Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de

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Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, was a French social and political philosopher whose ideas about laws and government had great influence on the leaders of the American Revolution and the Framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Montesquieu was born January 18, 1689, in La Brède, France, just outside of Bordeaux, to an aristocratic family with considerable landholdings. As a young man, he studied Latin, French, history, and the law before graduating from the University of Bordeaux in 1708. In 1715 he married Jeanne Lartigue, whose family brought him substantial wealth, and a year later his uncle died and left him his title and his property, making Montesquieu extremely rich. While his wife remained in La Brède managing his estate, Montesquieu traveled and enjoyed the social and intellectual life of Paris, attending fashionable salons and meeting with leading thinkers in the areas of politics and literature. He also served as president á mortier, or justice, of the Bordeaux parlement, an office he inherited from his uncle.

In 1728 Montesquieu left Paris for a three-year trip through Europe. Montesquieu closely examined

the people and cultures of the countries he visited, paying particular attention to England, where he was intrigued by the level of political and religious freedom the people there enjoyed, as well as the country's bustling mercantile economy. He remained in England for eighteen months. During this time he was introduced into the most prestigious intellectual and social circles, was admitted to court, was made a fellow of the Royal Society, and attended several sessions of Parliament. Montesquieu's experience in England was critical in shaping his political philosophies because it proved to him that a society could combine the rule of law with political freedom.

After returning home in May 1731, Montesquieu spent the next fifteen years working on

his masterpiece, De l'Esprit des lois (literally On the Spirit of the Laws, but usually translated as The Spirit of the Laws). In this immense and loosely connected work, containing more than six hundred chapters grouped into thirty-one books, Montesquieu combined a lifetime of thoughts and personal observations concerning governments, laws, and human nature. His topics ranged from detailed analyses of ancient history to the effects of climate on national character. By closely examining a wide variety of societies through time and across cultures, Montesquieu sought to identify the basic principles underlying how laws work, how they evolve, and how they differ from country to country and culture to culture.

The Spirit of the Laws was published in 1748 in Geneva. It was a huge and immediate success; by the end of 1749, twenty-two other editions, including many translations, had reached all over Europe and across the ocean to the North American colonies. The work also generated considerable controversy, particularly with church authorities. They objected to Montesquieu's intellectual approach, which was grounded in the then radical notion that laws were not divinely inspired or handed down by ancient lawgivers such as Moses but evolved naturally out of everything that influences life in a country, including traditions, habits, history, religion, economics, and climate. Laws, Montesquieu believed, could be rationally studied and then adjusted to increase liberty for all. He responded to criticisms of his work in 1750 with Defense de l'Esprit des lois, but the Catholic Church nevertheless put The Spirit of the Laws on the church's Index in 1751, which meant that Catholics were forbidden to read it. Despite this official censure, Montesquieu was named director of the Academie Française in 1753.

On January 29, 1755, Montesquieu became ill with what appears to have been influenza, and his health quickly deteriorated. His sickness generated much attention; many people viewed it as symbolic of the great conflict between established religion and the forces of reason and enlightenment that marked the eighteenth century. During his illness Montesquieu's house was filled with friends monitoring his condition, including messengers from the king. Montesquieu died on February 10, 1755, and was buried in the parish church of Saint-Sulpice.

As was the case in Europe, Montesquieu was a leading intellectual figure in the American colonies, and The Spirit of the Laws was a standard subject of close study for young American scholars. Figures show that Montesquieu's works, particularly The Spirit of the Laws, were widely disseminated through American booksellers and libraries, and Montesquieu's ideas were frequently discussed in newspapers and journals. Montesquieu's works were found in the personal libraries of nearly all of the country's founding fathers, including benjamin franklin, john adams, thomas jefferson, and james madison.

Different elements of the theories Montesquieu outlined in The Spirit of the Laws were popular in America at different times, varying with political conditions and developments. In general, however, the most influential portions of the work were chapters 3 and 6 of book XI, in which Montesquieu analyzed the English constitution, a discussion that heavily influenced the separation of powers later enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. In his analysis Montesquieu outlined the basic principle of the English constitution, which was—and still is—not an actual document but an unwritten consensus regarding the proper rules of governing based on such historical documents as the magna charta, the body of common law, court decisions, precedents, and tradition.

According to Montesquieu, although England did not have the perfect system of government, it was the best system to be found in modern Europe because it allowed for the greatest degree of liberty, which Montesquieu defined as the right "to do what one should want to do, and not being forced to do what one should not want to do." For Montesquieu, liberty was, essentially, the right to be left alone.

