4 Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws

Spirit of the Laws (excerpts)



About this Text

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a French aristocrat whose works of political philosophy were widely influential among later political thinkers and among leading figures of the American founding.  The Federalist Papers, for example, treat Montesquieu as an authority on republicanism.  In these excerpts from his Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu addresses a theme of republicanism that we have already seen in both Aristotle and Cicero–the threat of corruption.  Near the end of these excerpts he considers the proper size of a republic and how size intersects with the possibility of corruption.



CHAP. I.: General Idea of this Book.

THE corruption of each government generally begins with that of the principles.

Stop and Think

Note Montesquieu’s assumption that every type of government has or is rooted in a principle.  Here we might think back to John Adams’ assertion that every government is rooted in a principle or passion of the people and the link Adams draws from there to the role of virtue in a republic.


CHAP. II.: Of the Corruption of the Principles of Democracy.

THE principle of democracy is corrupted, not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality, and when each citizen would fain be upon a level with those whom he has chosen to command him. Then the people, incapable of bearing the very power they have delegated, want to manage every thing themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges.

When this is the case virtue can no longer subsist in the republic. The people are desirous of exercising the functions of the magistrates; who cease to be revered. The deliberations of the senate are slighted: all respect is then laid aside for the senators, and consequently for old age. If there is no more respect for old age, there will be none presently for parents: deference to husbands will be likewise thrown off, and submission to masters. This licentiousness will soon become general, and the trouble of command be as fatiguing as that of obedience. Wives, children, slaves, will shake off all [144] subjection. No longer will there be any such things as manners, order, or virtue.

We find, in Xenophon’s Banquet, a very lively description of a republic in which the people abused their equality. Each guest gives, in his turn, the reason why he is satisfied. “Content I am, says Chamides, because of my poverty. When I was rich, I was obliged to pay my court to informers, knowing I was more liable to be hurt by them than capable of doing them harm. The republic constantly demanded some new tax of me; and I could not decline paying. Since I am grown poor, I have acquired authority; nobody threatens me; I rather threaten others. I can go or stay where I please. The rich already rise from their seats and give me the way. I am a king; I was before a slave: I paid taxes to the republic; now it maintains me: I am no longer afraid of losing, but I hope to acquire.”

The people fall into this misfortune when those in whom they confide, desirous of concealing their own corruption, endeavour to corrupt them. To disguise their own ambition, they speak to them only of the grandeur of the state; to conceal their own avarice, they incessantly slatter theirs.

The corruption will increase among the corrupters, and likewise among those who are already corrupted. The people will divide the public money among themselves, and, having added the administration of affairs to their indolence, will be for blending their poverty with the amusements of luxury. But, with their indolence and luxury, nothing but the public treasure will be able to satisfy their demands.

We must not be surprized to see their suffrages given for money. It is impossible to make great largesses to the people without great extortion: and, [145] to compass this, the state must be subverted. The greater the advantages they seem to derive from their liberty, the nearer they approach towards the critical moment of losing it. Petty tyrants arise, who have all the vices of a single tyrant. The small remains of liberty soon become insupportable; a single tyrant starts up, and the people are stripped of every thing, even of the profits of their corruption.

Democracy hath, therefore, two excesses to avoid; the spirit of inequality, which leads to aristocracy or monarchy; and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads to despotic power, as the latter is completed by conquest.

True it is, that those, who corrupted the Greek republics, did not always become tyrants. This was because they had a greater passion for eloquence than for the military art. Besides, there reigned an implacable hatred in the breasts of the Greeks against those who subverted a republican government; and, for this reason, anarchy degenerated into annihilation, instead of being changed into tyranny.

But Syracuse, being situated in the midst of a great number of petty states, whose government had been changed from oligarchy to tyranny, and being governed by a senate* scarcely ever mentioned in history, underwent such miseries as are the consequence of a more than ordinary corruption. This city, ever a prey to licentiousness or oppression, equally labouring under the sudden and alternate succession of liberty and servitude, and, notwithstanding [146] her external strength, constantly determined to a revolution by the least foreign power; this city, I say, had in her bosom an immense multitude of people, whose fate it was to have always this cruel alternative, either of choosing a tyrant to govern them, or of acting the tyrant themselves.

CHAP. V.: Of the Corruption of the Principle of Aristocracy.

ARISTOCRACY is corrupted if the power of the nobles becomes arbitrary: when this is the case, there can no longer be any virtue either in the governors or the governed.

If the reigning families observe the laws, it is a monarchy with several monarchs, and, in its own nature, one of the most excellent; for almost all these monarchs are tied down by the laws. But, when they do not observe them, it is a despotic state, swayed by a great many despotic princes.

In the latter case, the republic consists only in the nobles: the body governing is the republic; and the body governed is the despotic state; which form two of the most heterogeneous bodies in the world.

The extremity of corruption is when the power of the nobles becomes hereditary§; for then they can hardly have any moderation. If they are only a few, their power is greater, but their security less; if they are a larger number, their power is less, and their security greater: insomuch, that power goes on increasing, [148] and security diminishing, up to the very despotic prince, who is encircled with excess of power and danger.

The great number, therefore, of nobles, in an hereditary aristocracy, renders the government less violent: but, as there is less virtue, they fall into a spirit of supineness and negligence, by which the state loses all its strength and activity

An aristocracy may maintain the full vigour of its constitution, if the laws be such as are apt to render the nobles more sensible of the perils and fatigues, than of the pleasure, of command; and if the government be in such a situation as to have something to dread, while security shelters under its protection, and uncertainty threatens from abroad.

As a certain kind of confidence forms the glory and stability of monarchies, republics, on the contrary, must have something to apprehend*. A fear of the Persians supported the laws of Greece. Carthage and Rome were alarmed and strengthened by each other. Strange, that, the greater security those states enjoyed, the more, like stagnated waters, they were subject to corruption!

CHAP. VI.: Of the Corruption of the Principle of Monarchy.

AS democracies are subverted when the people despoil the senate, the magistrates, and judges, of their functions, so monarchies are corrupted when the prince insensibly deprives societies or cities of [149]their privileges. In the former case, the multitude usurps the power, in the latter, it is usurped by a single person.

“The destruction of the dynasties of Tsin and Soüi (says a Chinese author) was owing to this, the princes, instead of confining themselves, like their ancestors, to a general inspection, the only one worthy of a sovereign, wanted to govern every thing immediately by themselves.”

The Chinese author gives us, in this instance, the cause of the corruption of almost all monarchies.

Monarchy is destroyed, when a prince thinks he shews a greater exertion of power in changing, than in conforming to, the order of things; when he deprives some of his subjects of their hereditary employments to bestow them arbitrarily upon others; and when he is fonder of being guided by fancy than judgement.

Again, it is destroyed, when the prince, directing every thing entirely to himself, calls the state to his capital, the capital to his court, and the court to his own person.

It is destroyed, in fine, when the prince mistakes his authority, his situation, and the love of his people; and when he is not fully persuaded that a monarch ought to think himself secure, as a despotic prince ought to think himself in danger.

CHAP. VII.: The same Subject continued.

THE principle of monarchy is corrupted, when the first dignities are marks of the first servitude, when the great men are deprived of public respect, and rendered the low tools of arbitrary power.

It is still more corrupted, when honour is set up in contradiction to honours, and when men are capable of being loaded, at the very same time, with infamy and with dignities.

It is corrupted, when the prince changes his justice into severity; when he puts, like the Roman emperors, a Medusa’s head on his breast; and when he assumes that menacing and terrible air which Commodus ordered to be given to his statues§.

Again, it is corrupted, when mean and abject souls grow vain of the pomp attending their servitude, and imagine that the motive which induces them to be entirely devoted to their prince exempts them from all duty to their country.

But if it be true, (and indeed the experience of all ages has shewn it,) that, in proportion as the power of the monarch becomes boundless and immense, his security diminishes, is the corrupting of this power, and the altering of its very nature, a less crime than that of high-treason against the prince?

CHAP. X.: Of the Corruption of the Principle of despotic Government.

THE principle of despotic government is subject to a continual corruption, because it is, even in its nature, corrupt. Other governments are destroyed by particular accidents, which do violence to the principles of each constitution; this is ruined by its own intrinsic imperfections, when some accidental causes do not prevent the corrupting of its principles. It maintains itself, therefore, only when circumstances, drawn from the climate, religion, situation, or genius of the people, oblige it to conform to order, and to admit of some rule. By these things its nature is forced, without being changed; its ferocity remains; and it is made tame and tractable only for a time.

CHAP. XI.: Natural Effects of the Goodness and Corruption of the Principles of Government.

WHEN once the principles of government are corrupted, the very best laws become bad, and turn against the state: but, when the principles are sound, even bad laws have the same effect as good; the force of the principle draws every thing to it.

The inhabitants of Crete used a very singular method, to keep the principal magistrates dependent on the laws; WHEN once the principles of government are corrupted, the very best laws become bad, and turn against the state: but, when the principles are sound, even bad laws have the same effect as good; the force of the principle draws every thing to it.which was that of insurrection. Part of the citizens rose up in arms, put the magistrates [153]to flight, and obliged them to return to a private life. This was supposed to be done in consequence of the law. One would have imagined that an institution of this nature, which established sedition to hinder the abuse of power, would have subverted any republic whatsoever; and yet it did not subvert that of Crete. The reason is this:*

When the ancients would express a people that had the strongest affection for their country, they were sure to mention the inhabitants of Crete: Our country, said Plato, a name so dear to the Cretans. They called it by a name which signifies the love of a mother for her children. Now, the love of our country sets every thing to right.

The laws of Poland have likewise their insurrection: but the inconveniences thence arising plainly shew that the people of Crete alone were capable of using such a remedy with success.

The gymnic exercises, established among the Greeks, had the same dependence on the goodness of the principle of government. “It was the Lacedæmonians and Cretans (said Plato) that opened those celebrated academies which gave them so eminent a rank in the world. Modesty at first was alarmed; but it yielded to the public utility.” In Plato’s time these institutions were admirable,§ as they had a relation to a very important [154] object, which was the military art. But, when virtue fled from Greece, the military art was destroyed by these institutions; people appeared then on the arena, not for improvement, but for debauch.

Plutarch informs us,* that the Romans in his time were of opinion that those games had been the principal cause of the slavery into which the Greeks were fallen. On the contrary, it was the slavery of the Greeks that corrupted those exercises. In Plutarch’s time their fighting naked in the parks, and their wrestling, infected the young people with a spirit of cowardice, inclined them to infamous passions, and made them mere dancers: but, under Epaminondas, the exercise of wrestling made the Thebans win the famous battle of Leuctra.

There are very few laws which are not good, while the state retains its principles. Here I may apply what Epicurus said of riches: “It is not the liquor, but the vessel, that is corrupted.”

CHAP. XII.: The same Subject continued.

IN Rome the judges were chosen at first from the order of senators. This privilege the Gracchi transferred to the knights: Drusus gave it to the senators and knights; Sylla to the senators only; Cotta to the senators, knights, and public treasurers: Cæsar excluded the latter: Antony made decuries of senators, knights, and centurions.


When once a republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils, but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles: every other correction is either useless or a new evil. While Rome preserved her principles entire, the judicial power might, without any abuse, be lodged in the hands of senators: but, as soon as this city became corrupt, to whatever body that power was transferred, whether to the senate, to the knights, to the treasurers, to two of those bodies, to all three together, or to any other; matters still went wrong. The knights had no more virtue than the senate; the treasurers no more than the knights; and these as little as the centurions.

After the people of Rome had obtained the privilege of sharing the magistracy with the patricians, it was natural to think that their flatterers would immediately become arbiters of the government. But no such thing ever happened. It was observable, that the very people, who had rendered the plebeians capable of public offices, ever fixed their choice upon the patricians. Because they were virtuous, they were magnanimous; and, because they were free, they had a contempt of power. But, when their morals were corrupted, the more power they were possessed of, the less prudent was their conduct; till, at length, upon becoming their own tyrants and slaves, they lost the strength of liberty, to fall into the weakness and impotency of licentiousness.

CHAP. XIII.: The Effect of an Oath among virtuous People.

THERE is no nation, says Livy, that has been longer uncorrupted than the Romans; no nation [156]where moderation and poverty have been longer respected.

Such was the influence of an oath among those people, that nothing bound them stronger to the laws. They often did more, for the observance of an oath, than they would ever have performed for the thirst of glory, or for the love of their country.

When Quintus Cincinnatus the consul wanted to raise an army in the city against the Æqui and the Volsci, the tribunes opposed him. “Well, said he, let all those, who have taken an oath to the consul of the preceding year, march under my banner.”§ In vain did the tribunes cry out that this oath was no longer binding, and that, when they took it, Quintus was but a private person: the people were more religious than those who pretended to direct them; they would not listen to the distinctions or equivocations of the tribunes.

When the same people thought of retiring to the Sacred Mount, they felt some remorse from the oath they had taken to the consuls that they would follow them into the field. They entered then into a design of killing the consuls, but dropped it when they were given to understand that their oath would still be binding. Now, it is easy to judge of the notion they entertained of the violation of an oath, from the crime they intended to commit.

After the battle of Cannæ the people were seized with such a panic, that they would fain have retired to Sicily: but, Scipio having prevailed upon them to swear they would not stir from Rome, the fear of violating this oath surpassed all other apprehensions. Rome was a ship held by two anchors, religion and morality, in the midst of a furious tempest.


