A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws"

Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
Thomas Jefferson, trans.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: William Duane
Pub. Date
13 of 32

Book IX

Of Laws Relative to the Defensive Force.


From confederation, there results less strength, than intimate union, but it is better than entire separation.
Spirit of Laws, Book IX.


The title of this book, seems to announce that we shall here meet with the theory of laws, relative to the organization of the armed force, and the duties which citizens owe to the state for its defence: this is not the subject that occupies the attention of Montesquieu; he speaks only of the political measures, which a state should take to secure itself against the attacks of its neighbors.... but we only follow him.


Prepossessed by the idea, that a republic, whether democratic or aristocratic, can exist only as a small state, he can devise no other means for its defence, than an union with others; in this view, he extols the advantages of a confederated constitution, which appears to him the best invention possible, for preserving liberty, internally and externally. It is certainly better for a weak state, to unite itself with several, by an alliance, or a confederation which is the closest kind of alliance, than depend on itself; but if all these united, should form but one, they would certainly be stronger: now this can be perfectly accomplished by a representative government.


The confederative system answers in America, because they have no formidable neighbors: but if the republic of France had adopted this form, as was once proposed there, it is doubtful whether it could have resisted all Europe, as it did by remaining one and indivisible: it is a general rule received, that a nation gains in strength, by uniting with several others; but would it not become yet more powerful, by an incorporation with them; and does it not lose by subdividing itself into several parts, however closely united?


It might be more plausibly maintained, that confederations render the usurpation of the sovereign power, more difficult than a consolidated government; nevertheless, it did not prevent Holland from subjection to the house of Orange. It is true, it was principally foreign influence, that rendered the stadtholder hereditary and all powerful: but this topic belongs to a consideration of the inconveniencies to which weak states are exposed.


Another advantage of confederation, which appears to me incontestible, but of which Montesquieu says nothing, is the more equal distribution of information, and the perfection of administration, by causing a kind of local patriotism, independently of the general one, and that the collective legislature will combine a better knowlege of the local interests of their small states.


Notwithstanding these excellent qualities, confederations, particularly among the ancients, must be considered as mere essays or experiments, of men who had not yet conceived true ideas of a representative system, and who sought to ensure, at the same time, by the confederative medium, liberty, tranquillity, and power, which unquestionably can be united by that form of government alone: if Montesquieu had known it, I dare say he would agree with me.


He with reason observes, that a confederation should be composed of states nearly of the same strength, and governed nearly by the same principles. The want of these two conditions, accounts for the weakness of the Germanic body; and the opposition of the aristocratical principles of Bern and Friburg, to the democratical principles of the small cantons, has often been most pernicious to the Helvetic confederation, particularily of late years.


He also remarks with no less accuracy, that small monarchies are less adapted for forming confederations than small republics: the reason is very evident. The effect of a confederation, is to constitute a general authority, superior to the particular authority of each state, and consequently kings, attempting to confederate, must cease either to be sovereigns or confederates. This is the case in Germany, where the petty princes have only the appearance of sovereignty, and the great sovereigns only the appearance of confederates. If our author had made this reflection, it would have proved his position better than the precedent of the Cananean laws he quotes, which are of little importance and not conclusive.


I must here express my surprize, at the number of facts.... minute, problematical, and ill detailed, which Montesquieu quotes from authors little respected, and of countries little known, as proofs of his reasonings and principles; for the most part, he wanders from the question, instead of throwing light on it; which to me has always been disagreeable. In the present case, he is so much attached to his proposition of a republic not being able to govern a great extent of territory, without a confederacy, that he cites the Roman republic as an example of a confederation! I will not pretend to question the erudition of so learned a man, I shall only say.... he does not quote his authorities.


It is true, that at different times, and in different forms, the Romans incorporated the people whom they had conquered, with them; but this cannot be called a real confederation; and if a state ever had the character of unity, it was a republic residing in a single town, which for that reason, was called the head or capital of the universe.... caput orbis.


After having spoken of confederations, as the only means of defence in republics, Montesquieu says, that the means of despotic states, consist in laying waste their frontiers, and surrounding themselves with deserts; and that monarchies protect themselves by the erection of strong military works. Thus exclusively attributing these several means, to each specific form of government, is carrying the spirit of system too far: but I shall offer no further observations on this part of the subject, nor on the rest of the book, for I can perceive no instruction that can be derived from it: I shall only notice this fine sentence: "The spirit of monarchy, is war and aggrandizement; the spirit of republicanism, is peace and moderation." Montesquieu repeats the same sentiments in several places. Is this then lavishing praises on a government of one? .... But let us pass to the next book.

13 of 32

Return to top