Montesquieu: Family

François Cadilhon


1To evoke Montesquieu’s family is first to capture a relatively limited personal horizon, for the baron de La Brède never knew his grandparents, hardly knew his mother and uncles and only slightly the grandson destined to inherit the title, in whom he put much hope. It was moreover on the pretext of informing the latter that the philosopher, who however described genealogies as “foolish things” (“sottes choses”, Pensées, no. 1236), wrote a “Memoir of my life” which in some ways constitutes the sketch of an autobiography, but above all evokes his genealogy (OC, t. IX, p. 395-407). The Secondats were originally from Berry and while certain specialists have taken the time to find some distant ancestors for them, Montesquieu himself only retraced his nobility to the beginning of the sixteenth century when, for obvious demographic reasons, a French aristocracy had to be reconstituted after the disasters of plague and war. The Secondats, installed in Périgord and then in Agenais, tied their political, social and religious destiny to that of the Albrets, and that fidelity was rewarded by the transformation of their little Montesquieu manor, which until then had little interested them, into a barony in 1610. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Jacob de Secondat (1576-1619), the first baron and also knight of the order of St. Michael who graces the family arms, can also be considered as the true founder of the dynasty. Following complex family arrangements, his son married Marie Dubernet, heiress of the first president of the Bordeaux parlement; Jean-Baptiste Gaston de Secondat (1612-1678) thereby acquired the manors of Raymond and Talence and a position as president of the sovereign court.

2Montesquieu’s grandfather had nine children and steered most of them to the Church. Marie-Agnès was sent to the girls’ convent of Notre-Dame in Agen, Thérèse to the Visitation in Bordeaux, Armand became a Jesuit, Joseph became abbé de Faise and Cadouin, Ignace abbé de Fontguilhem, and Jean-Joseph was admitted to prove himself in the order of knights of Malta. Whether it be the will, on the one hand, to preserve a patrimony, or excessive proselytism on the other, this phenomenon illustrates in any event the strength of the Catholic Reformation in Guyenne in the seventeenth century and, a posteriori, the philosopher’s reticence with respect to monasticism, just as the choice of Christian names transmitted from generation to generation like a true family treasure. One daughter and two sons escaped the angels’ call: Marguerite married a counselor at parlement; Jacques, Montesquieu’s father, after being tonsured, entered the army; finally Jean-Baptiste, the eldest son, inherited all the paternal property. However, Jean-Baptiste de Secondat (1635-1716), married to Marguerite de Caupos, had but one son, Jean, who died in infancy in 1671, and shifted all his hopes to his nephew and heir Charles Louis, whom he wanted nothing more than to fashion after his own image. “Nephews are children when one so wills it” (Pensées, no. 1235)! The baron de Montesquieu was a very influential person at the end of the seventeenth century. Dean of the parlement as of 1690, he twice assumed the interim first presidency but never obtained the supreme royal favor, for his reputation for independence had made him the champion of Bordeaux liberties and the superior rights of the state. In his eulogy of the author of L’Esprit des lois, Maupertuis thus presents him as one of the greatest magistrates of his time. If the nephew nonetheless remained relatively discrete about this prickly, authoritarian uncle, it nevertheless seems evident, based on the few elements at our disposal, that he played a great role in his education, to the point of eclipsing, in part, his heir’s own father.

3Jacques de Secondat (1654-1714), who had refused to enter the orders, unquestionably had an agitated childhood. Captain of the Saint-Sylvestre regiment, he decided, over the opposition of Louis XIV, to follow the prince de Conti when he went to expel the Turks from Hungary with Prince Eugène de Savoie. On his return in Guyenne, he married on 25 September 1686 Marie-Françoise Du Pesnel (1665-1696), heiress of one of the region’s oldest families, who brought him in her dowry the manor of La Brède. Elected gentleman jurat (counselor) of Bordeaux in 1689, where he lived in the Rue Bouhaut, he devoted the end of his life to the management of his properties and those of his wife, who died prematurely in 1696. We know little about her, but the loveliest portrait of her was drawn by her husband in a journal put to considerable use at the end of the nineteenth century by Philippe Tamisey de Larroque: “She was reasonably well shaped, infinitely gentle, of charming physiognomy […], skilled in serious matters, with no taste for trivia, an inexplicable tenderness for her children, a continual care for every aspect of her duty, a solid piety that applied to everything and especially to the poor” (“Elle était d’une taille raisonnable, infiniment douce, d’une physionomie charmante […] habile pour les affaires sérieuses, nul goût pour les bagatelles, une tendresse pour ses enfants inexplicable, un soin continuel pour toutes les choses de son devoir, une piété solide qui allait à tout et particulièrement pour les pauvres.”). The couple had five children: Marie (1687-1740), a nun in the convent of Le Paravis de l’ordre de Fontevraut, Charles Louis (1689-1755), Thérèse (1691-1771), a nun at the convent Notre-Dame de Paulin in Agen, Joseph (1693), Charles Louis Joseph – or more simply Joseph – (1694-1755), abbé de Faise and subsequently abbé de Nisors, dean of the prestigious Saint-Seurin chapter in Bordeaux in 1725, where he frequently received his brother with whom he had been a pupil at the college of Juilly, and finally Marie-Anne (1696-1700).

