds to the territory of a nation.


There is yet another consideration worthy of our attention: it is essential to the happiness of the inhabitants of a country, that the frontiers be susceptible of an easy defence; that the limits be not subject to dispute, and so circumstanced as not to intercept the outlets of productive industry, or the course which the spirit of commerce naturally takes; for these reasons natural limits are to be preferred, not those imaginary lines which are to be found only on maps.


The sea, therefore, is, of all natural limits, the best; and has also a property admirable and peculiar to itself, that is, the naval power which defends it, employs few men; those men are useful in promoting the public prosperity; and another advantage, they can never in a body take part in civil disorders, nor alarm interior liberty; consequently the advantages of an island for happiness and liberty are very great. This is so true, that if we suppose the surface of the globe divided into islands of a proper extent and distance from each other, it would be covered by rich and industrious nations, who would not stand in need of any land armies, consequently ruled by moderate governments only. Having the most convenient communication among themselves, and scarcely any ability to hurt each other without affecting their reciprocal relations, their differences would soon cease by means of their mutual dependence and wants. If, on the contrary, we suppose the earth without sea, nations would then be without commerce, always in arms, in constant fear of neighboring nations, ignorant of others, and living under military governments: the sea is one obstacle to all hind of evil, and a means of numerous advantages.


After the sea, the best natural boundary is the tops of the highest mountains, taking for the line of demarcation some stream whose waters run from the summit of the points most elevated, and consequently the most inaccessible. This boundary is also very good on account of its exactness, and of the difficulty of communication from one declevity to another. In general, social relations and communications are established by following the course of the waters; and although they may require land forces to defend them, they do not need so many as in level countries, for to defend them it is sufficient to occupy the defiles formed by the principal branches of the great chain.


But when there are neither seas nor mountains, large rivers may answer, commencing where they have obtained a considerable size, and continuing to the sea, but large rivers only; for if the rivers should flow into others, not in the territory, they would be as so many arteries cut, through which there is no circulation, and which may often paralize a great extent of country; besides small rivers are not considerable enough, at least in part of their course, to become effective barriers against attacks; even large rivers are not boundaries sufficiently exact, for their course frequently changes and occasion many disputes; they are at best insecure defences, an enterprizing enemy being always able to cross them; in short they are better adapted by their nature for uniting than separating those who inhabit their banks; but there are situations in which the rivers must be made use of for defence: in all cases a political society should, for its own happiness, adopt natural limits and never pass them.


The degree of power, necessary for its defence, depends much on the power of its neighbors, to which it must have a relation: this naturally leads us to the subject of the following book.

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