The Americas

Guillaume Barrera


1Incensed by the accounts of the conquista, informed about the two Americas by the Letters of the Jesuit fathers and the relations of French and English voyages, and finally, thanks to his personal situation, possessing first-hand information on the islands and the West, Montesquieu reserves a place of choice in his reflections for the American continents.

2The reason for this interest is first the difference between the West and East “Indies”. In the East, to be sure, trade in spices, silk, porcelain, and tea was assured, but – to say nothing of an Africa that was known only by its coastlines, with Guinea supplying “ebony wood” – no great European conquest, except for the case of Indonesia. Either for political reasons, or for the lack of “relative needs”, or both, the kingdoms of the “great Mogol”, of India, China, and Japan were still relatively closed. In the West Indies, in contrast, from the Rio de la Plata to the Saint Laurence, immense realms, fertile islands, and new colonies had come into being or were still springing up as the Europeans advanced. This expansion in the West not only marked a new era, but the beginning of genuinely history of the world: “the effect of the discovery of America was to bind Asia and Africa to Europe”, Montesquieu thus writes (EL, XXI, 21). The place of this chapter, in a book dealing with trade, is sufficient indication of the standpoint from which this “revolution” is viewed. His words reveal that in his perspective, Europe is at the center of this history. And it is true that the Indies played a central role in the European conflicts of the time. From one treaty to the next, from Utrecht (1713) to Paris (1763), the Indies are always to be found.

3Now the history of these Indies concerns a number of demographic, sociological, ethnological, financial, commercial, and finally geopolitical “laws”, which L’Esprit des lois alone systematically combines. While the present purpose is to sort out these “relations” in the economy of the masterpiece, it is also important not to lose sight of the diversity of the Americas.

4Montesquieu himself roughly distinguishes “southern America” and “the Greater Antilles”, situated between the tropics, from “northern America”. In physical appearance, the continent’s length exempts it from overly simple characterizations and all the differences reappear. Hardy, sturdy peoples inhabit its extremities, while “despotic empires” have prospered about the Equator. The land, for its part, supplies abundant sustenance and, despite the breadth of the plains, its morphology does not seem to favor the regular invasions from north to south known to Asia (EL, XVII, 3). It is in spirit that the continent, exceptional in this regard, no longer manifests its original “genius”. The conquest has disfigured it.

5Montesquieu underscores the contrasts of the Americas, Spanish on the one hand, French and English on the other. However, although he often, to blacken the first, evokes pre-Columbian America, he reveals on the history of the latter, as on the “savage peoples” of the North, a nuanced position. Nor does he share the doubts which a Montaigne had developed about “present reason” and “our mores”, almost as soon as the conquest was completed (EL, X, 3). He never has recourse to the rhetoric of the good savage, which his successors were to deploy skillfully. His Iroquois “eat their prisoners”, his Hurons burn them, whereas the Aztecs, who were already practicing slavery, bloodied their altars with human sacrifices. Although he evokes “two great empires and other large states” in the South, to designate Peru, Mexico and doubtless the chibchas kingdoms of terra firma (in present-day Venezuela and Columbia), he does not seem to classify them among the “civilized nations”, for he lends them neither those developed “arts” nor “sciences” which ordinarily go along with agriculture. Instead he insists on the “superstition” which cemented their inner unity, before precipitating their fall in the face of a handful of “brigands” armed by “philosophy”, or modern physical science (Pensées, no. 1265).

6This first America having consisted of “savage peoples” and “despotic empires”, “its ancient history” remaining unknown for want of being written down, it scarcely figures in the first part of a work which nonetheless promised to explain “the histories of all nations” (“Preface”). And so the most political part of L’Esprit des lois does not devote more space to it than to black Africa, which remained the terra incognita par excellence, as if neither part of the world had known a “government” worthy of the name.

