1Montesquieu delivered this speech at the opening session of the Bordeaux parlement on the feast of St. Martin, 11 November 1725. Speeches delivered in sovereign courts by a President or general prosecutor or advocate general, at the re-opening on St. Martin’s day or after Easter, were called “mercurial”. This one is inscribed in this genre and this tradition; it is the sole written document we have of Montesquieu’s parlementary activity.
2Several manuscripts have been preserved, and it has benefitted improbably from an edition, in 1771, taking advantage of the parlementary agitation that followed Maupeou’s reform: the name of Montesquieu was then much in honor in the parlements struggling against royal authority, and his speech no doubt seemed to offer a good publishing opportunity (there were other editions in the following years, before the text entered into the Œuvres posthumes of 1783 published by Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, which obviated any contestation of its authenticity, and subsequently in the Œuvres in the following years ; a publication date of 1725 has sometimes been put forward by virtue of a misinterpretation of the title page.
3The tone is that of grave, austere, ample eloquence, deliberately invocatory, majestically adorned with biblical references. But a lofty notion of justice and sharp indignation against anything that diminishes it is likewise expressed. After an emphatic exordium, Montesquieu announces that, supposing that the magistrates possess the essential virtue of justice, he will speak only of “accessories”: this virtue must indeed be enlightened, expeditious, not too austere, and finally “universal”. After sketching a history of justice since “the origin of our monarchy”, evoked the progress of fraud, of “form” and of deceit, he asks great “lights” and immense labor of the magistrate. He also denounces the scourge of abusive legal maneuvers, the “palace industry” that has become a source of fortunes, the triumph of unfairness over innocence: justice must thus be expeditious, practiced with “friendliness” toward the unfortunate, even exercised with “general affection for humankind” dear to the Stoics. He therefore exalts the courage which the judge requires to resist “solicitations”. “Justice must be in us a general conduct”, with no respect of place, person or occasion, it assumes total dispassion.
4The speech ends by a long eulogy of Louis XV (in which can be noted an invitation to peace and moderation) and of the prime minister the Duc de Bourbon; finally he calls upon the lawyers for restraint and respect of the adversary, and on the prosecutors always to assist the magistrates in the quest of truth and justice.
BM Bordeaux, Ms 828/xl n° 13 ; 1988/2 ; 1709 ; first edition : n.p.n.d., 1771.
OC, t. VIII, p. 461-487 (ed. Sheila Mason).
Jean Dalat, Montesquieu magistrat, Paris: Minard, Archives des Lettres modernes, 1971-1972.
Rebecca Kingston, Montesquieu and the Parlement of Bordeaux, Geneva: Droz, 1996.