Céline Spector


1In order to designate the activities of production and exchange, the term “commerce” is more pertinent than “economy” in the eighteenth century. In the period dictionaries the term takes on two distinct meanings: broadly, it designates communication among men, their connections, their mutual frequentation in “worldly commerce”, and can be applied to cultural as much as material exchanges; it refers in the second instance to the exchange of goods to the end of satisfying needs, to the practices of buying and selling. In this second sense, the study of commerce leads to the evaluation of sources of the wealth of nations and the discovery of the means by which the accumulation of wealth by individuals may lead to the enrichment of the state. Montesquieu for his part devotes two full books in The Spirit of Law to the relation between laws and commerce (book XX) and its history (book XXI). Analyzed as a cultural, social and political phenomenon, commerce thus acquires in his work – which appeared several years before the physiocrats popularized political economy – an unprecedented status.

The political importance of commerce

2The use of economy is first understood in Montesquieu as a critique of a certain figure of raison d’État. Montesquieu not only asserts that despotism and the rise of commerce are incompatible, he maintains that commerce, by virtue of the nomadism of merchant capital, can hinder the success of arbitrary operations and great coups d’autorité (authoritative measures). The new financial instruments introduce the mobility of property: liquid wealth can escape the control of sovereignty. As Albert Hirschman has shown, the praise of doux commerce thus rests on the effects of self-interested rationality: the passions of princes are regulated neither by reason nor by virtue but by self-interest. In The Spirit of Law Montesquieu attempts to explain “how commerce came into existence amidst the barbarianism of Europe”. The chapter title is not innocent: it implies an apology of commerce as opposed to “barbarianism”, and is therefore already a synonym, it seems, of “civilization”. Montesquieu draws attention to the role of the bill of exchange, the invention of which permitted persecuted Jews to deterritorialize their wealth, to “escape violence” and make the world their city (XXI, 20). Since the invention of the bill of exchange (a means of accelerating the circulation of capital, allowing it to flee at the whim of its holders), the supposed prudence of Machiavellism has become a genuine imprudence. The preservation and growth of the state henceforth passes through the conservation of wealth; yet “only the goodness of the government can confer prosperity” (“il n’y a plus que la bonté du gouvernement qui donne de la prospérité”). The impulsive meanness of princes is here avoided by a “happy” disposition of circumstances: instead of a direct action on the passions, the historical evolution makes it possible to take advantage of a beneficial result, moderation, which in this case comes from no moral intention. Security, which constitutes the very substance of political liberty in the definition which Montesquieu gives, is supported by the rise of commerce: “What makes merchants more independent is that their goods are more outside the reach of the sovereign’s hands” (“Ce qui fait que les gens de commerce sont plus indépendants, c’est que leurs biens sont plus hors de portée des mains du souverain”, Pensées, no. 776, copied about 1734-1735). As Pierre Manant emphasizes, the interest of princes thus speaks a different language in Montesquieu’s time as opposed to that of Machiavelli: far from provoking coups d’autorité for the purpose of consolidating their power, necessity advises them to be good and to moderate their desire to dominate.

3The creation of merchant republics testifies in turn to the way in which commerce can promote freedom. Thanks to commerce, men have means to escape the violence and religious or political persecutions and survive in the most sterile territories by transporting resources produced worldwide – thus in Holland (XX, 5). Fleeing the evils of political arbitrariness, commerce creates new refuges against the abuse of power. Book XXI of The Spirit of Law first takes up the “reign” of commerce: “Commerce, sometimes destroyed by conquerors and sometimes restrained by monarchs, scans the earth, flees from places where it is oppressed, rests in places where it is allowed to do so: it now reigns in places where only deserts, seas, and rocks were to be seen; where it once reigned there are only deserts” (“Le commerce, tantôt détruit par les conquérants, tantôt gêné par les monarques, parcourt la terre, fuit d’où il est opprimé, se repose où on le laisse respirer : il règne aujourd’hui où l’on ne voyait que des déserts, des mers et des rochers ; là où il régnait, il n’y a que des déserts”, XXI, 5). But at the end of the history of commerce the situation is reversed: the mobility of commerce no longer allows it merely to flee the abuses of power, but also to counter them – the flight of capital provoking reverse effects on the political domain (XXI, 16 [20]). Power henceforth appears subordinate to the domination of the economy, the realm of which extend beyond borders. The lesson of history is clear: through the globalization of exchanges, merchant societies acquire a sort of autonomy with respect to sovereign powers. The history of commerce exposes the progressive establishment of a global “civil society” which can bend the politics of states: as Catherine Larrère writes, the history of commerce “summarizes this balance swing from the political to the social, this emancipation of society with respect to government (2002, p. 330).