This type of liberty, Montesquieu argued, was only possible under a government specifically constituted to protect citizens from the oppression of their rulers and the aggressions of each other, while allowing for the representation of a wide range of popular interests. For citizens to maintain their liberty against the encroachment of oppressive rulers, a government had to be composed of separate and balanced powers that would check and moderate each other, thus leaving the people a maximum degree of freedom under the laws.

To Montesquieu, England most closely approximated this model because its government divided the three main functions of government—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial—into three separate branches: the Parliament, the monarch, and the courts. The powers of these branches were so intertwined that the branches needed each other to operate and also served to moderate each other's actions. For example, the king or queen could veto parliamentary legislation, but the monarch's actions were limited by Parliament's power of the purse. Because no single branch was able to dominate the other branches or the populace at large, the people were left with a large degree of political freedom. Because the branches had to operate together, their forces counterbalanced each other and resulted in a guarantee of freedom and a bulwark against political tyranny. Although Montesquieu did not present the English system as the perfect model for democratic government, he did praise it for being the only government in modern Europe constituted for the specific purpose of maximizing political liberty.

Montesquieu's description of the basic principles of the English constitution and his emphasis on political liberty held great appeal for the English colonists in North America, particularly beginning in the 1760s when those colonists were chafing under taxes and restrictions imposed by Parliament that they thought undermined their constitutional rights. Montesquieu was frequently quoted in newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches as colonists protested the oppressive powers of Parliament and defended their right to political liberty. His description of the English constitution became a model against which the colonists contrasted what they saw as the injustice and corruption of the actual English government.

After the Revolutionary War ended, Montesquieu again became a principal authority as political leaders set about to create a constitution for the new United States of America. Most of the architects of the Constitution were thoroughly acquainted with Montesquieu's ideas, and at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, The Spirit of the Laws was frequently cited as delegates attempted to lay down the principles for a government that would maximize political liberty while also maintaining the rule of law. The Framers followed many of Montesquieu's maxims, including his insistence upon a separation of powers and his belief that a country's laws must not be imposed from above but conform to the genius, or nature, of the citizens of that country.

Montesquieu's arguments were also used in the debates over the ratification of the Constitution that followed the Constitutional Convention. He was cited with particular frequency in The Federalist Papers, which were written by James Madison, alexander hamilton, and john jay to argue in favor of the new Constitution. The writers cited Montesquieu at length in defense of the wisdom of confederating the states into a single republic and of creating a government based upon a separation of powers. Although other scholars had also written on the separation of powers principle, Montesquieu was most closely associated with it, as James Madison noted in The Federalist, no. 47: "The oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject, is the celebrated Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to the attention of mankind." Montesquieu's arguments were also frequently used in the debates over the Constitution at the individual state conventions. Both proponents and opponents of the new Constitution respected him as a political authority, and both used his writings to bolster their arguments.

After the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Montesquieu continued to remain an authority on the creation of laws and the rule of government. The Spirit of the Laws continued to be taught at colleges and universities, and leaders of both political parties, the Republicans and the Federalists, used his arguments to advance their own. Montesquieu's only significant detractor was Thomas Jefferson, who believed, along with friends involved in the impending revolution in France, that Montesquieu was too enamored with England and its constitution. After the French Revolution and the radical changes it wrought, Montesquieu's writings came to seem dated and less relevant, and they gradually faded from the political debates. Even so, his work continued to exert a lasting influence on the laws of the United States through the Constitution that was so significantly shaped by his ideas.

further readings

Bergman, Matthew P. 1990. "Montesquieu's Theory of Government and the Framing of the American Constitution." Pepperdine Law Review 19 (December).

Carrese, Paul O. 2003. The Cloaking of Power: Montesquieu, Blackstone, and the Rise of Judicial Activism. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Rodgers, Joseph P. 1997. "Suspending the Rule of Law? Temporary Immunity as Violative of Montesquieu's Republican Virtue as Embodied in George Washington. Cleveland State Law Review 45 (spring): 301–27.


Constitution of the United States; Federalist Papers.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis De Secondat, Baron De La Brède Et De

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(b. La Brède, near Bordeaux, France, January 1689; d. Paris, France, 10 February 1755)

philosophy, political theory.

Montesquieu was born into a noble family traditionally in the service of the king of Navarre. Since the seventeenth century a member of the family had been président à mortier of the Parlement of Guyenne, at Bordeaux.

After attending the Oratorian collège in Juilly (1700–1705)and studying law at Bordeaux(1705– 1708), Charles-Louis de Secondat inherited from an uncle the name of Montesquieu and the office of président à mortier, which he held without enthusiasm and sold in 1726. Montesquieu was often received in Bordeaux society and became a member of the Académie de Bordeaux in 1716; traveled frequently to Paris, where he moved easily in high society. Famous for his Lettres persanes (1721) and elected to the Académie Française (1728), he took a long trip through central Europe, Italy, and Germany and stayed for more than fifteen months in England (November 1729-May 1730), where he became a fellow of the Royal Society and a Mason. After his return to France he wrote his most important work, L’esprit des lois, which provoked a vigorous debate upon its publication in 1748.

