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 General
Laws are not, as Montesquieu has asserted, “necessary relations originating in the nature of things.” A law is not a relation, nor is a relation a law: the definition is not clear nor satisfactory. The word law has its special and appropriate sense: this sense is always to be found in the original meaning of words, and to which recourse must be had in order to their being rightly understood. Here law means a rule of action, prescribed by an authority invested with competent power and a right so to do: this last condition is essential, and when it is not possessed, the rule is no longer a law, but an arbitrary command, an act of violence and usurpation.
This idea of law comprehends that of a penalty consequent of its infraction, of a tribunal which determines the penalty, and a physical force to put it into execution: without these attributes laws are inefficient and illusory.
Such is the primitive sense of the word law; it was not, nor could it be formed, until after society had commenced: after which, and when the reciprocal action of sensible beings upon each other was perceived, when the phenomena of nature and of reason were discovered, and when it came to be found out, that they operated in an uniform manner in similar circumstances, it was said that they followed or obeyed certain laws. These were metaphorically denominated the
laws of nature, being only an expression significant of the manner in which the phenomena constantly act. Thus with reference to the descent of heavy bodies, we say that it is the effect of gravitation, one of the laws of nature,
that a heavy body abandoned to itself, falls by an accelerated motion proportionate to the series of odd numbers, so that the spaces passed through are as the squares of the times of its movement.
In other words, we mean to say that this phenomenon takes effect, as if an irresistible power had so ordained it, under the penalty of inevitable annihilation to the things subjected to this law of nature. We likewise say, it is the law of nature, that an animated being must be either in a state of
suffering; thereby implying that one or the other sensation takes place in the individual, through the medium of his perceptions, upon which he forms a judgment; which is only the consciousness of the individual to the feeling of pleasure or pain; that in consequence of this judgment, a will and a desire are produced to obtain or to avoid the operation of those perceptions, and to be happy or unhappy as the will or desire are gratified, or the contrary; by which we also imply, that an animated being is so constituted in the order of its nature, that if it were not susceptible of such perceptions and their consequent effects, it would then not be what we call an animated being.
Here we behold what is meant by the
laws of nature. There are then laws of nature, which we cannot change, which we cannot even infringe with impunity; for we are not the authors of our own being, nor of any thing that surrounds us. Thus if we leave a heavy body without support we are subject to be crushed by its fall. So if we do not make provision for the accomplishment of our wishes, or, what will amount to the same, if we cherish desires that are unattainable, we become unhappy; this is beyond doubt, the supreme power, the infallible tribunal, the force irresistible, the inevitable punition, that follows, in which every consequence arises as if it had been so predetermined.
Now society makes what we call positive laws, that is laws which are artificial and conventional, by means of an authority purposely constituted, and with tribunals and an executive power to inforce them. These laws should be conformable to the laws of nature, originating in the same source, consequent of the natural laws, and no wise repugnant thereto; without which consonance, it is certain that nature will overcome them, that their object will not be accomplished, and that society must be unhappy. Whence originate the good or bad qualities of our positive laws, their justice or injustice? The just law is that which produces good, the unjust that which produces
Justice and injustice therefore had an existence before any positive law; although it is only to laws of our own creation we can apply the epithets of just or unjust; since the laws of nature being simply necessary in the nature of things, it belongs not to us to question them any more than to act contrary to them. Unquestionably justice and injustice existed before any of our laws, and had it not been so we should not have any, because we create nothing. It does not appertain to us to constitute things conformable or contrary to our nature. We can ascertain and explain what is right or wrong, only according to our right or wrong comprehension of it; when we declare that to be just which is not so, we do not thereby render it just; this is beyond our power; we only declare an error, and occasion a certain quantity of evil, by maintaining that error with the power of which we have the disposal: but the
law, the eternal truth, which is opposed thereto, remains unchanged and the same.
But it must be understood, that what is here said by no means implies, that it is at all times just to resist an unjust law, or always reasonable to oppose with violence what is unreasonable. This must depend upon a previous consideration, whether the violent resistance would not cause more evil than passive compliance: this however is but a secondary question, always dependent on circumstances, the nature of which will be discussed in the sequel…. we are yet a great way in the rear of that subject.
It is sufficient that the laws of nature exist anterior and superior to human laws; that fundamental justice is that only which is conformable to the laws of nature; and that radical injustice is that which is contrary to the laws of nature; and consequently that our posterior and consequent laws should be in unison with those more ancient and inevitable laws. This is the true spirit, or genuine sense, in which all positive laws ought to be established. But this foundation of the laws is not very easily explained or understood: the space between the first principles and the ultimate result is immense. The progressive series of consequences flowing out of the first principles are the proper subject of a treatise on the spirit of laws, which should be perspicuously pointed out, and its maxims modified to the particular circumstances and organization of society. We shall now proceed to examine these different principles.