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
My object in undertaking this work, was to examine and reflect on each of the great objects which had been discussed by Montesquieu; to form my own opinions, to commit them to writing, and in short, to accomplish a clear and settled judgment upon them. It was not very long before I perceived, that a collection of these opinions would form a complete treatise on politics or the social science, which would be of some value, if the principles were all just and well digested. After having scrutinized them with all the care that I was capable of, and reconsidered them well, I resolved to arrange the whole in another manner, so as to form a didactic work, in which the various subjects should be disposed in their natural order, consistent with their mutual dependence on each other, and without any regard to the order pursued by Montesquieu; which in my opinion is not in every respect the best: but I soon perceived, that if he had been mistaken in the choice of his order of discussion, I might be much more likely to deceive myself in attempting a new one, notwithstanding the vast accumulation of light, during the fifty
prodigious years which have intervened between the period when he gave his labors to his contemporaries, and this at which I now present the result of my studies to mine. It was plain too, that in proportion as the order which I should have preferred differed from that of Montesquieu, the more difficult it would have been for me to discuss his opinions and establish my own; our paths must cross each other continually; I should have been forced into a multitude of repetitions, in order to render to him that justice which properly belongs to him; and I should then find myself reduced to the unpleasant necessity of appearing in opposition to him, without my motives being clearly perceived. Under such circumstances, it is questionable whether my ideas would ever have had the advantage of a sufficient examination: these considerations determined me to prefer the form I have adopted of a commentary and review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws.
Some future writer, if my effort be fortunate, may profit by the discussion, in giving a more perfect treatise on the true principles of laws: it is by such a course, I think all the sciences ought to proceed; each work commencing with the soundest opinions already received, and progressively receiving the new lights shed upon them by experience and investigation. This would be truly following the precept of Condillac….
proceeding rigorously from the known to the unknown. I have no other ambition, nor does my situation admit of more, than to contribute my effort to the progress of social science, the most important of all to the happiness of man, and that which must necessarily be the last to reach perfection, because it is the product and the result of all the other sciences.