The Spirit of Law (manuscript)

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger

1The manuscripts of eighteenth-century literary works preserved today are not legion, even if they are more numerous than is usually said (Volpilhac-Auger 2010, Lire Montesquieu> Lire, sequence 1). Those we know of sometimes correspond to a final state, ready for publication (such is the case of Les Liaisons dangereuses), or are a clean copy so as to preserve an authentic testimony (one thinks of Rousseau, concerned over what would become of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques). That too can be worthy of our interest because they are very different states from the printed work, as for example the Mémoire pour M. de Mably, where Rousseau foreshadows Émile, or the first version of the Social Contract. But few of them offer the characteristics of the voluminous manuscript of L’Esprit des lois conserved at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (1500 folios). To be sure, it does not contain the entire work: it lacks books XXVI (for unknown reason), XXVIII-XXIX (except for a few fragments, which must have been fully written up only after the manuscript was abandoned), and XXX-XXXI, written very hastily, as we know, in 1748 in the weeks preceding completion of the printing. But it bears the trace of nearly ten years’ work (from 1739 to January 1747, with the notable exception of the famous chapter on the English constitution and a few passages from book XVII, chapter 6, transcribed before 1739), and makes apparent Montesquieu’s immense labor of correction, amplification, recomposition, all the stages of which can be followed.

Techniques of analysis

2Indeed, far from constituting a first draft, as would have it the binding placed on it by the Bibliothèque Nationale at the moment of its acquisition in 1939 (until then it had been conserved at La Brède, after some tribulations during the Revolution and Restoration), this manuscript represents a genuine stratigraphy of the composition which is absolutely exceptional, which we mine thanks to the identification of some eleven secretaries responsible for the major part of the transcription. Its study had been inaugurated by Robert Shackleton in 1955, and has since been pursued (Minuti 2002, Benrekassa 2004). The transfer to Bordeaux of the collections from La Brède in 1994, thanks to the dation of Jacqueline de Chabannes, which multiplied by at least ten the documentary mass available, the extension of research to the notarial archives, the access provided by photography and then digitalization, are so many factors that made it possible in 2005 and again in 2008 to modify radically the data for interpretation by founding them on observations very different from the earlier ones: the study of types of secretarial intervention, the identification of their “hands”, the duration of their activity based on new data have been particularly fruitful. We thus come to absolute datings that are completely reliable: it is now possible to follow almost year by year the development of The Spirit of Law, knowing that in most cases we can guarantee only the terminus post quem non, for it is often difficult to know whether the passage copied by one secretary did not result from earlier work; on the other hand, the clearest cases are those where we can observe traces of dictation, and above all of live composition. But it is especially for relative dating that the study is most fruitful: the succession or simultaneity of corrections is perfectly apparent (Lire Montesquieu > Lire, sequence 2).

3But chronology offers all sorts of additional possibilities. Thus it is possible to compare research on the secretaries’ hands with the analysis of paper, which has been led by Claire Bustarret. The dating of watermarks is disappointing and never tells us anything we did not already know. The origin of paper, on the other hand, is telling: if it comes from southwestern mills, it reveals a purchase in the Bordelais; if it is from Auvergne it was sold in Paris. Correlation with the dates of Montesquieu’s sojourns in his two major places of residence allows us to refine the results. Thus we discover that Montesquieu, who in the summer of 1743 proceeded to a general revision of The Spirit of Law, has the additions to books XI-XXVII transcribed on paper that attests his presence in the Bordelais; since he left Paris at the end of August, we can thus follow precisely the progress of this revision.


4All together, this allow us to shed doubt on some fixed notions, even to modify our way of viewing the text, for gratuitous interpretations are now ruled out. While chapter 6 of book XI, already quoted, appears from the start as it was to be in print, which authorizes us to see in it work done after his return from England (it was copied between 1734 and 1739, which confirms what had long been thought), it is more interesting to look closely at book XV, devoted to slavery. We discover that, contrary to all the affirmations by the most qualified commentators, the final chapters (10 to 19), which present the modalities by which slavery was practiced in Antiquity, are not the earliest – it is even the contrary that is true, since they date almost entirely from the period 1745-1747, whereas the first chapters were conceived in 1741 at the latest, and the central part was copied before 1742. But these chapters which, while examining slavery as it existed, ran the risk of justifying it, in the eyes of these commentators could only constitute a retreat from the more vigorous positions of the first chapters; they had to be the oldest in order to cleanse Montesquieu of any suspicion: they would be testimony to a time when he was still unable to condemn slavery radically (which also supposed that he was unable to see the contradiction between the ones and the others). This pseudo-genetic reading was founded in nothing more than the eminently laudable but essentially unscientific intention of differentiating a stage when he might have been more favorable to slavery from the supposedly final stage of his thought, necessarily anti-slavery. But it suffices to read these ten chapters (and to follow the stages in their composition) to see that with the Romans Montesquieu deploys the example of the dangers of slavery, using on this occasion an historical perspective, and that in examining the fact after having examined “the right we had to enslave Negroes” (“le droit que nous avons eu de rendre les nègres esclaves”), he makes use of another strategy to lead the reader to this conclusion: man so degrades himself when he has recourse to slavery, and the society that practices it runs such risks, that it appears as evil itself (Volpilhac-Auger 2010, Lire Montesquieu> Interpréter). Such is the sense of these chapters, literally obscured so long as we did not have at our disposal a serious analysis of their genesis.


5It is impossible to present here all of what the manuscript of The Spirit of Law has to teach to an attentive reader. We can point out, among other things, the disappearance of an entire chapter on the Inquisition in book XXV, the late division of books XI and XII, which composed a single chapter at the start, the anteriority of book XXIV, long parts of which were composed very early on… By following the corrections, we also measure the prudence of Montesquieu, who eliminates ad hominem attacks and whatever could cause him to incur the wrath of censorship (Volpilhac-Auger 2010, Lire Montesquieu> Critiquer> Colloque), in other words pure and simple banning – for though he published abroad, it was in order to be read in France, and for that The Spirit of Law had at least to be “tolerated”. This tendency can even be observed during the very last phase of composition, by comparison between the manuscript’s final version and the imprint of 1748, the manuscript sent to the printer in Geneva not having been preserved. A particularly promising track also opens up in another register, as we see from Maxime Triquenaux’s study, “La fabrique du style dans le livre IV du manuscrit de L’Esprit des lois” (Triquenaux, 2011): by following the manuscript corrections, one measures how sensitive Montesquieu was to choice of the proper word, while avoiding repetitions; the concern for reconciling effectiveness and elegance is particularly remarkable in his case – this can be seen also with the chapter “On the slavery of Negroes” (XV, 5): the elimination of numbering at the beginning of each paragraph shows how much he works at unencumbering expression. The most famous chapter of The Spirit of Law did not sprout in full bloom from his brain…

6Besides the full critical edition of the manuscript itself, which was required for an edition of Montesquieu’s complete works, in which it occupies two volumes, it seems indispensable to integrate its final version into the variants of the critical edition of the print version: not only did the previous editors of The Spirit of Law use it – Jean Brèthe de La Gressaye beginning in 1961 (Les Belles Lettres), Robert Derathé in 1973 (Classiques Garnier; re-issue in 2011) – rightly retaining particularly interesting passages, but comparison with the manuscript is indispensable for establishing whether the author’s intentions have been respected: Montesquieu considered, as is well known, that The Spirit of Law had been “mangled in Geneva”, and spent nearly two years following its publication correcting the errors or corrections improperly introduced by his liaison man with the booksellers, Jacob Vernet (Volpilhac-Auger, 2011, chap. v). Though not a faultless witness (for Montesquieu modified his text between January and June 1747), the manuscript contributes elements of an answer to certain questions raised by so tormented an edition; agreement between the manuscript and a printed edition is thus particularly worthy of interest. No detail is insignificant: “As the sea, which seems to want to cover the whole world, is bounded by grasses and the smallest pebbles […]” (“Comme la mer qui semble vouloir couvrir toute la terre, est arrêtée par les herbes et les moindres graviers […]”), say the editions from 1750 on (II, 4). The absurdity of the sentence is no longer visible to anyone who has always read it thus, whereas the manuscript and the edition of 1748 give: “cover the land” (“couvrir la terre”).

