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 the Manner in which Laws Should Be Composed.
This title, alike vague, requires some explanation to be well understood, as well as several others on which we have already made the same remark. The author, in this book proposes to prove that the laws should be clear and precise, worded with dignity and simplicity; not couched in the style and manner of dissertation; and particularly when motives are assigned for their enactment, that they should not support themselves by ridiculous reasons; laws too frequently contain clauses that are calculated to produce effects directly contrary to the intentions of the legislator; that they should he in harmony with each other; that several laws often mutually correct and support each other, and that to appreciate their effects correctly, they should be judged collectively, and not each one particularly and separately; that the legislator should not lose sight of the nature of the object they enact on one side, nor decide by motives contrary thereto on the other. In this much the book is comprised; the subject is already treated of in the twenty-seventh, and in other respects it approaches the sixth and eleventh books.
The author also shews that to form a proper estimate of a law, the circumstances in which it was enacted are to be taken into view; this has been already said and proved elsewhere. He also recommends that the laws should always be enacted in a general manner, and not given as prescriptions for particular facts. In a word he recommends it to legislators to divest themselves of their prejudices. No one will be inclined to differ from him on all these points. Indeed we might not be well satisfied with the divers examples nor with some of the reasons which he employs to prove things to be evident; some of them may deserve to be subjected to criticism: but as no information of any importance would result therefrom, I shall say nothing. It is not sufficient to be in the right when not opposed to great men, but when we undertake to contradict them it is always necessary not to be in the wrong.
I am in possession of a criticism on this book of the spirit of laws, written by the greatest philosopher in modern times, Condorcet;
*32 it has never been published, and probably never was intended for publication. I shall venture to insert it here, and we shall see with what strength Montesquieu is refuted, and with what a superiority of views he retouches his work; it may be also perceived, that if my capacity be inferior, the severity of my investigation is at least equal.