7Still, nothing justifies the brutality of the Spanish conquistadores. Montesquieu makes his own use of the leyenda negra to condemn what he holds to be one of the greatest destructions in history. As he sees it, the Spanish, less concerned with glory than with profit – he explicitly contrasts pretext to real motive – had proceeded with concerted genocide to preserve their conquests, in keeping with a Machiavellian precept (LP, 117 [121]). If he rightly accuses them of taking little account of the life of the Indians, destroyed in the search for metals, he goes on less about the two major causes of that demographic catastrophe: epidemics and despair. For does the case of those Indians who allowed themselves to die not prove that it is difficult for a “society” to be destroyed without men also being destroyed, to repeat but also to nuance the distinctions of chapter 3 of Book X?

8Moreover, the Spanish conquest and exploitation manifest a double vice: on the one hand (and Rome had prepared the way, despite the model of Alexander), the conquerors had imposed their mores on the subject nations, which favored an insipid uniformity. And other mores were doubtless preferable. Spain, on the other hand, preferred to abandon the “natural wealth” of America, in order to exploit only its gold and silver mines, “symbolic wealth” (Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, articles 2 and 5, OC, t. VIII, p. 000). To underscore that fact, the thinker, with scarcely any mention of the development of the land over the previous two centuries, says not a word of the food-producing cultures or the cattle breeding practiced in the haciendas or the estancias.

9The second part of L’Esprit des lois therefore insists on this drama to deliver various lessons, that the fall of the Aztec empire had confirmed the weakness of despotism, always overextended, and thus poorly defended (EL, IX), or that the Spanish nation had missed a rare opportunity to place others “under a better genius” (EL, X, 3). For the others, in the books dealing with freedom (EL, XI-XIII), the writer does not do much to clarify his thought about the American political situation. To him, the continent, aside from the thirteen English colonies, did not yet enjoy “political freedom”, but at most, in the North, and in the extreme South (in Chili, the Indians still were holding out against the Spanish), that “natural freedom” that only “savages” know (EL, XI, 5). The reader will thus learn nothing either about the protections which Spanish laws showered on the southern Indians, who still appear to be slaves in Book XV, against the exactions and excesses of the Creoles. The political organization of the vice-royalties or the Indian cabildos, for its part, is not mentioned. Yet it must be that Spanish America was not in such bad shape, if the “Indies” were by now the “most important thing”, and Spain the “accessory” (EL, XXI, 22)!

10Dealing with French America this time, Montesquieu seems to consider only the Antilles notable, in particular Saint Domingo, prosperous islands which, by their sugar production, confirm their great value to metropolitan France. He observes moreover that the transport and sale of servile hands constitute a major branch of European trade (EL, XXI, 21). But the jurist, here a moralist, does not for that denounce less forcefully the “ferocity” of the French colonists towards their black slaves, which he compares to that of ancient peoples (Romains, XV), while he devotes a memorably ironic chapter of L’Esprit des lois to undermining the slaveholder arguments (EL, XV, 5). Otherwise, he has little to say about Louisiana, so present in the dangerous projects of Law’s “system”, and, as aware he is of its resources, he accords considerable importance to Canada, then French (Spicilège, no. 393).

11English America, finally, includes both the other part of the Antilles, exploited like the first, and the colonies of the east coast, to which was added Newfoundland in 1713. Montesquieu underscores the formerly pacific character of this colonisation, “the natives of the country, week and scattered, having yielded their land” (Romains, I, 1734 ed.; OC, t. II, p. 95). But he does not for that omit the commercial “greed” or “rapacity” of a “sovereignly jealous” nation, working to make inroads into a Spanish America closed to competition in the context of “monopoly” [‘l’exclusif’] by all conceivable means: “authorized vessel” and privilege of the Asiento, “illicit” trade and contraband, even naval wars.