4Still, Montesquieu does not believe in the unfailing link between the market and freedom. If it can prevent a moderate state from falling into despotism, commerce has no way of transforming a despotic state into a moderate one. Good will does not suffice: “Moscovia is inclined to fall into despotism, and cannot. The establishment of commerce requires that of exchange; and the operations of exchange contradict all its laws” (“La Moscovie voudrait descendre de son despotisme, et ne le peut. L’établissement du commerce demande celui du change ; et les opérations du change contredisent toutes ses lois”, XXII, 14). The political and juridical obstacle here is irreducible: commerce cannot impose freedom.

Spirit of conquest and spirit of commerce

5What characterizes commerce is first of all its docility. In The Spirit of Law, the docility of commerce stems from the moral benefits owing to the multiplication of processes of exchange. The savageness of mores that characterized the ancient military republics tended toward disappearance in favor of greater humanity in modern states:

Commerce is a cure for destructive prejudices; and it is nearly a general rule that wherever mores are docile there is commerce, and wherever there is commerce the mores are docile.
Let us then not be surprised if our mores are less savage than they used to be. Commerce has disseminated everywhere knowledge of the mores of all nations: they have been compared with each other, and great good has come from it.
We can say that the laws of commerce refine mores, for the same reason that those very laws condemn them. Commerce corrupts pure mores( a ): that was the subject of Plato’s complaints; it refines and tames barbaric mores, as we see every day.
(a) Cæsar says of the Gauls that the proximity and commerce of Marseille had spoiled them so that they who formerly had always defeated the Germans had become inferior to them. [Le commerce guérit des préjugés destructeurs ; et c’est presque une règle générale, que partout où il y a des mœurs douces, il y a du commerce, et que partout où il y a du commerce, il y a des mœurs douces.
Qu’on ne s’étonne donc point si nos mœurs sont moins féroces qu’elles ne l’étaient autrefois. Le commerce a fait que la connaissance des mœurs de toutes les nations a pénétré partout : on les a comparées entre elles, et il en a résulté de grands biens.
On peut dire que les lois du commerce perfectionnent les mœurs, par la même raison que ces mêmes lois perdent les mœurs. Le commerce corrompt les mœurs pures(a) : c’était le sujet des plaintes de Platon ; il polit et adoucit les mœurs barbares, comme nous le voyons tous les jours (XX, 1).
(a) César dit des Gaulois que le voisinage et le commerce de Marseille les avaient gâtés de façon qu’eux, qui autrefois avaient toujours vaincu les Germains, leur étaient devenus inférieurs. Guerre des Gaules, liv. VI.]

6Not that we need invoke here a natural desire for security and property, expressed in commerce and favoring pity or humanity. The “docility” results from the comparison of nations with each other associated with commercial travels. More than a simple transport of merchandise deriving from an exchange of the necessary for surplus, commerce is indeed conceived as circulation of men and “communication of peoples” (XXI, 5). It is the navigators who, by bearing a form of knowledge relative to the difference of cultures, contributes to the attenuation of the savagery tied to ignorance and prejudices: “Knowledge makes men docile; reason leads to humanity: only prejudices cause us to abandon it” (“Les connaissances rendent les hommes doux ; la raison porte à l’humanité : il n’y a que les préjugés qui y fassent renoncer”, XV, 3).

7The docility of commerce stems in the second instance from the type of conduct and rational self-interested action it tends by its practice to generalize. Thanks to the diffusion of the spirit of calculation, men tend to relinquish military rationale, in which gains for the ones are losses for others. In The Spirit of Law, the pacifying virtues of commerce come from the interdependency of exchanges: “if the one has an interest in buying, the other has interest in selling, and all unions are founded on mutual needs” (“si l’une a intérêt d’acheter, l’autre a intérêt de vendre, et toutes les unions sont fondées sur des besoins mutuels”, XX, 2). Whereas war separates peoples, commerce unites them. Montesquieu’s starting point is the very process of exchange: the negotiation by which the interests of the ones must be accommodated with those of the others contrasts with the warrior spirit that admits no consideration of the “enemy”’s advantages.

8As Catherine Larrère has shown, the discourse on economy is in this way inscribed at the heart of a reflection on international relations. Reflections on universal monarchy tries to account for the historical mutation of the spirit of conquest into the spirit of commerce, which politicians must acknowledge. First destined to appear after Considerations on the Romans in 1734 before being withdrawn from circulation by Montesquieu himself, this piece envisages the passage from an agonistic vision of the international relations seen from the angle of the art of war to the pacific conception of a community of interests. Europe, the center of rivalries and power, needs to be seen in the light of new geopolitical and economic circumstances: “Europe is but one nation made up of several, France and England require the opulence of Poland and Moscovia, as one of their provinces requires the others; and the state that thinks it can increase its power by the ruin of its neighbor is generally weakened along with it” (“l’Europe n’est plus qu’une nation composée de plusieurs, la France et l’Angleterre ont besoin de l’opulence de la Pologne et de la Moscovie, comme une de leurs provinces a besoin des autres ; et l’État qui croit augmenter sa puissance par la ruine de celui qui le touche, s’affaiblit ordinairement avec lui”, Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle, xviii, OC, t. II, p. 360 ; see Pensées, no. 318, prior to 1731). If the modern era is that of commerce and not conquest, the criteria of political judgment are thereby modified. Monarchs must put the economic figure of power in place of victory measured in territory: “It is in Europe that the commerce and navigation of the entire world takes place; thus, according to whether a state has a greater or lesser share in that navigation or in that commerce, its power must increase or diminish” (“L’Europe fait à présent tout le commerce et toute la navigation de l’univers ; or, suivant qu’un État prend plus ou moins de part à cette navigation ou à ce commerce, il faut que sa puissance augmente ou diminue”, Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle, ii, p. 341). In his Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and their decadence, Montesquieu insists for this reason on what separates moderns from the ancients so as to discredit the example of Rome. It would be an error not to take into account the historical mutation that led the “spirit of commerce” to replace, in the previous four hundred years, the “spirit of conquest” which had for a time prevailed. If ever the spirit of conquest was justified from the standpoint of the politics of power, it henceforth appeared void of meaning: But now that all the civilized peoples are, so to speak, members of one great republic, it is wealth that makes for power, there being no nation today which has advantages which a richer one could not almost always have.
But this wealth always varies, and so does power; and whatever success a conquering state may have, there is always a certain reaction which makes it revert to the state from which it had emerged. (Réflexions sur la monarchie universelleii, p. 341-342) [Mais aujourd’hui que les peuples tous policés sont, pour ainsi dire, les membres d’une grande république, ce sont les richesses qui font la puissance, n’y ayant point aujourd’hui de nation qui ait des avantages qu’une plus riche ne puisse presque toujours avoir.
Mais ces richesses variant toujours, la puissance change de même ; et quelque succès qu’un État conquérant puisse avoir, il y a toujours une certaine réaction qui le fait rentrer dans l’état dont il était sorti.]

9The English case is emblematic. More than any other nation, England incarnated the principles of doux commerce, which made possible the establishment a reciprocal formulation by which commerce brings peace with it: “That nation, which peace and freedom would make prosperous, freed from destructive prejudices, would be impelled to become a trading nation” (“Cette nation, que la paix et la liberté rendraient aisée, affranchie des préjugés destructeurs, serait portée à devenir commerçante”, XIX, 27). The finest praise in book XX goes to it: as Voltaire had also pointed out in Lettres philosophiques (1734), “it is the people which of all has been best able to take best advantage of three great things: religion, commerce, and freedom” (“c’est le peuple du monde qui a le mieux su se prévaloir à la fois de ces trois grandes choses : la religion, le commerce et la liberté”, XX, 6 [7]). By making of commerce the very form of its power and the guarantor of its independence, England was able to discover the true link that binds wealth and power among modern nations: commerce is no longer merely the instrument of its power, but its very substance. Nevertheless, Montesquieu is far from neglecting English commercial jealousy. Competition of interests can impel toward conflict: A trading nation has a prodigious number of small, individual interests; it can shock and be shocked in myriad ways. It would become sovereignly jealous; and it would suffer more from the prosperity of the others than it would enjoy its own.
And its laws, otherwise docile and easy, could be so rigid with respect to the commerce and navigation others would practice on her shores that it would seem to be negotiating only with enemies. (XIX, 27, our emphasis) [Une nation commerçante a un nombre prodigieux de petits intérêts particuliers ; elle peut donc choquer et être choquée d’une infinité de manières. Celle-ci deviendrait souverainement jalouse ; et elle s’affligerait plus de la prospérité des autres, qu’elle ne jouirait de la sienne.
Et ses lois, d’ailleurs douces et faciles, pourraient être si rigides à l’égard du commerce et de la navigation qu’on ferait chez elle, qu’elle semblerait ne négocier qu’avec des ennemis.]