Attracted to science in his youth, Montesquieu presented to the Académie de Bordeaux several reports on scientific memoirs submitted to it (1718–1720). In 1719 he commenced the compilation of a physical history of the earth in ancient and modern times, requesting scientists from all over Europe to send him papers on the subject. The project was never completed, but the topic long concerned Montesquieu. Several passages from Mes pensées and various memoirs on mines written during the period 1731–1751 are evidence of his continuing interest. On 20 November 1721 Montesquieu read before the Académie de Bordeaux his “Observations sur l’histoire naturelle.” His remarks on insects, parasitic plants, and the anatomy of the frog show that he was well informed on the work of the Paris Académie des Sciences and accepted the primacy of observation, but that he remained much closer to the integral mechanism of Descartes than to the limited mechanism of Malebranche. Montesquieu denied the preexistence theory and interpreted the phenomena of vegetation purely mechanistically—including the formation of new tissues and of parasitic plants, such as mistletoe and mosses, which he considered to be vegetable excrescences rather than plants of a definite species. He was less interested in the notion of species than in the activity of nature, a position that led him to reject the intervention of Providence and to see the living world in a state of perpetual change, thus foreshadowing Diderot and recalling Lucretius. Similarly, the Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits outlines a psychophysiology with a clearly materialistic cast.

Montesquieu’s most significant work was in the social and political sciences, of which he has been considered a founder. In Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains, et de leur décadence (1734) he rejected the moral and religious point of view in order to establish a historical science capable of discovering the real causes of major historical events. The goal of L’esprit des lois was to discover the scientific law of social institutions and phenomena, which, according to Montesquieu, depend neither on Providence nor on chance. Montesquieu’s intention, in short, was to extend to human events his own mechanistic view of nature. This extension was effected without an unwarranted reduction of ethical, political, and social phenomena to physical factors. The analysis of political institutions led Montesquieu to link them with the esprit général of the societies that they govern, and analysis of this esprit général brought out the diversity of the factors that act on it. In addition to purely physical factors, such as climate and geography, there are also those pertaining to economics, demography, and ethical and religious traditions. (It may be remarked that Montesquieu studied religion as a social fact, without considering its truth or falsity.) The esprit général sustained the psychological principle proper to each type of government. Thus republican government rested on civic virtue, monarchy on honor, and despotism on fear. These moral foundations, without which governments could not remain what they are, can endure only so long as the various factors that determine the esprit général of the nation are appropriate. A healthy government should seek to maintain the vitality of its proper principle because the balance of physical, ethical, social, and political factors is never stable, and the government is always in danger of degenerating. That is why there is history. But knowledge of all the mediating factors and of their different combinations is bound to permit the rational explanation of even the most bizarre institutions and the most unexpected events.

This attempt to establish a science of social and political facts was based on the conviction that a rational order exists in seemingly diverse phenomena—a conviction especially evident in the writings of Malebranche, who influenced Montesquieu, and one shared by most scientists of the age. God, creator of this order and guarantor of its constancy and intelligibility, is also guarantor of the success of science. Montesquieu’s originality consists in having applied this approach to human societies and institutions.

Not everything in L’esprit des lois. however, is original; the theory of climates, in particular, is very old. Montesquieu’s writing often lacks scientific rigor: he selected the facts that suited his argument and rejected or misinterpreted those that did not. Moreover, he was far from possessing the knowledge necessary for the realization of his immense project. His purpose was not purely scientific: he wished to turn the French monarchy away from its despotic tendency and to introduce more humanity and reason into the laws. Although excessively moralistic and too involved in contemporary philosophical and political struggles to be a pure scientist, Montesquieu nevertheless offered an example of a scientific approach to political and social problems.


I. Original Works. Montesquieu’s writings were collected as Oeuvres complètes…, Roger Caillois, ed., 2 vols. (Paris, 1949–1951). His major work is L’esprit des lois. J. Brethe de la Gressaye, ed., 4 vols.(Paris, 1950–1961).

II. Secondary Literature. See L. Althusser, Montesquieu, la politique et l’histoire (Paris, 1969); S. Cotta, Montesquieu e la scienza della società (Turin, 1953); J. Ehrard, L’idée de nature en France dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1963), II, 493–515, 718–786, and passim; and R. Shackleton, Montesquieu. A Critical Biography (Oxford, 1961).

Jacques Roger

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Charles Louis de Secondat baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu