French Revolution

Jean Bart

1The problem of Montesquieu’s influence on the actors of the French Revolution is still debated. It takes place for the most part on the terrain of “constitutional and juridical technique” (B. Manin) and this aspect will not be taken up in the present article since it has been dealt with in several individual articles. We will thus limit ourselves to the analysis of the manner in which the author and his works were perceived from the final crisis of the Old Regime to Bonaparte’s coup d’état, it being understood that “the different parties engaged in the political struggles of the Revolution each fashioned in their own way the philosophers that could legitimate their own vision of the city.” (Roger Chartier). In this respect, even had the rhyme allowed, it is certain that Montesquieu would not have been in the company of Rousseau and Voltaire among those responsible for the fall of Gavroche (c’est la faute à Voltaire, c’est la faute à Rousseau)! For if the author of L’Esprit des lois had his hour of success during the period leading up to the Revolution, its star had paled, to the point of joining a horizon close to that of the counter-revolutionaries, despite a few exceptional homages from the other side.

2Within the debate over public law in the France of the final decades of the Old Regime, L’Esprit des lois is an obligatory reference and even more so when in the fall of 1788, Louis XVI convoked the Estates General for the following spring. Then, “Montesquieu is the author of the moment. […] In the works of the day, his name figures with a frequency at least twice that attested for Voltaire, Mably and Rousseau” (Henri Duranton). It is true that the Baron de La Brède was called to the rescue as much by those favorable to tradition as by the partisans of profound change (R. Galliani). Which ought not surprise when one knows the wealth and the ambiguity of many cited passages. Still it is true that Montesquieu est the object of numerous calumnies, summaries or compendia, such as Remontrances de l’ombre de Montesquieu au roi or Opinion du président de Montesquieu sur la question des délibérations par tête ou par ordre. No one, or almost, could fail to cite the author of L’Esprit des lois when preparing for the Estates General. However, the archaism of certain of his positions, for example his praise of the feudal system, that “fine government found in the woods”, or the role he attributed to the nobility, were hardly to the taste of the day among the Third Estate. That is certainly what explains the rapid disenchantment concerning him, then his rejection by those who began the revolutionary process and wanted to take it as far as possible. Henri Duranton has underscored the parallelism or even concomitance of Montesquieu’s posthumous destiny and that of the former parlements that had successfully opposed all attempts at reform of the state and had succeeded in appearing to the eyes of many as the champions in the struggle against despotism and the guardians of “freedoms”. Had they not finally forced the king to call the Estates General? The veil was however quickly lifted; their attachment to the most traditional formulas on consultation of the “people” as the determined opposition to sovereign courts with respect to the timid advances of the monarchical government, discredited them even before the representatives met in Versailles. Their blindness provoked their collapse which itself precipitated the discredit of our author: “Montesquieu could only be pulled along in this great movement. The fall of his influence was in keeping with a disappointed love” (Henri Duranton).

3Beginning with the campaign of preparation for the Estates General, a flurry of brochures testify to this attitude. Such, to name just one, was La Nobliomanie (25 February 1789) which “consists from one end to the other in a virulent attack on Montesquieu” (R. Barny, 1990). The critics redoubled in vigor when the representatives were together in Versailles beginning on 5 May. The content of the political press is clear (Pierre Rétat). For the most reactionary representatives of the clergy and the nobility use L’Esprit des lois to defend better their positions, like, among others, the bishop of Langres, La Luzerne, publishing about 10 May a treatise justifying the vote by orders: Sur la forme d’opiner aux États généraux. The reaction of the patriotic papers was immediate: “The nobility is no longer necessary in a monarchy, whatever the bishop-duke of Langres says on the faith of Montesquieu, that it does not prevent the arbitrary power of which it is the support”, exclaimed the editor of the Bulletin des États généraux (no. 1, 15 May). Just as determined, Mirabeau warned La Luzerne, a few days later, against adhering en bloc to the ideas of the former président à mortier of the Bordeaux parlement: “You take care to brandish a passage of Montesquieu who is known to be the patron of the privileged orders […]. We rightly suspect that several maxims of L’Esprit des lois ought to be subjected to re-examination, that is it not proven that they ought to be accepted as articles of faith” (fourth Lettre à ses commettants, about 23, 25 May). From there to treating the author as an “aristocrat” – and we know how ideologically loaded this word was then – there was but a short and quickly made step, beginning in the summer of 1789. At that moment, Montesquieu was considered by the patriots as inspiring their adversaries, he “who perceived the truth only through his aristocratic prejudices, […] who was called a great man in the times of ignorance that preceded the revolution, […] who is now read only to calculate the enormous progress that universal reason and the science of the rights of man have since made” (Actes des apôtres, no. VIII). In short, Montesquieu is “the big loser, in terms of the early months of the Revolution. A whole side of his political thought seemed to collapse with the monarchy of orders in June, or survive only in the obduracy of the “aristocrats” (Pierre Rétat).

4Hence it is not surprising that the counterrevolutionary press, making do with what was available, made use of L’Esprit des lois – a work which this current of thought had violently criticized – the better to denounce “anarchy”. Abbé Barruel, for example, in the Journal ecclésiastique. The moderates themselves, frightened by the acceleration of the revolutionary movement, claims Montesquieu’s authority to affirm after him that “innovations are dangerous in a monarchical state. But if they are judged necessary, must they not be prepared with care so as to avoid clashes and abrasion?” (Nouvelles Éphémérides de l’Assemblée nationale, no. VIII, 14 August 1789, cited by Pierre Rétat). Even the boldest of the ideas expressed in L’Esprit des lois, like juridical relativism or geographic and cultural determinisms, are picked up by the adversaries of the Revolution, to show that nothing ought to change and that the order of nature should not be perturbed. Thus, “Montesquieu’s modernity, his tentative to apprehend the whole body of positive laws and to discover their law is the source of his most extravagant utilization by the aristocrats” (R. Barny, 1990). The camp of the Baron de La Brède is thus quite specific. It has however been asked whether he had not retained some partisans in the opposite camp and whether certain of his concepts, like that of republican virtue, might not have fed the most radical revolutionary thought (B. Manin).

5There were, to be sure, men of the Revolution who persisted in believing that Montesquieu was one of their guides; but they could only do so by deforming his thought, making it more “patriotic” (R. Barny, 1989), to the point of giving birth to a myth. Such was doubtless not the case of the young Saint-Just, more lucid, who, in 1791, published L’Esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de France with, as epigraph, a famous sentence from L’Esprit des lois. Outside this reference to the relationship between the two works, the book’s content itself reveals the influence of Montesquieu on its author: “the subjects treated, the chapter titles, many reminiscences testify that Saint-Just was writing after a careful re-reading of L’Esprit des lois" (Barny, ibid.; cf. Domenico Felice, 2000). But he adds that “in a book devoted to the defense of the Revolution, Montesquieu’s principles can hardly be exempt from all alloy, […] Saint-Just is in essential agreement with Rousseau on the sovereignty of the people”. We know, moreover, that his thought extensively evolved after the appearance of his second book, in function of the revolutionary events and his own action.

6More surprising is Marat’s attitude. The astonishment does not come from the composition, in 1785, of an Éloge de Montesquieu addressed to the Bordeaux Academy (it was to be published only a century later), so greatly was Montesquieu esteemed by enlightened people, because of his criticism of absolutism. On the other hand, the admiration which L’Ami du peuple expressed for him during the early years of the Revolution is intriguing. In his Projet de Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen suivi d’un Plan de constitution juste, sage et libre, in August 1789 in included lavish praise of the man he considered, even more than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as one of his masters: “Montesquieu? Yes, Montesquieu, the greatest man this century has produced. […] What obligations do we not have to him! He was first among us to dare to disarm superstition, seize the dagger from fanaticism, reclaim the rights of man, attack tyranny.” The whole text is in the same vein. If he allows that the lord of La Brède was “a bit too admiring of […] the chivalric nobility”, he recognizes that he had the merit to denounce “ordinary nobles” and the shortcomings of courtiers. What counts most for Marat, when he presents his project of Declaration, is the love of freedom. “If he is blind to the aspects of L’Esprit des lois that are favorable to the aristocracy, it is no doubt because the political context at the time was pushing them into the background: Marat used most of his strength to combat the reinforcement of the royal prerogative, which had become the hope of privilege. For him the aristocracy is thus confused with despotism and Montesquieu’s anti-despotic tendency attracts this paradoxical blindness” (R. Barny, 1989). It remains that “the heavy praise he is given was to have echos throughout Marat’s career” (O. Coquard). Ultimately, each person took from our author what suited him to justify his position. Finally, consciously or unconsciously, Montesquieu’s most innovative positions – for example regarding the definition of the function of the judiciary – were adopted by many. As for “republican virtue”, did not Robespierre, to define it, use the same terms as the author of L’Esprit des lois: “the love of country and the laws”? (B. Manin)«l’amour de la patrie et de ses lois»?