10By excluding “docility” from the laws of commerce and re-introducing “the enemy” in the practice of negotiation, Montesquieu appears not to be yielding to naïve liberal optimism. He was surely not forgetting the Navigation Acts and the flexible and regulated tariffs that would later be applied to the rigid French customs must not obscure this protectionist aspect of English policy. In his Pensées Montesquieu relates England’s negotiations in view of excluding France from trading with Portugal and “destroying” the commerce she carries out with Spain (Pensées, no. 1966). The Spirit of Law is not oblivious to the fact that the “free nation” has not renounced war any more than it has renounced empire: opting for “war by sea” over “land war”, changing the “objects of conquest” (the colonies) into “objects of trade”, she simply gives evidence of greater “refinement” (XIX, 27 ; XXI, 17 [21]). In this respect, self-interest is not conceived only as a principle of association but also as a principle of dissociation: “Sovereignly jealous of trade carried out on her shores, [England] commits via treaties and depends only on her laws” (“Souverainement jalouse du commerce qu’on fait chez elle, elle [l’Angleterre] se lie peu par des traités et ne dépend que de ses lois”, XX, 6 [7]). Because states cannot renounce all intentions of domination, the commercial harmony of self-interests is considered by Montesquieu only as the desirable horizon of modernity and a factor for pacification.

The critique of autarchy

11The affirmation means to be economically founded: that doux commerce may reign over relations between nations depends on the very mechanism of exchange. Montesquieu illuminates the paradoxes of the defense of protectionism or autarchy, which ignores reciprocity and exposes itself to counter-measures. Restriction of imports would have no other effect than to make all future exportation uncertain; the impoverishment of rivals endangers the markets for national products. The very definition of exchange, based on equivalence, and thus on soluble demand, is at issue: “There is this difference, that in the case of purchase trade takes place in proportion to the needs of the nation that demands the most; and that in exchange, trade takes place only to the extent of the needs of the nation that demands the least, otherwise the latter would find it impossible to settle its account” (“Il y a cette différence que, dans le cas de l’achat, le commerce se fait à proportion des besoins de la nation qui demande le plus ; et que, dans l’échange, le commerce se fait seulement dans l’étendue des besoins de la nation qui demande le moins, sans quoi, cette dernière serait dans l’impossibilité de solder son compte”, XXII, 1). Since “everything is exchange”, any loss to the ones is a future loss to the others: “[…] states always tend to put themselves in the balances and obtain their own liberation; thus they borrow only in proportion to what they can pay, and buy only to the extent that they sell […]” (“[…] les États tendent toujours à se mettre dans la balance et à se procurer leur libération ; ainsi ils n’empruntent qu’à proportion de ce qu’ils peuvent payer, et n’achètent qu’à mesure qu’ils vendent […]”, XXII, 10 ; see also Pensées, no. 832, prior to 1739).

12Montesquieu breaks with Colbertism: it is useful to peoples who cultivate the arts (in other words, technology) that others should do likewise, for the source of wealth thus created will allow the importation of new manufactured products. The mercantilist thesis according to which any gain in power can be obtained only by a decrease in others’ power is false (Pensées, no. 1800). In book XX of The Spirit of Law Montesquieu thus challenges the mercantilist model of zero-sum game; the wealth of some does not grow by simple skimming from that of others. In wealthy countries the commercial balance does not correspond to a static equilibrium but to a dynamic equilibrium, the condition of combined growth. Wealth cannot be accumulated overnight: “The surplus quantity of what [Japan] may receive produces the surplus quantity of what it may send” (“La quantité excessive de ce qu’il [le Japon] peut recevoir, produit la quantité excessive de ce qu’il peut envoyer”, XXI, 21 [23]). Such is the reason for which a nation that holds resources has every interest in opening itself to exchanges: “things will be in balance as if import and export were moderate; and moreover this sort of inflation would produce numerous advantages for the state: there will be more consumption, more things to which the arts may be applied, more men employed, more means of acquiring power” (“les choses seront en équilibre comme si l’importation et l’exportation étaient modérées ; et d’ailleurs cette espèce d’enflure produira à l’État mille avantages : il y aura plus de consommation, plus de choses sur lesquelles les arts peuvent s’exercer, plus d’hommes employés, plus de moyens d’acquérir de la puissance”, XX, 21 [23], following immediately on the previous text). This refusal of opposition between exterior and interior marks a decisive break with respect to so-called mercantilist authors; the difference between interior justice and exterior chrematistics is meaningless. Correlatively, the wish to limit oneself to importation of the “necessary” by proscribing importation of luxury items is absurd: “It is unlikely that a country will be devoid of surplus goods; but it is the nature of trade to make surplus goods useful, and the useful ones necessary. The state can thus offer necessary goods to a larger number of subjects” (“Il est difficile qu’un pays n’ait des choses superflues ; mais c’est la nature du commerce de rendre les choses superflues utiles, et les utiles nécessaires. L’État pourra donc donner les choses nécessaires à un plus grand nombre de sujets”, ibid.). The current definition of commerce, the exchange of surplus goods for needed goods, is thus deconstructed.

13Such an harmonization of interests remains, however, conceived in restrictive manner: it excludes the “poor” nations – deprived of agricultural or manufacturing resources. The nations which may be prejudiced by exterior trade are not the naturally well endowed ones, which can meet their own needs – in this case France, whose providential aptitude for self-reliance was constantly trumpeted – but the deprived nations, ones lacking liquid goods and an instrument of exchange: “In trading countries, money which has suddenly evaporated returns, because the states that have absorbed it also owe it; in the states of which we speak, money never returns, because those who have taken it are not in debt” (“Dans les pays de commerce, l’argent qui s’est tout à coup évanoui, revient, parce que les États qui l’ont reçu, le doivent ; dans les États dont nous parlons, l’argent ne revient jamais, parce que ceux qui l’ont pris ne doivent rien”, ibid.). To those states that lack “everything” and always import more than they export, it is not insertion into international commerce that is advised, but rather a withdrawal from the world exchange market. Globalization is prejudicial to poor nations: “A country that always sends less merchandise or foodstuffs than it receives puts itself into equilibrium by becoming poorer: it will receive ever less until the time when, in extreme poverty, it no longer receives anything at all” (“Un pays qui envoie toujours moins de marchandises ou de denrées qu’il n’en reçoit, se met lui-même en équilibre en s’appauvrissant : il recevra toujours moins, jusqu’à ce que, dans une pauvreté extrême, il ne reçoive plus rien”, ibid.). Domestically, this self-destructive equilibrium plays to the detriment of those who have least; the structural deficit of the commercial balance is a factor for increased misery. An adequate development would be one which privileges food production which benefits the greatest number.

14If the harmony of interests is on the other hand affirmed between rich or civilized nations, it is because moderate growth is supposed potentially to benefit everyone. Montesquieu furnishes the paradigm for this with regard to the quantity of currency that should be injected into trade. The moderation proposed by The Spirit of Law is valid for the economy; the growth of commerce should be imperceptible so as not to engender perverse effects (economic crises, social disequilibria: see Pensées, no. 1650).

Freedom of commerce

15 The Spirit of Law ties together in this way political philosophy, economic doctrine and a theory of international relations. In book XX the distinction between luxury trade and a trade economy manifests the complementarity between republics and monarchies, in opposition to the rivalry traditionally evoked (XX, 4). Montesquieu gives the nod to an international division of functions based on political typology. On the one hand, republican Holland, dedicated to a trade economy, cannot be considered a genuine adversary: instead of hobbling its trade on commissions, it should on the contrary be encouraged, for it offers only advantages to the nations that practice luxury trade (XX, 8). On the other hand, it is absurd to decree sumptuary laws, as mercantilist policy would call for, so as to forbid importations of luxury items. Luxury is reserved to monarchical governments and to the sociable type that characterizes them: “[…] its principal [the 1748-1750 text says unique] object is to procure for the nation that exercises it whatever can serve its vanity, its delights and its fantasies” (“[…] son objet principal est de procurer à la nation qui le fait tout ce qui peut servir à son orgueil, à ses délices et à ses fantaisies”, XX, 4). The only sumptuary laws that are appropriate in monarchies are those whose objective is “relative frugality” (VII, 5).

16Most mercantilist practices are discredited in The Spirit of Law: they can hardly suit – and still uncertainly – the trade of republics. The typological distinction answers to the contemporary debate over the aptitude of monarchies for trade: Montesquieu theorizes the conditions of a commerce specific to monarchy, endowed with an objective and provided with institutions specific to it. The propositions of Law’s system, tied to despotic homogenization and to an “equal ignorance of the republican and of the monarchical constitution” (II, 4), are just as inadequate. Montesquieu’s critique particularly targets privileged companies, whose usefulness is limited to republics alone. It is a mistake to grant to individuals exclusive privileges so they may trade in the colonies: “One has no confidence in such persons; the perpetual changes in the persons to whom it is entrusted break the continuity of trade; no one oversees the trade, to ensure it is not left in ruins to his successor; and lastly the profit remains in individual hands, and does not reach far enough” (“On n’a point de confiance en de pareilles gens ; le commerce est discontinué par le changement perpétuel de ceux à qui on le confie ; personne ne ménage ce commerce, et ne se soucie de le laisser perdu à son successeur ; enfin le profit reste dans des mains particulières, et ne s’étend pas assez”, XX, 18 [20]; the 1757-1758 editions suppress finally / enfin). In the name of confidence and the need for a diffusion of wealth through society as a whole, the Colbertist policy is thus denounced. In The Spirit of Law the critique of monopolies also regards the use of political or social privileges in the economy. Such is the reason for which the nobility must be forbidden to trade in aristocracies: “such accredited merchants would make all sorts of monopolies. Trade is the profession of equal persons; and among despotic states the most miserable are those in which the prince is a merchant” (“des marchands si accrédités feraient toutes sortes de monopoles. Le commerce est la profession des gens égaux ; et parmi les États despotiques, les plus misérables sont ceux où le prince est marchand”, V, 8). The same argument applies to the prince in monarchies: whether he is a merchant himself, or entrusts the trade to another person, the monarch must not take part in commerce (XX, 17 [19]). The relations between public and private require, in monarchies, that the public be a judge and not a party: the privileged companies (which give “to individual wealth the power of public wealth”, XX, 9 [10]), such as banks (which make of individual money the prince’s “treasury”), or trade carried on by the prince (which lowers him to individual rank) are thus contrary to its spirit.

17The revendication in favor of freedom of trade in The Spirit of Law is therefore in no way related to the adoption of an anti-free-trade position. It is important not to fall into a retrospective reading distorted by the liberal schema, dating from the nineteenth century, of an opposition between freedom and law. By entitling book XX “On laws in their relation to trade considered in its nature and distinctions” (“Des lois dans le rapport qu’elles ont avec le commerce considéré dans sa nature et ses distinctions”), Montesquieu indicates that he does not intend to abandon the state’s pretention to legislate on the subject. In this respect, the praise of England allows us better to focus the matter: by making its political interests yield to the interests of its trade, this “independent”, “sovereignly jealous” nation does not subordinate trade to the desire for grandeur, commercial interests to political interests; but it does not fail to raise protectionist barriers, which vary with the need. England “constrains the merchant, but in the interest of trade”; a form of regulation continues to prevail there. The absence of set tariff with the other nations is simply a token of adaptation to variable conjectures. On this point, Montesquieu approves of Melon, who in his Political Essay on Commerce (Essai politique sur le commerce, 1734) maintained that the English Navigation Act is compatible with the freedom of trade. Henceforth rights more flexibly calculated in function of the variations of exchanges must be preferred to the prohibitions compatible with weak foreign trade.

