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 a Religions Establishment, and Its Effects on External Policy.
Of Laws in Relation to a Religious Establishment, Its Practical Operation, and Doctrines.
Religion is not a very difficult subject to treat of, in relation to the social art: the spirit of laws on this subject, should be neither to disturb nor constrain the religious opinions Of any citizen, to give none a legal adoption, and to prevent any of them from obtaining the least influence in civil affairs. Without doubt, there are some religions more injurious than others, through the usages which they establish, and the pernicious maxims they propagate; by the celibacy of their priests, by means of seduction, by intolerance, by their dependance on a foreign authority, and particularly, by their aversion more or less extravagant to rational information of all kind; but none of those sects or their doctrinal tenets belong in any manner to the social organization; it is an immediate particular relation which they bear to the author of all things; it does not appertain to those things that man should or could have in common with his associates and fellow citizens. We can never pledge ourselves to think in the same manner as another person, nor the contrary, for the will is involuntary, we are not masters of our own opinions, nor can we even force ourselves always to hold the same opinion on any subject. All religions consist simply of speculative opinions called dogmas; under this view, they are the systems of a philosophy more or less rash, more or less contrary to the wise reserve of a sound logic. All sects join to their dogmas, some precepts of conduct called discipline: if some of these precepts be contrary to true social morals, these principles are bad…. and this always is the case, because those religions have been formed in times of ignorance, and morals can only be preserved in an enlightened age, and are not yet completely perfect.
*31 If, what is utterly impossible, the rules of conduct adopted by a sect, were altogether irreprehensible, they would yet possess the disadvantage of being founded on hazardous opinions, instead of being established on reason and solid motives: for every sect must, in relation to all other sects, be but a few. This then, is the place to say with yet more reason, what
Omar said of the
Koran…. if all these books contain only the same thing as the Koran, they are useless; if they contain any thing contrary thereto, they are pernicious. Government, therefore, should never suffer any system of religion to be taught by authority, but the best moral doctrine, that the most enlightened persons of the time are acquainted with should be inculcated. Moreover, religious opinions have this in particular, that they give an unlimited power to those who promulge them, over those who believe them to be the depositaries and interpreters of the divine will. Their promises are immense for the next world, no temporal powers can balance them; whence it follows, that priests in all nations, are ever dangerous to the civil authority; or if supported by the government, they are always found prepared to extol its abuses, and to persuade man that it is his duty to sacrifice all his rights: so that as long as they hold a powerful influence, neither liberty, nor even peaceable oppression is possible. So that all governments desirous of establishing a tyranny, attach the priesthood to themselves, and render the priesthood sufficiently powerful to accomplish the service assigned to them: a government desirous of liberty and happiness, endeavors to promote the progress of information. This is what the Spirit of Laws may be reduced to on this point. It appears sufficiently useless to examine what the author of a religious sect should do to make it spread. I may venture to say that no more new sects will be formed…. at least among polished and civilized nations.