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
Theory of Feudal Laws, Relative to the Revolutions of Monarchy.
Theory of the Feudal Laws among the Franks, Relative to the Establishment of Monarchy.
The reasons which induced me to pass over the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth hooks, will lead me to act in the same manner with this: I very much respect these enquiries…. they have, without doubt, their utility, but they have but a very remote connexion with the subject which occupies me; consequently, I shall not examine them. I shall only observe, without entering far into the discussion, that every sensible man is sorry to see Montesquieu (chap. 25, book XXX,) give as a strong reason against the Abbé Dubos, that
it would be injurious to the great families of France, and for the three races of their kings, to allege that at the commencement of the monarchy there was only one order of’citizens; that there were none with exclusive privileges; because upon that supposition, there must have been a time
when they were common families! We are no less disgusted at the emphasis with which he parts from this famous nobility, which he uniformly represents as
constantly covered with dust, blood, and sweat, and that at the close he has rendered himself ridiculous by being so much infatuated with this pompous trash. There is also some other foolery which even contradicts these; as for example, when he says that….
at the time of Gontram the French armies were no longer dreadful but to their own country; and when he exclaims….
a singular thing, it (monarchy)
was in its decline in the time of the grandson of Clovis. It would have been much better, in my opinion, to have said…. it was a still born child or at least very ill formed; but I shall leave all this for the reflections of the reader; consequently my task is finished.
It would perhaps be proper in this place, to hazard a general judgment on the work of which we have just discussed the different parts. I shall, however, avoid it. I shall content myself with remarking that when the Spirit of Laws appeared, it was scarce ever attacked, but by men of a very despicable party and of evil dispositions; and that, notwithstanding its numerous faults, known, acknowleged, and avowed, it was always and constantly defended by all the true friends of information and humanity, even by those who had just personal motives of complaint against the author. At their head, Voltaire may be placed; who, on this occasion, as on all others of a similar nature, manifested his noble and generous character, as superior to the triflings of vanity, as his mind was to that of prejudice.