1In his thesis on the Bordeaux nobility at the end of the 18th century, Michel Figeac underscores the fact that if the group presented no economic homogeneity and suffered from significant indebtedness, it was all the same wealthy. Montesquieu illustrates the evolution of the situation and the construction of this model with the permanent worry over property management and exploitation. In 1714, at the reading of his father’s will, Charles Louis, the sole heir, had to settle a first heritage. His property essentially regrouped around La Brède and Martillac, south of Bordeaux, were evaluated at 126,000 livres, but the new baron had to give his brother Joseph a legally mandated portion of 30,000 livres and also pay off the debts and numerous agreements of the deceased. The share of which Charles could dispose was thus only 67,000 livres for a certainly unostentatious lifestyle in an aging château.
2At the time of his marriage with Jeanne Lartigue, Montesquieu could theoretically expect to enjoy the benefit of a 100,000-livre dowry, but most of it was made up of debts to be recovered; he then had to initiate an interminable series of lawsuits and for the reason had a partial break with his stepparents.
3In 1716, Charles again inherited, this time from his uncle Jean-Baptiste, who bequeathed to him the prestigious office of président à mortier in the parlement and some landed property around the manor of Raymond in Entre-deux-Mers and that of Montesquieu in the Agenais, this time requiring him to compensate the relatives of Jean-Baptiste’s wife, Marguerite de Caupos, at his expense. Montesquieu’s fortune can then be evaluated at about 550,000 livres but with a significant weight of debt, at least 40,000 livres. If Montesquieu retained habits of strict economy his whole life, that was doubtless a result of his difficult early years.
4He then rather quickly developed a plan to sell his parlementary office, as much for financial as literary and professional reasons (president too young, he had no effective power of decision in the sessions). The revenue which Montesquieu could obtain from the two successive offices has indeed been estimated from 1714 to 1726 at 30,793 livres, but even with customary fees that are difficult to evaluate, the financial gain for this whole period must not be exaggerated. It was in fact the social framework of the parlement that was the most valuable. Finally his friend Barbot persuaded him rather to lease his office than to sell it. The negotiations were difficult, for the baron was hoping to retain possession of the title and receive at least 6000 livres of annual income whereas, with respect to Montesquieu’s patrimonial requirements, the interested persons offered him only 4000. Finally Jean-Baptiste d’Albessard accepted the operation for 5,200 livres per year. The Duke of Berwick judged on 15 July 1726: “It seems to me that the deal is not bad” (OC, t. XVIII, letter 205). In a letter to Mme Lambert on 1 December 1726, Montesquieu recognized that he was henceforth enjoying 29,000 livres fixed income, in other words real comfort (OC, t. XVIII, letter 245). In one of the most ferocious lawsuits opposing the baron to the city of Bordeaux, the city’s supervising prosecutor, Jean-Baptiste Maignol, declared: “M. de Montesquieu would be most chagrined if one were to believe what he likes to say about his fortune”, which really was modest (Archives Départementales de la Gironde [hereafter ADG], C 914).
5When one speaks of the revenues and fortune of Montesquieu, his contribution to the vingtième tax in 1755 shows that while he doubtless held a sizeable patrimony (he had to pay 750 livres whereas the average of parlementarians in Bordeaux was 481), he was certainly not the richest; the Daugeards of the Le Berthons paid much higher taxes, moreover this tax paid in Guyenne did not take account of the American fortunes built by the Basterots of the Pellet d’Anglades, for example. The Bordeaux nobility was indeed beginning to invest in stones, in Atlantic trade and in new industries. Montesquieu remained on this point much more classical with landed properties as the sole foundation of his fortune. He represents in a certain way a form of intermediate management between the cases analyzed for the end of the 17th century by Caroline Le Mao and those of Michel Figeac for the end of the 18th century. At the time his own estate was settled in 1755, Montesquieu’s patrimony, evaluated at 654,563 livres (124,563 livres for transferable property and 530,000 for fixed property) was without a doubt considerable and free from any debt, but the baron obviously had also easily spent the money received (170,000 livres) when his office of président à mortier was definitively sold in 1748 along with that of counselor held by his son Jean-Baptiste, which he nevertheless owned (ADG, 3E 1740 Treyssac). The baron had not in any case used the money to plunge into new fashions, for despite the great changes in lifestyle during the century, his liquid property was hardly extraordinary.
