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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Montesquieu (1689–1755)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Francis Newton Thorpe (1857–1926)
 
INTO whatever condition of life a man is born, he finds the State made up. If he discovers that society is ever in a flux, he will also discover that its foundations are laid deep. The complexity of his surrounding may awaken his astonishment, his acquiescence, or his resentment. With desire to know, he may work out a political system of things and men. Its value to himself or to others depends on his insight, his data, his conclusions. These may be narrow and limited. His intellection may remain only for a brief time a part of his own little world. Or his may be the insight of genius; his data, of the whole world; his conclusions, those of a philosopher. He may have put into literary form for use and application in that vast public business which we call government, the experience of men in all ages, under different skies, and animated by different conceptions of life.  1
  Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, was born at the château of La Brède, near Bordeaux in 1689. He came of aristocratic stock on both sides, and inherited title, place, and the life presidency of the Parliament of Bordeaux. With leisure, money, scholarly tastes, and a great fondness for society, the young man found life a delightful and instructive experience. At twenty-five he was admitted counselor of the Parliament. At twenty-six he married an heiress. At twenty-seven he found himself, by his uncle’s will, one of the richest and most influential men in the department. And now, with the famous ‘Persian Letters,’ he began his serious work in literature. This book was made up of correspondence between two imaginary Persians of high rank, supposed to be traveling in Europe, and their friends at home. The letters satirize the social, political, ecclesiastical, and literary follies of the time with brilliant audacity. Though anonymous, the book was at once attributed to Montesquieu, and at the height of its vogue was suppressed by a ministerial decree. The irresistible wit of the letters, their crushing satire, and their elegant style, made the decree of the censor the trumpet of their fame; and from the day of their publication they set a fashion in literature. Who will venture now to estimate the number of jealous, discomfited, and unsuccessful authors whose cry has gone up,—“Let us write some Persian letters also.”  2
  Another anonymous work appeared thirteen years later: the ‘Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans.’ Its authorship was soon suspected. Who save Montesquieu had such comprehension, such reflections, such a style? Yet this study of Roman civilization, that would make the reputation of any author, proved to be only the herald of Montesquieu’s great work ‘The Spirit of Laws.’ It was published while he was in the midst of his political studies; and it bears interesting, and perhaps organic relation to the closing chapters of that work.  3
  After its occupying him for twenty years, Montesquieu published his masterpiece, the ‘Spirit of Laws,’ at Geneva, in 1748. In less than two years it had passed into twenty-two editions. Time works out all equations, and resolves individuals and nations into their true elements. It has resolved Montesquieu into a political institution. His function is akin to that of great masses of men, organized as society, working out principles on which the State is laid. Because he expounds rather than codifies, he differs from Moses and Solon. Because he is a realist, and a modern, he differs from Plato and Aristotle. The whole world, down to his time, is his political parish, and he is singularly free from the prejudices that usually come from race, religion, country, occupation, and age. Because of this mental wholeness, his work provoked the hostility of sectaries, of political schools, of established orders of men. It illustrated antiquity, and marked the inauguration of a new order of the ages. Like great and useful political institutions, it is more fitting to attempt to measure its effects than to criticize its scope, plan, or character.  4
  It appeared at a critical time. Democracy, in France, in England, in America, was stirring like sap in early spring; and leaf, flower, and bud, fruiting in revolution, were on the way. Yet it was not of democracy, specially, that he wrote; nor of aristocracy; nor of despotism. He never discloses his politics. His theme was more profound than a discussion of the mere form of the State. The State he found in various forms, and his purpose was to discover the law that regulates all forms. Analysis and illustration with him were wayside inns along the road to principles. Amidst the flux of human institutions he sought that which abides. His work therefore is economic, and its whole spirit modern. He knew men: he could disclose the spirit of their laws.  5
  A hundred and fifty years have passed since he wrote, and the world has greatly changed: in large degree because of his instruction. Though he presents the State primarily as a compact, he shows that it is so only in form: it is essentially an organism. Political institutions fall wholly within the domain of law. Words of high rank in the dictionary of politics—such as equality, luxury, education, morality, order, liberty—are in substance the masque of functions, and they co-ordinate the State in administration. Taxation is a method of common protection, whatever the form of the State. It is nature that sets the pace in government; therefore let those who organize and administer the State duly consider race, soil, and climate, for these affect the morals, the religion, the character of a people. Governments become an illustration of his famed definition of the laws: “the necessary relations arising from the nature of things.” These relations extend throughout the sphere of human activities, and are disclosed by the operation of forces more or less clear, whatever the form of the State. Of these forces, which he called the spirit of laws, he wrote. Passing over the field affected by this spirit, he found all human interests inclosed within it.  6
  A book of relations like this would make much of commerce and its tributaries. In whatever way a people foster commerce, they will thereby give a clue to the spirit of their political institutions. This, it may be observed, is distinctively a modern view of the State. Montesquieu anticipates our own time by recognizing that persons outrank things in the State. Democracy in America has as yet not fully caught up with this idea. He sees in money a sign or symbol of values; and in wealth, the capacity of a people to realize the opportunities of civilization. Fundamental to the State is the family; whence the importance of the laws affecting marriage, the domestic relations, the rights of women and children, and the relation the State holds to them. Perpetuity is a paramount function of the State; whence laws of religion and of war, those affecting ecclesiastical orders, church tenures, crimes and punishments. He suggests but less often draws conclusions, and in this lies no small part of his influence.  7
  Though saying much of laws, he is not a mere legalist: otherwise his work would be no more than a masterly treatise on codes and decrees, or an abstruse speculation on human government. His ‘Considérations sur les Causes de la Grandeur et de la Décadence des Romains’ has been pronounced by some to be his most learned work; yet its learning has not given it the utility of the ‘Spirit of Laws.’ It is rich in illustration; subtle in analysis; comprehensive in conclusions. But the Roman era closed, and the modern, the English, began, about the time of the appearance of this book in 1734. Antiquity until then was the world’s chief instructor; but after the opening of the second half of the eighteenth century, the ancient régime was found to demand translation, and much of its political wisdom to be useless to the modern world. No one recognized this more clearly than did Montesquieu; and his was the genius to transform the whole estate of politics into a fee simple, vested in the individual citizen of the new régime. His influence in England and America illustrates this. Any nation is fond of the philosopher who discovers its admirable qualities, and especially when they are obscure to those who enjoy them. England stands in such an attitude to Montesquieu. He is popularly credited with the discovery of the tripartite form of the English Constitution, and was the first eminent Continental scholar to locate liberty in its purest form in the British Isles. If all this discovery was of a tendency rather than of a fact, it still counted in administration; and though a mere tendency, its consequences were bound to be great.  8
  Among the first of Englishmen who spoke with authority and recognized Montesquieu was Justice Blackstone. Early in his ‘Commentaries’ he cited the ‘Spirit of Laws’ as of rank with the opinions of Coke, of Grotius, and of Justinian. But this friendly citation was less fruitful in political effects in England than in America. The ‘Spirit of Laws’ had been published ten years when Blackstone entered upon his duties as Vinerian Professor of Law at Oxford, and was known to the Americans. Almost at the opening of his ‘Commentaries,’ Blackstone quotes Montesquieu as authority that England was perhaps the only country in which political and civil liberty was the end and scope of the Constitution. A Frenchman who would say that was sure of fame in English footnotes. The ‘Commentaries’ at their appearance became the textbook for all students of English law, and in America were used with great ardor. There political changes were pending. A revolution was at hand, and chiefly because the colonists believed that they were denied the ancient and undoubted rights of Englishmen. Colonialism fast gave way to continentalism. A Congress assembled to take stock of grievances and to appeal to the whole world. This included the inhabitants of Quebec, to whom an address, written by John Dickinson, was sent. He was its author because of his familiarity with the French language. The address consisted chiefly of pertinent quotations from the ‘Spirit of Laws.’ England was accused of attempting to subvert civil authority in America. Was not this contrary to “your countryman, the immortal Montesquieu?” Did he not say—“In a free State every man, as is supposed of a free agent, ought to be concerned in his own government: therefore the legislative should reside in the whole body of the people, or their representatives;” “The political liberty of the subject is the tranquillity of mind arising from the opinion which a person has of his safety;” “In order to have this liberty, it is requisite that government be so constituted that one man need not be afraid of another;” “When the power of making laws and the power of executing them are united in the same person, or the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or magistrates should enact tyrannical laws and execute them in a tyrannical manner;” “The power of judging should be exercised by persons taken from the body of the people at certain times of the year, pursuant to a form and manner prescribed by law;” “There is no liberty if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers;” “Military men belong to a profession which may be useful, but is often dangerous;” “The enjoyment of liberty, and even its support and preservation, consists in every man’s being allowed to speak his thoughts and lay open his sentiments”?  9
  What was the significance of all this, more than that Montesquieu knew the British Constitution, that he had pointed out the true spirit of laws, and that he was the court of last resort when a civil war was impending between the parts of an empire? Had not Great Britain accepted his interpretation of liberty, in the writings of the greatest commentator on her laws? This was turning the tables, and the Americans pressed their point. The Quebec address was read with enthusiasm everywhere in America except Quebec. Montesquieu was henceforth the political guide-book of the new nation. Here was to be found the wisdom of the ages all arranged for practical use, awaiting independent America. As the colonies became commonwealths they modified the form of their constitutions; and the men who made the changes knew Montesquieu as familiarly as they knew the traditions of Englishmen. This is evident from the speeches they made; the pamphlets they wrote; the constitutions they adopted.  10
  Montesquieu thus became grafted into American institutions during that critical period from 1765 to 1776. Nor was this the end. A more critical period followed. Jefferson shows the influence of Montesquieu in the great Declaration. Madison, Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton, and the men of their generation in America who received legal or collegiate training, read Montesquieu (and the other political encyclopædists) with intent to use his wisdom in practical politics. They knew him even better than they knew Blackstone.  11
  As soon as Washington decided to attend the Federal Convention at Philadelphia, “he made himself familiar with the reasonings of Montesquieu.” His copy of the ‘Spirit of Laws,’ like Madison’s, attests by its marginal notes with what care it was read. In the Convention, as the Constitution evolved, no writer was quoted as of higher authority. On several occasions Dickinson showed that he had not forgotten the Quebec address or its principal authority. Nor was this the conclusion of the matter. Two of the framers of the Constitution, Hamilton and Madison,—and Jay, soon to be called to expound it,—projected and wrote a series of newspaper articles, known as the ‘Federalist,’ in exposition and defense of the proposed plan; directed to the people of the State of New York, who at the time were considering the question of ratification. Of the twenty footnotes to the ‘Federalist,’ three refer to Blackstone and three to the ‘Spirit of Laws’; but the references to Montesquieu are accompanied by quotations, one of which is the longest quotation in the ‘Federalist.’ The ninth and the seventy-eighth numbers, in which the quotations from Montesquieu occur, are by Hamilton. The paramount influence of Montesquieu in the American constitutions is seen in the practically successful separation of the three functions of the State, “to the end,” as the Constitution of Massachusetts puts it, that “it may be a government of laws and not of men”; and, as this and others provide, that one department shall never exercise the powers of either of the others. The phrase “checks and balances in government,” which occurs so often in American political literature down to 1850, though not originating with Montesquieu, is an American abbreviation of a large use of him in practical politics. When it is remembered that the American constitutions are the oldest written constitutions in existence, that they have become precedents for all later republics, and that they have powerfully affected the written and the unwritten constitutions of European nations,—the influence of Montesquieu must be acknowledged to be as widespread, in our day, as are the sources on which he based his profound conclusions.  12
  To this influence, as it were by dynastic and political succession, there must be added the economic and educational influence he has long exercised in all civilized countries. He has been a principal textbook in politics for a century and a half. In English-speaking lands he has quite displaced Aristotle; for he is found, on trial, to be the only writer whom a modern student can understand without such a body of corrective notes as to make the original text a mere exercise in translation. Specialization, which characterizes modern scholarship, has relegated portions of the ‘Spirit of Laws’ to the epoch-making books of the past, and has left those portions as a sort of political encyclopædia that the world has outgrown. Time is a trying editor, and many who read Montesquieu now feel that they are going over some old edition of a general treatise on government. What change is this in a book which, as Helvetius and Saurin, fellow Academicians, warned Montesquieu, contained so many innovations that his reputation would be destroyed! His reply was, “Prolem sine creatam” (Spare the born child).  13
  Fortune favored Montesquieu at birth and through life. Ten years in the hereditary office of chief justice at Bordeaux, near which city he was born, completed his public services. He was thirty-seven when he resigned and entered upon the life of the scholar. Montesquieu was an academician and an encyclopædist, and with Voltaire, helped to turn the world upside down. But between the two men acquaintance never ripened into love. The ‘Persian Letters,’ which Montesquieu published at thirty-two, laid the foundations of his fame, and started a controversy that raged even at his death-bed.  14
  “Vous savez, Monsieur le President,” began the curate of Saint Sulpice, in exhortation, as Montesquieu lay dying, “Vous savez combien Dieu est grand.” “Oui,” quickly replied the philosopher, “et combien les hommes sont petits.” 1  15
 
Note 1. “You know how great God is.”—“Yes, and how small men are.” [back]
 
 
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