12Better yet, these questions – North America, mass slavery and international trade – are dealt with centrally in L’Esprit des lois. Indeed, it is in the third and fourth parts of that work that the Americas are the most often mentioned. In Books xiv-xviii, the indigenous peoples of North America are described as dominated “by nature and the climate”. The author on this occasion exposes the link sustained by the fertility of the soil, the mode of life, hunting or farming, of the nomadic peoples who know no home nor temple in the absence of coin, arts and sciences and, consequently, of civil “laws” worthy of the name. Customs serve in their place, while “natural freedom” reigns, which means independence or even flight. Book xv, on the contrary, emphasizes the weight of Indian, but especially black, “civil slavery” in American history, a servitude sometimes “real” and “personal” at the same time. Book xvi, finally, dealing with the relations between the two sexes, suggests that polygamy and the “enclosing of women” were not really applicable in these places. For the future itself, this point is not without importance: does the “freedom of women” not more readily combine with the “spirit of monarchy”, or of the republic, than with despotism (EL, XIX, 15)?

13The fourth part, however, considers the America of the time from a directly financial and commercial perspective. The subject is therefore no longer an outgrowth of Europe, a reservoir of metals that can feed its trade with the nations of Asia, on the one hand, and an agricultural domain implying a work force that labors under constraint, on the other, which the theory of climates explained, though with no attempt to justify it, in Book xv. Ultimately, it is indeed solely “in our climes” that “Christianity has brought back the golden age” devoid of master or slave (EL, XV, 7). The West, in any case, “navigates and trades in the other parts of the world”, and the colonies and kingdoms of America are still dependent on their respective mother countries, which reserve to themselves the right to process the raw materials from the colonies (EL, XXI, 21). The writer from Bordeaux nonetheless judging Spain incapable of assuming its empire, advises her to open commercial access to it to the other nations. These doubts were not to remain without an echo from the ministers of Castille.

14A first conclusion is clear. In the first place, Canada, in the north, like Brazil in the south, about which one incidentally learns that it is passing through the “gold cycle” after cycles of redwood and sugar (EL, XXI, 21, note), here claim minimal importance. In the second place, and above all, it seems clear that the different Americas preserve the diversity of spirit of the nations that have conquered them, southern or northern. The “reductions” of Paraguay and Pennsylvania thus oppose “the pleasure of commanding” to the “rise” of a legislator over “free men” (EL, IV, 6).

15Montesquieu’s legacy across the Atlantic would seem finally to anticipate other developments. Let it suffice to summarize it generally. At the time of the uprisings that shook the continent and islands at the end of the century, which arose in large part from the “laws of Europe”, which is to say from the “monopoly”, few books had as great an influence as L’Esprit des lois on all those who took it upon themselves to give a constitution to the new states, whether the purpose was to found a federal republic over an immense territory (Caesar), a mixed government on the ruins of a vice-royalty (Espiell), or to explain forced labor in the tropics.

16On this last point, it must be noted that the warnings of Book xv about the “abuses” and “dangers” of massive slavery deserved rereading, even though the writer seemed to be discussing only the Romans in chapters XI to XVIII. The analyst of a democracy founded on the “equality of condition” doubtless thought of them in this context. Thought he did not speak of this equality as well as Toqueville, Montesquieu believed all the same in the future of the “great peoples” arising in the West. But in his eyes, these colonists were able to bring “to the forests” of America what their English fathers had drawn from the “German woods”: freedom, not that of man, but of the citizen, “political freedom”, inseparable from law.


Pierre Dupouy, “Montesquieu et le Canada”, Archives des Lettres modernes, Études sur Montesquieu, 1975, p. 3-16.

Edwin Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America, New York : Penguin, 1992.

Louis Desgraves, Bordeaux au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1789), Éditions Sud-Ouest, 1993.

Philippe Haudrère, Le Grand Commerce maritime au XVIIIe siècle, Sedes, 1997.

James Ceaser, “L’Esprit des lois et la Constitution américaine”, in Actes du colloque international de Bordeaux pour le 250e anniversaire de L’Esprit des lois, Louis Desgraves dir., Bordeaux: Bibliothèque Municipale, 1999, p. 255-262.

Hector Gros Espiell, “Le principe de la division des pouvoirs: la Révolution d’émancipation latino-américaine et le droit constitutionnel de l’Uruguay”, Revue Montesquieu 5 (2001), p. 93-124 (translation by G. Barrera)

Bibliographical reference

Barrera Guillaume , « The Americas », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :