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
Of Laws in Relation to the Nature of the Soil.
So unconnected are the nature of the soil, the long hair of Clodion, and the debauchery of Childeric, with each other, that it is difficult to discover the chain of thought which could have conducted our author from one of these topics to the other: and it is yet more difficult to say precisely what is the subject of this book.
We, in the first instance, meet with a confirmation of the propriety of the reproach which I have ventured to utter against Montesquieu in the eleventh book, for not having clearly defined the sense of the word liberty. In this book, chap. 2, he expresses himself thus….
the liberty they enjoy, that is to say…. the government they are under. It must be acknowleged that it would be a very singular kind of liberty, if the government should be oppressive, as governments generally are.
Then he says, chap. 4, the sterility of the soil renders men courageous and fit for war, while fertility induces a certain love of life: and in chap. 1, to prove that this same sterility disposes the mind for independence, he says…. the sterility of the soil of Attica established a popular government there, and the fertility of Lacedemon an aristocratical government; for at that time in Greece the government of a single person would not be permitted. It follows from these principles, and the reasonings by which they are upheld, that the Spartans were neither possessed of courage nor love of liberty: this is somewhat difficult to believe.
If then it be true, as Montesquieu says, that the government of a single person is oftener to be found in fertile countries, and the government of many in those which are not so, which is sometimes a compensation…. these are his words…. we must look for a better reason than the soil: I believe it is not difficult to be found.
Fertility of soil does not deprive man of either strength or courage, nor of the love of liberty; but it furnishes him with more means of providing for his wants. Men multiply, and being more numerous, are more easily enlightened, and more wealthy…. thus far we see only advantages; but see the inconveniencies…. having more means of acquiring knowlege and wealth, it is evident that some succeed less and others more, and that the greatest inequality of fortune and talents is established among them: now inequality, under whatever form it presents itself, is the great evil of mankind: inequality leads to the spirit of servility, to many other vices, and to a pernicious employment of accumulated riches, as we have seen in chap. 7, speaking of luxury.
This I believe is the true explanation of the general slavery, not of
rich people, but of
people among whom there are great riches. This distinction is very essential, for it may be remarked, that the people in general are more rich in nations called poor, than in those called rich; and when we are told of a nation enervated by luxury and riches, we must always understand that nine hundred and ninety-nine parts of the people of such a nation are languishing in penury and debased by misery: so that when mention is made of effeminacy and corruption, inequality is to be understood thereby; and thus the key will be had to all the consequences that follow.
These considerations do not explain why poor, ignorant, and agricultural nations are free; for they are really not so. We have seen in the eleventh book, that in order to establish true political liberty, and to secure it, information and means which these people are not possessed of are essential; and that perhaps it was even impossible firmly to establish liberty any where, before the invention of printing, which renders communication among the members of society easy: but it explains why such people are fond of liberty, why they seek it, and are possessed of the spirit of independence. The reason is, that these agricultural people having few means, and these the means of mediocrity equally distributed among them, they are not habituated to inequality. They are rather independent than free, so long as a greater foreign power does not subject them, which usually happens when there is any inducement to do so; or so long as superstition under the name of religion, which is a great cause of inequality in the hands of rogues and hypocrites, does not enslave them…. which too often happens.
Such, in general, is the case of the inhabitants of mountainous countries, who are not more brave than others, notwithstanding preposterous accounts of them; nor do their mountains so well defend them, whatever writers little conversant in military affairs may say; but poverty is their characteristic generally.
In this is contained an explanation of the effects attributed with reason by Montesquieu to the use or money, which no doubt favors inequality, and facilitates the partial accumulation of riches; but there is no nation in any degree improved, in which money is not to be found in use, so that all those who have not money may be ranked among the very poor and most uncivilized nations.
As it respects the inhabitants of islands, we have sufficiently explained in the eighth book, the principal cause which favors their liberty and prevents their losing their attachment to it. It is of a different kind, and takes place in all the degrees of civilization, which is, the advantage of not being obliged to maintain a large military force in constant readiness.
The simplicity of laws, another advantage of a people whose industry is yet in an unimproved state, we have already noticed in the sixth book, and shall not therefore say any thing further upon it here; I shall in like manner, pay no attention to the rights of nations, such as the Tartars…. to the Salic law…. the kings of the Franks, &c. There is little useful knowlege to be derived from the examination of such subjects.
Such are nearly all the topics of which Montesquieu has treated in this book; indeed it was not precisely of the fertility of the soil which he intended to speak, for that is not the sole source of wealth; industry and commerce at least contribute thereto as much; it is the effects of riches and civilization which our author treats of, without perhaps clearly conceiving it. By thus generalizing the question, it becomes better determined. From the observations they give rise to, the following principles may be considered as established relative to the spirit of laws. The more improved society becomes, the more the means of enjoyment and power encreases among men, but the chances of inequality are also more multiplied among them: and in all degrees of civilization the laws should tend to diminish inequality as much as possible; for it is fatal to liberty, and is the source of all our evils and vices: every evidence of experience and reasoning proves this great principle, and every thing has that tendency.