4In 1715, Charles Louis de Montesquieu married Jeanne Lartigue (1695-1770), the daughter of a retired lieutenant-colonel, a Protestant of recent nobility (acquired as much on the battlefield – he held the medal of chevalier de Saint Louis – as owing to his personal fortune). The dowry of 100,000 livres, consisting mostly of various debts, nevertheless rapidly drew the young couple into multiple suits against recalcitrant debtors. Though the personal relations between the philosopher and his wife have given rise to many hypotheses, Mme de Montesquieu was also of assistance in the daily administration of business and domains during the master’s frequent absences. The marriage yielded three children: Jean-Baptiste, born 10 February 1716, Marie on 22 January 1717, and Marie Josèphe Denise – or more simply Denise – on 23 February 1727. Baron de Montesquieu long hoped that his son (1716-1795) would take on the office of président à mortier which he himself had not wished to shoulder. For this reason he was raised by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, provided with a post as counselor at the parlement and married to Marie-Thérèse de Mons, the heiress of an old family of sword nobility. But Jean-Baptiste de Secondat refused this too well-charted destiny. Fascinated by natural history, he preferred to devote his life to his research at the Bordeaux Academy of which he was successively permanent secretary, director and vice-director, and to the management of the landed and intellectual property bequeathed by his father. From 1735 to his death, he thus managed to weave a large European web of relations, characteristic of the Enlightenment world, where we find as in his father’s correspondence an aristocratic kernel, a local and familial kernel, and a philosophical and scientific kernel. With every letter reminding him of “the glory of your name and your merit and the immortal genius to whom you owe both” (letter from J.-J. de Lalande, 29 December 1768: BM Bordeaux, Ms 2708), Jean-Baptiste, as if crushed by the weight of a corpus he was reluctant to offer to the public in new editions, was never willing to bear the name of Montesquieu.

5The fate of the philosopher’s daughters was even more obscure. In order to preserve the whole of the family patrimony, Marie was married to Vincent de Guichaner d’Armajan, mere counselor at the Guyenne cour des aides (a chamber of the parlement), which for a man of Montesquieu’s prestige was almost a misalliance, but the dowry was a mere 10,000 livres. Denise for her part long remained in her father’s footsteps, serving him occasionally as secretary; she was married at eighteen. When Montesquieu worried about his progeny, since Jean-Baptiste took some time to produce offspring, he therefore decided to have her marry a distant cousin from Agen, Godefroy de Secondat, so as to assure the survival of his name, and did well to do so. Indeed Jean-Baptiste de Secondat had but a single heir, Charles Louis (1749-1824), whose godfather was the philosopher. Charles Louis de Montesquieu, an officer in the royal army, hero of the American independence and Parisian salons, had little use for philosophers and the French Revolution, which he decided to flee for England. Married to an Irish woman and childless, he abandoned all his rights to the son of Denise, Joseph Cyrille.


Philippe Tamisey de Larroque, “Le journal de Jacques de Secondat”, in Revue critique d’histoire et de littérature, 27 April 1878, p. 273-275.

Philippe Loupès, Chapitres et chanoines de Guyenne aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, Paris: École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1985.

François Cadilhon, “Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, oncle et mentor de Montesquieu”, Revue française d’histoire du livre, 76-77, 3rd and 4th quarters 1992, p. 301-306.

Louis Desgraves, “Dossiers biographiques”, in OC, t. XVIII, 1998, p. 427-433.

Fabienne Le Mahieu, “Un Académicien face aux Lumières: étude critique de la correspondance de J.-B. de Secondat”, typewritten TER, Université de Bordeaux 3, 1999.

Carole Rathier, “Les réseaux des Lumières à Bordeaux: étude de correspondances (1768-1788)”, thesis, Université de Bordeaux 3, 2007.

François Cadilhon, Jean-Baptiste de Secondat de Montesquieu : au nom du père, Pessac: Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2008.