CHAP. XIV.: How the smallest Change of the Constitution is attended with the Ruin of its Principles.

ARISTOTLE mentions the city of Carthage as a well regulated republic. Polybius tells us,* that there was this inconvenience, at Carthage, in the second Punic war, that the senate had lost almost all their authority. We are informed, by Livy, that, when Hannibal returned to Carthage, he found that the magistrates and the principal citizens had abused their power, and converted the public revenues to their private emolument. The virtue, therefore, of the magistrates, and the authority of the senate, both fell at the same time; and all was owing to the same cause.

Every one knows the wonderful effects of the censorship among the Romans. There was a time when it grew burthensome; but still it was supported, because there was more luxury than corruption. Claudius weakened its authority; by which means the corruption became greater than the luxury, and the censorship dwindled away of itself. After various interruptions and resumptions, it was entirely laid aside till it became altogether useless; that is, till the reigns of Augustus and Claudius.

CHAP. XV.: Sure Methods of preserving the three Principles.

I shall not be able to make myself rightly understood, till the reader has perused the four following chapters.

CHAP. XVI.: Distinctive Properties of a Republic.

IT is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation: there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country. IT is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. 

In an extensive republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and of course are less protected.

The long duration of the republic of Sparta was owing to her having continued in the same extent of territory after all her wars. The sole aim of Sparta was liberty; and the sole advantage of her liberty glory.

It was the spirit of the Greek republics to be as contented with their territories as with their laws. Athens was first fired with ambition, and gave it to Lacedæmon; but it was an ambition rather of commanding a free people than of governing slaves; rather of directing than of breaking the union. All was lost upon the starting up of monarchy, a government whose spirit is more turned to increase of dominion.

Excepting particular circumstances*, it is difficult for any other than a republican government to subsist longer in a single town. A prince of so petty a state would naturally endeavour to oppress his subjects, because his power would be great, while the means of enjoying it, or of causing it to be respected, would be inconsiderable. The consequence is, he would trample upon his people. On the other hand, such a prince might be easily crushed by a foreign, or even a domestic, force; the people might every instant unite and rise up against him. Now, as soon as the sovereign of a single town is expelled, the quarrel is over; but, if he has many towns, it only begins.

Stop and Think

Why is it important for Montesquieu that a republic be small in size?  How does the question of size relate to the “principle” of a republic and to the corruption of a republic?



CHAP. I.: In what Manner Republics provide for their Safety.

IF a republic be small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it be large, it is ruined by an internal imperfection.

To this twofold inconveniency democracies and aristocracies are equally liable, whether they be good or bad. The evil is in the very thing itself, and no form can redress it.

It is therefore very probable that mankind would have been, at length, obliged to live constantly under the government of a single person, had they not contrived a kind of constitution that has all the internal advantages of a republican, together with the external force of a monarchical, government. I mean, a confederate republic.

This form of government is a convention, by which several petty states agree to become members of a larger one, which they intend to establish. It is a kind of assemblage of societies, that constitute a new one, capable of increasing by means of farther associations, till they arrive to such a degree of power, as to be able to provide for the security of the whole body.

It was these associations that so long contributed to the prosperity of Greece. By these the Romans attacked the whole globe; and by these alone the whole globe withstood them. For, when Rome was arrived to her highest pitch of grandeur, it was the associations beyond the Danube and the Rhine, associations [166] formed by the terror of her arms, that enabled the barbarians to resist her.

From hence it proceeds that Holland, Germany, and the Swiss Cantons, are considered in Europe as perpetual republics.

The associations of cities were formerly more necessary than in our times. A weak defenceless town was exposed to greater danger. By conquest, it was deprived not only of the executive and legislative power, as at present, but moreover of all human property.

A republic of this kind, able to withstand an external force, may support itself without any internal corruption; the form of this society prevents all manner of inconveniences.

If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme power, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great an influence over one, this would alarm the rest; were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free might oppose him with forces independent of those which he had usurped, and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation.

Should a popular insurrection happen in one of the confederate states, the others are able to quell it. Should abuses creep into one part, they are reformed by those that remain sound. The state may be destroyed on one side and not on the other; the confederacy may be dissolved, and the confederates preserve their sovereignty.

As this government is composed of petty republics, it enjoys the internal happiness of each; and, [167]with regard to its external situation, by means of the association, it possesseth all the advantages of large monarchies.

Stop and Think

Montesquieu’s reference to a confederation or confederate republic will figure in the Federalist Paper’s defense of the size of the United States.  What does Montesquieu mean by “confederate” and how does he think the idea of confederation works as a response to the challenges faced by republics?



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