A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws"
By Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy
Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) composed
A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws in 1811. It was promptly translated to English by Thomas Jefferson, who published it along with translations of M. Condorcet’s “Observations on the [Twenty-ninth] Book” (the original cover page produced by William Duane’s Philadelphia press erroneously reads as the “Thirty-first Book”) and “Two Letters of Helvetius, on the Merits of the Same Work”. We reproduce all these translated items here.Although Destutt de Tracy’s
Commentary is self-contained and does not require the prior reading of Montesquieu’s 1752
The Spirit of Laws, that work is readily available in translation at the
Online Library of Liberty (OLL).Destutt de Tracy’s work stands today as a classic in Political Science. His strength is his consistent ability to bring logic, creativity, and a modern scientific approach to explaining the motives, and hence the observed consequences, of various kinds of government styles. He systematically works through many substantial flaws in Montesquieu’s influential 1752 work, and delves into Montesquieu’s logical gaps. (See, for example, Tracy’s chapters on Montesquieu’s
Book XI on “Laws Which Establish Public Liberty, In Relation to the Constitution”.) His values of personal liberty, human equality, and intellectual pursuit show through in every chapter. His explanations of economics and how different government organizations do or do not contribute to economic welfare and personal liberty are clever and clear; and he is frank in suggesting that economics as a theoretical subject warrants illumination by others.Tracy’s explanations are clever and clear, and include material on the benefits of specialization of labor, free trade, and even include an explanation of
Ricardian equivalence (before Ricardo). Tracy’s enthusiasm, creativity, and intellectual honesty are inspiring and thought-provoking throughout this fine work.A few corrections of obvious typos were made for this website edition. However, we have erred on the side of caution in order to preserve the many variable and unusual spellings of the period. We have also preserved the punctuation of Jefferson’s original, including the unusual usage of multiple periods instead of m-dashes or other familiar punctuation. (The multiple periods do not seem to indicate elided material, but rather suggest a kind of pause for the reader to fill in additional thoughts or examples.) We have changed small caps to full caps for ease of using search engines.Editor,
Library of Economics and Liberty
Thomas Jefferson, trans.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: William Duane
First written in French.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
- Preliminary Observations
- Book I
- Book II
- Book III
- Book IV
- Book V
- Book VI
- Book VII
- Book VIII
- Book IX
- Book X
- Book XI, Chap. I
- Book XI, Chap. II
- Book XII
- Book XIII
- Books XIV-XVII
- Book XVIII
- Book XIX
- Books XX-XXI
- Book XXII
- Book XXIII
- Books XXIV-XXV
- Book XXVI
- Books XXVII-XXVIII
- Book XXIX
- Books XXX-XXXI
- Observations on the Twenty-Ninth Book of the Spirit of Laws, by M. Condorcet
- Letters of Helvetius, Addressed to President Montesquieu and M. Saurin
How the Laws of Political Servitude Relate to the Climate.
How the Laws of Domestic Slavery Relate to the Climate.
The Manner in which the Laws of Civil Slavery Relate to the Climate.
Of Laws in Relation to Climate.
I have united these four chapters, because they relate to the same subject, which will occupy very little time, for I cannot perceive much instruction to be derived from them, and the subject offers no important question for discussion; I shall, therefore, confine myself to a small number of reflections.
In the first place I shall observe, that to form a just idea of climate, we must understand by this word, the aggregate of all the circumstances which form the physical constitution of a country: now this is not what Montesquieu has done; he appears to consider nothing else than the degree of latitude and the degree of heat: but it is not in these facts alone, that the difference of climate consists.
In the next place I must remark, that if there be no doubt that the climate has a great influence over every living creature…. even over our vegetables, and consequently on man, it is nevertheless true, that it has less effect on man than any other animal; the proof is, that man not only inhabits every climate, but can accommodate himself to them all, in all positions, and under all circumstances; the reason whereof is to be found in the extent of his intellectual faculties, which, by exciting in him other wants, render him less dependant on those purely physical, and in the multitude of arts by which he contrives to provide for these different necessities; to which must be added, that the more variously and actively his faculties are employed, the more are these arts multiplied and improved. In other words, the more man becomes civilized, the less is the influence of climate upon him. I believe, therefore, that Montesquieu has not perceived all the causes of the influence of climate, and that he has exaggerated its effects: I may even venture to say, that he has endeavored to prove it by many doubtful anecdotes, and false or frivolous narratives, some of which are even very ridiculous.
After these preliminaries, he considers the influence of climate, as a cause of the use of slaves, which he denominates
civil slavery…. and the slavery of women, he calls
domestic slavery…. and to the oppression of the citizens, he gives the title of
political servitude; these are in effect, three particulars very important in considering the state of society.
But after having first very energetically represented the use of slaves, as an abominable, iniquitous, and atrocious thing, which corrupts the oppressor more than the oppressed, and for whom it is impossible to form any reasonable laws, he himself acknowleges that no climate requires, nor absolutely could require, such excess of deprivation; and that in fact slavery has existed in the frozen marshes of Germany, and may be dispensed with in the Torrid Zone: it must not then be attributed to climate, but to the ferocity and stupidity of mete.
Secondly, in respect to political servitude, we see people subjected to it in the extreme, in those nations of Italy, and Greece, and Africa, where the people were of old very free, or at least, very fond of freedom, though they knew not well of what it consisted, nor how to secure it; it is, therefore, more the state of society than the climate, which determines these things.
In respect to women, it is too true that the misfortune of being marriageable when almost in a state of childhood, and to be in a state of decline on the verge of youth, must prevent them in general, from having many good qualities of head and heart; and that consequently, they easily become the playthings and victims of man, and rarely their companions or friends. This is, without doubt, a very great obstacle to true morality, and true civilization; for if man becomes corrupted when he oppresses his fellow creature, he yet more extremely perverts his nature, when he reduces the object of his most lively desires to a state of servitude. The passion for sensuality being destructive of maturity, by prematurely preventing beings from becoming perfect, and while it lasts, putting reason itself astray, were great evils, and it cannot be denied that they exist in certain countries; though we should be cautious in believing all that Montesquieu says on this last point. But every thing reduced to its proper weight, what is the result? That there are circumstances of inconvenience attached to certain climates: keeping always in view, that the effects which we often see produced thereby, are far from being inevitable; that institutions and habits may very much correct them, and that reason always is, and should in every situation, be our guide. From all this, then, there is no other conclusion to be drawn, but to repeat, with Montesquieu,
that bad legislators alone, favor the vices of climates, and the good seek every means do avert them. Let us then, pursue another subject.