7Were not the fall of the revolutionary government, the thermidorian reaction and the establishment of a bourgeois republic to give him back the favor of men of the moment, especially since 1795 coincided with the fortieth anniversary of his death? Jean Ehrard detects a “Montesquieu moment” of a good year going from Pluviôse year III (January 1795) to Ventôse year IV (February 1796), characterized by new editions of the publication of commentaries on his works (Alberto Postigliola and Domenico Felice), but “what was an undeniable publishing success was to remain a political failure” (Ehrard). Was not the refusal of “pantheonization” a sign of this? The question of the transfer of Montesquieu’s remains to the Pantheon had already been raised in May 1791, but the Constitutional assembly had avoided it, as well as did the Legislative assembly in February 1792. On 21 Pluviôse year IV (10 February 1796), it came again before the Council of Five Hundred, on a proposal by Postoret, representative of the Var, a specialist in penal law, which doubtless explains his initiative. However, the project, sent for study to a commission, dropped from sight. The idea, advanced by a former Thermidorian, of placing a bust of the “great man” in the meeting room of the Elders, in the Tuileries, had no success either.

8To be complete, we must however mention the composition, during the Directory, of a Montesquieu peint d’après ses ouvrages. Its author is none other than the former member of the Comité de salut public Barère, who, before the Revolution, had already proposed to the Bordeaux Academy, like Marat, a eulogy of the author of L’Esprit des lois. Having escaped the guillotine and deportation, he hid, at the beginning of the Directory, in the region of Bordeaux. That is where, between years V and VII, he wrote a new eulogy of the man he compared, in the domain of politics, to Galileo and Newton. Besides, like most of his predecessors, he somewhat “patriotized” the master’s work. His admiration for it “is related to the taste for moderate regimes of this wizened terrorise, for whom the Revolution was finally over. Barère presented in a sense an offer of service” ®. Barny, 1989). Yet he was again harassed during the Directory, but after the 18 Brumaire he rallied to the new regime and was amnistied… his praise for Montesquieu having nothing to do with it. The new master of the Republic indeed hardly valued his ideas; it must be said that caesarism, and even more the imperial monarchy, were far from a moderate government. It was thus naturally the liberal currents of the 19th century, from Benjamin Constant to Edouard Laboulaye and beyond, who inherited, in part, Montesquieu’s ideological mantle (David W. Carrithers et alii.


Renato Galliani, “La fortune de Montesquieu en 1789: un sondage”, Études sur Montesquieu, “Archives Montesquieu” no. 9, Paris: Lettres modernes, 1981, p. 31-61.

Bernard Manin, “Montesquieu”, in François Furet and Monique Ozouf dir., Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française, Paris: Flammarion, 1988.

Roger Barny, “Montesquieu patriote?”, Montesquieu et la Révolution, Dix-Huitième Siècle 21, 1989, Paris: PUF, p. 83-95.

Henri Duranton, “Fallait-il brûler L’Esprit des lois?”, ibid.,

Pierre Rétat, “Montesquieu aristocrate”, ibid.,

Alberto Postigliola and Domenico Felice, “La fortune bibliographique de Montesquieu. France et Italie”, ibid., p. 101-116.

Roger Barny, “Montesquieu dans la Révolution française”, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1990, p. 48-73.

Olivier Coquard, Marat, Paris: Fayard, 1993.

Jean Ehrard, “1795, ‘année Montesquieu’?”, La République directoriale, Bibliothèque d’histoire révolutionnaire, nouv. série, no. 3, Clermont-Ferrand, 1998, t. I, p. 169-191; reprinted in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots. Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 307-325.

Roger Chartier, Les Origines culturelles de la Révolution française, paperback edition with new postface, Paris: Seuil, 2000.

Poteri, Democratia, Virtù: Montesquieu nei movimenti repubblicani all’epoca della Rivoluzione francese, Domenico Felice dir., Milano: Franco Angeli, 2000.

Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: essays on “The Spirit of Law”, David W. Carrithers, Michael Mosheer and Paul Rahe dir., Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.