6In order better to exploit his properties in Graves, Entre-deux-Mers, and Agenais, he first needed to defend himself against the encroachments of the royal administration and especially of the French treasury, eager to establish new resources for an indebted government. He then multiplied the suits against his neighbors, again Mme d’Aiguillon as well as the city of Bordeaux, or yet again the Comtesse d’Ornon, whose land adjoined those of Martillac. They were all trying to gain property of the uncertain emerging islands in the Garonne. Moreover the markers of properties hardly offered absolute certainty; but after finally winning his interminable suit against the municipal officers of Bordeaux (1726-1743), Montesquieu had markers set that were also recognized by the officers (Bordeaux, municipal library, Fonds de la Brède, 4851). The baron was also intent on scrupulously preserving all the feudal rights attached to his manors (especially at Saint-Morillon), even if they no longer represented more than a marginal contribution to the revenues of the nobility of the time.
7Looking after their exploitation also was dependent on endless financial operations for the sale, exchange or purchase of small parcels. In the permanent movement of a micro-property known in Guyenne in the 18th century, the purchase carried out in 1750 with the Comte de Cursol of the Bisquetan (or Bisqueytan) manor is sufficiently indicative of skillful character and financial operation: indeed he left him the château and retained for himself the best lands. But the baron did not always have it so easy. In 1726, with his colleague Sarrau from the Bordeaux academy, he attempted a spectacular operation with the purchase of a fallow heath adjoining the Haut-Brion property, the viticultural reputation of which was quickly rising. Yet they were going against the policies of the intendant Claude Boucher, trying to halt the excessive development of vineyards in Guyenne.
8Contrary to what is generally believed, Bordeaux landowners scrupulously avoided monoculture and even emphasized contrasts between grapes (in Martillac) and sharecropping where livestock was bred (836 lambs for Montesquieu in 1755), wheat, rye, or tobacco were raised according to the location. The baron nevertheless wanted to improve the yield of this traditional polyculture with an eye to ameliorating the region and permanently improving the quality of his wine. His correspondence is significant in this regard. On 1 January 1724 he explains: “the sales of my wine are so poor that I am not sure I can leave when I intended to” (“j’ai si mal vendu mon vin que je ne sais si je pourrai partir si tôt que je croyais”). On 24 October 1734, he declared to the Comte de Bulkeley: “I have been for a fortnight at La Brède. Your servant is busy shipping his wine to the kingdom of Ireland, asking God to increase the thirst of its inhabitants.” (“[…] je suis depuis quinze jours à La Brède […] Pour votre serviteur, il est occupé à dépêcher son vin dans le royaume d’Irlande, aux habitants duquel il prie Dieu d’augmenter la soif.”, OC, t. XIX, letter 411). The sale of wine was an essential contribution to the revenues required by the elites of the region (see Lachaud, p. 295-299). Historians – but perhaps not philosophers – will see in this the desire of the author of L’Esprit des lois to defend the practical reality of the freedom of trade (book XX). The Baron de la Brède, who could then write to Solar, on 7 March 1749, “Bordeaux trade is recovering a bit and the English had the ambition of drinking my wine this year” (“Le commerce de Bordeaux se rétablit un peu, et les Anglais ont eu même l’ambition de boire de mon vin cette année”), in any case avoided going through merchants for his wine and preferred ultimately very modern direct sale.
Jean-Max Eylaud, Montesquieu chez ses notaires à La Brède, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956.
André-Jean Bourde, Agronomie et agronomes en France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: SEVPEN, 1967.
Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: a critical biography, Oxford, 1961.
François Cadilhon, Montesquieu parlementaire, académicien, grand propriétaire bordelais, typescript TER thesis, Université de Bordeaux 3, 1983.
Michel Figeac, Destins de la noblesse bordelaise, 1770-1830, Bordeaux: Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest, 1996.
Michel Figeac, L’Automne des gentilshommes: noblesse d’Aquitaine, noblesse française au Siècle des Lumières, Paris: Champion, 2002.
Caroline Le Mao, Les Fortunes de Thémis: vie des magistrats du parlement de Bordeaux au Grand Siècle, Pessac: Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest, 2006.
Stéphanie Lachaud, Le Sauternais moderne: histoire de la vigne, du vin et des vignerons des années 1650 à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Pessac: Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest, 2012.
Montesquieu, Correspondance II (1731 – June 1747), OC, t. XIX, appendix 2, “Le procès de Montesquieu (1723-1746)”, 2014.