18One of the central theses of book XX of The Spirit of Law comes out in this way: freedom of trade is not the freedom of merchants. It is not a “faculty accorded to merchants to do what they want”, outside any claim of law or governmental regulation: “What constrains the merchant does not for that reason constrain commerce. It is in free countries that the merchant finds numberless contradictions; and he is never less crossed by the laws than in countries of servitude” (“Ce qui gêne le commerçant ne gêne pas pour cela le commerce. C’est dans les pays de la liberté que le négociant trouve des contradictions sans nombre ; et il n’est jamais moins croisé par les lois que dans les pays de la servitude”, XX, 11 [12]). This proposition is fundamental: the state’s point of view remains privileged. The dissociation between freedom of trade and freedom of merchants allows one to exclude the idea of self-regulations of the domain of exchanges. Whereas a certain category of merchants calls for freedom of trade “à la hollandaise” in the name of the identity of the state’s interests with those of the merchants, The Spirit of Law does not subscribe to this vision of spontaneous harmony: the logic of individual profit is not necessarily the road to national prosperity. Thus Montesquieu insists on the need to regulate the expression of private interests. The Spirit of Law again echoes Melon’s Political Essay on Commerce which, after setting forth his preference for freedom over protection, explained in what sense this besmirched term should be understood. For Melon, regulations and controls are needed so as to counter the merchant’s “fraudulent cupidity”: Freedom, in a government, does not consist in the freedom of every person to do what he finds convenient, but only to do what is not contrary to the general weal. Likewise, freedom in trade ought not to consist in an imprudent license to merchants to receive freely all sorts of merchandise, but only merchandise the exportation and importation of which can confer on each citizen the ability to exchange his surplus for the necessary things he lacks, in accordance with the definition of trade. (Melon, Essai politique sur le commerce, xi)

19Nor does Montesquieu identify freedom with license: freedom is freedom under law, decreed by the state in function of the requirements of its power.

From the Considerations to book XXI of The Spirit of Law

20In this context, the primary ambition of book XXI of The Spirit of Law is to establish in history the dissociation of the spirit of conquest and the spirit of commerce by disqualifying the Roman model: “their genius, their glory, their military education, the force of their government, kept them out of trade” (“leur génie, leur gloire, leur éducation militaire, la force de leur gouvernement, les éloignaient du commerce”, XXI, 10 [14]). As the Considerations had already suggested, the Romans did not make use of trade in order to increase their power: their money was the result of pillage, and a system of fiscal collection leading to the ruin of the conquered peoples as well as to the most pitiless demands (Romains, vi, OC, t. II, p. 138-139). Incompetent at navigation until they imitated the Carthaginians and built a fleet capable of conquering them, “the Roman people did not cultivate trade and the arts, which it regarded as slave occupations” (“le peuple romain ne cultivait point le commerce et les arts, il les regardait comme des occupations d’esclave”, x, p. 163; l’édition de 1748 ajoute : « [les Romains] ne les exerçaient point ) ; in a word, they knew no other way than “the art of war” to attain to honors and magistracies. If the Romans participated in foreign trade with Arabia and the Indies, they were forced by the Barbarians to trade with them (XXI, 15-16). As for domestic trade, its principal branch, according to Montesquieu, was trade in grains destined for the people’s subsistence, “which was a police matter rather than an object of trade” (XXI, 12 [16]). All these arguments target the same goal: to show over against Huet, bishop of Avranches – whom the manuscript of book XXI mentions at this point – that the idea that “trade is the most useful thing to a state” does not imply that the Romans had encouraged and honored it: the fear of communicating “the art of conquering” to conquered nations caused them to neglect “the art of building wealth” (XXI, 10 and 11 [14 and 15]).

21The opposition to Huet is thus an opposition to the mercantilist paradigm of the art of war: whereas the bishop of Avranches, writing to Colbert, entwines the spirit of conquest and the spirit of commerce to show the superiority of the Roman model of which France should aspire to be the heir, the author of The Spirit of Law dissociates the two spirits the better to rally to the Athenian superiority of which England will be the modern figure. To the fallen model of terrestrial empire The Spirit of Law opposes that of maritime empire, citing Athens or England – Venice, the classical example of a durable maritime empire, is scarcely mentioned. The theme of trading and maritime empire appears in relation to the description of the Athenian empire: “You would say that Xenophon [in fact the pseudo-Xenophon, author of The Constitution of Athens] meant to be speaking of England” (“Vous diriez que Xénophon a voulu parler de l’Angleterre”). It remains that Athens, avid for glory, did not go very far in the extension of its trade: Athens, full of plans for glory, Athens which increased jealousy instead of increasing influence, more attentive to the extension of its maritime empire than in enjoying it, with such a political government that the poor people distributed the public revenues among themselves, while the rich were oppressed, did not exercise that grand trade that the work in her mines, her multitude of slaves, the number of her seamen, her authority over the Greek cities, and more than all that Solon’s excellent institutions, seemed to promise her. Her trade was almost limited to Greece and Euxeinos Pontos, which provided her subsistence. (XXI, 7)[Athènes, remplie de projets de gloire, Athènes, qui augmentait la jalousie au lieu d’augmenter l’influence, plus attentive à étendre son empire maritime qu’à en jouir, avec un tel gouvernement politique que le bas peuple se distribuait les revenus publics, tandis que les riches étaient dans l’oppression, ne fit point ce grand commerce que lui promettaient le travail de ses mines, la multitude de ses esclaves, le nombre de ses gens de mer, son autorité sur les villes grecques, et plus que tout cela, les belles institutions de Solon. Son négoce fut presque borné à la Grèce et au Pont-Euxin, d’où elle tira sa subsistance.]

22Contrariwise, England identified its power with the extension of its trade: this nation, “mistress of the seas (a thing previously unheard-of), mixes trade with empire”. To be sure, Holland was at the origin of the seventeenth-century naval revolution, to the point that in the Persian Letters Rica evokes “that other queen of the seas”, “so respected in Europe, and so formidable in Asia, where her merchants see so many kings prostrate before them” (“cette autre reine de la mer […] si respectée en Europe, et si formidable en Asie, où ses négociants voient tant de rois prosternés devant eux”, LP, 130 [136], OC, t. I, p. 493). But England henceforth rules the seas. The free trading nation is taking advantage of a new conception of empire: “if that nation sent its colonies far off, it would do so more to extend its trade than its rule” (“si cette nation envoyait au loin des colonies, elle le ferait plus pour étendre son commerce que sa domination”, XIX, 27). England has chosen, given its insularity but also the freedom of its constitution, for “the empire of the seas”: The dominant nation, inhabiting a large island, and being in possession of great trade, would have every facility to have forces on the seas; and as the preservation of her freedom would require that she have neither land strongholds, nor fortresses, nor armies, she should require a sea army to protect her from invasions; and her marine would be superior to those of all the other powers, which, having to use their finances for land wars, would not have enough left over for sea wars.
The empire of the seas has always conferred a natural pride on the peoples who have possessed it; because, realizing that they can inflict injury everywhere, they believe the only limits of their power are the ocean’s. (XIX, 27)[La nation dominante habitant une grande île, et étant en possession d’un grand commerce, aurait toutes sortes de facilités pour avoir des forces de mer ; et comme la conservation de sa liberté demanderait qu’elle n’eût ni places, ni forteresses, ni armées de terre, elle aurait besoin d’une armée de mer qui la garantît des invasions ; et sa marine serait supérieure à celle de toutes les autres puissances, qui, ayant besoin d’employer leurs finances pour la guerre de terre, n’en auraient plus assez pour la guerre de mer.
L’empire de la mer a toujours donné aux peuples qui l’ont possédé une fierté naturelle ; parce que, se sentant capable d’insulter partout, ils croient que leur pouvoir n’a pas plus de bornes que l’Océan.]

23It remains that this defense of the trading empire is not flawless. Asserting that “the object of these colonies is to carry on trade on the better conditions than we do with the neighboring peoples, with whom all advantages are reciprocal” (“l’objet de ces colonies est de faire le commerce à de meilleures conditions qu’on ne le fait avec les peuples voisins, avec lesquels tous les avantages sont réciproques”, XXI, 17 [21]), The Spirit of Law seems to defend unilaterally the interests of the merchants and manufacturers of the metropolis, invoking a “fundamental law of Europe”, opportunely discovered. The reciprocity of exchange envisaged with respect to French colonial trade seems a bit factitious: “Our colonies in the Antilles are admirable; they have articles to trade that we cannot have; they lack those things in which we trade” (“Nos colonies des îles Antilles sont admirables ; elles ont des objets de commerce que nous n’avons ni ne pouvons avoir ; elles manquent de ce qui fait l’objet du nôtre”, ibid.). Is doux commerce not accommodating a fraudulent reciprocity that turns to the detriment of the colonies? Elsewhere Montesquieu does not fear to say that “Europe, which trades with the three other parts of the world, has been the tyrant of those three other parts” (“l’Europe, qui a fait le commerce des trois autres parties du monde, a été le tyran de ces trois autres parties”, Pensées, no. 568). Even within Europe, “France, England and Holland, which have plied the European trade, have been the three tyrants of Europe and the world” (“la France, l’Angleterre et la Hollande, qui ont fait le commerce de l’Europe, ont été les trois tyrans de l’Europe et du monde”). Even if it must be added that “that will not continue”, recognition of the limits of the reciprocal advantage of exchanges is here patent.


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