7The manuscript even offers much better lessons than all the editions, whether corrected or not by Montesquieu. Thus for Asia, subjugated thirteen times (XVII, 4): in the printed version, we can count only twelve invaders, the thirteenth then figuring only in the manuscript; there we have a typical example of the material mistake that it is appropriate to correct on the basis of the manuscript, just as in book XV, chapter 16: “Claudius gave the order that slaves who had been abandoned by their masters when ill, should be free if they escaped” (“Claude [in a note : Xiphilin in Claudio] ordonna que les esclaves qui auraient été abandonnés par leurs maîtres étant malades, seraient libres s’ils échappaient”) – “[…] if they survived” ([…] s’ils réchappaient”), says the manuscript more exactly. So many typos, not indifferent to the meaning. Book I, chapter 1 offers a slightly different case: “The desire of subjugating each other which Hobbes attributes to men from the start is not reasonable. The idea of power and domination is so complex and depends on so many other ideas that it is not the first that he would have” (“Le désir que Hobbes donne d’abord aux hommes de se subjuguer les uns les autres, n’est pas raisonnable. L’idée de l’empire et de la domination est si composée et dépend de tant d’autres idées que ce ne serait pas celle qu’il aurait d’abord”). It had apparently never been noticed that the he (il) does not refer back to any singular noun (if not to desire, which is meaningless); in the manuscript the agreement was correctly made in the plural. At least this example has never raised an interpretative problem, and only the grammarian can take exception to it; but such is not the case for this passage in book VIII, chapter 5: “When the reigning families observe the laws, it is a monarchy which has several monarchs, and is by its nature very good; almost all these monarchs are bound by the laws. But when they do not observe them, it is a despotic state which has several despots.” (“Quand les familles régnantes observent les lois, c’est une monarchie qui a plusieurs monarques, et qui est très bonne par sa nature ; presque tous ces monarques sont liés par les lois. Mais quand elles ne les observent pas, c’est un État despotique qui a plusieurs despotes.”) One can readily grant in the almost (presque) the attention to nuance so characteristic of Montesquieu; but one could also wonder about the contradiction consisting of saying in the same sentence that one is talking about regimes in which monarchs observe the laws, but that such is not the case for all, while reserving this case indeed for the following sentence. To be sure, the passage is not meaningless; but the one which appears in the manuscript (t. II, f. 53 ; OC, t. III, p. 159) has every chance of seeming more satisfactory to the reader who consults it, for the almost comes in fact from a misreading of the manuscript. The lesson gained from comparison of the imprint and the manuscript is in such an instance incontestable.

8Let us finally note that while the principal manuscript is conserved in Paris, the dossier of The Spirit of Law is conserved at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Bordeaux (Ms 2506): this disparate ensemble, which it acquired in 1994 (dation J. de Chabannes), consists of a large number of chapters ejected from the manuscript at various dates. Thus it occurs that a sentence begins on the manuscript in Paris and ends in Bordeaux… After being published once in 2001, most of it was published again with the manuscript of The Spirit of Law, certain documents relating to other aspects of Montesquieu’s work being published in the corresponding volumes (notably Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, p. 352-379).



De l’esprit des loix, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, NAF 12832-12836.
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12834 []
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Dossier of L’Esprit des lois, Bibliothèque Municipale de Bordeaux, Ms


OC, t. III-IV, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., 2008. First integral transcription; the edition includes a general introduction, with a chart of the paper and “hands” for each page (p. i-ccli ; with the collaboration of Claire Bustarret), and an introduction for each book.

Principles of the edition [].

Several books are accessible on line : which includes books II, IV, XI (introductions, annotations and commentaries); edition to which is added book XV, allowing to enhance visually the chronological strata of composition; critical edition of book VII (experimental version), including the manuscript variants [].

Dossier 2506 : L’Atelier de Montesquieu: manuscrits inédits de La Brède, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., with the collaboration of Claire Bustarret, Cahiers Montesquieu 7, Naples: Liguori, 2001 ; OC, t. IV, 2008, p. 749-896 (Ms 2506/3, 6, 7-14).


Robert Shackleton, “Les secrétaires de Montesquieu”, in Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes, André Masson dir., t. II, 1953, p. xxxv-xliii ; reprinted in R. Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, David Gilson et and Martin Smith ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988.

Claire Bustarret, “Les papiers de Montesquieu. Une approche codicologique du fonds de La Brède”, Revue Montesquieu 3 (1999),

Spicilège, OC, t. XIII, 2002, introduction by Rolando Minuti, p. 37-77.

Georges Benrekassa, Les Manuscrits de Montesquieu. Secrétaires, écritures, datations, Cahiers Montesquieu 8, Naples: Liguori, 2004.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “The art of the chapter-heading in Montesquieu or ‘De la constitution d’Angleterre’”, Journal of Legal History, Andrew Lewis dir., London: Routledge, 2004, p. 169-179.

— with the collaboration of Hélène de Bellaigue, Les plus belles pages des manuscrits de Montesquieu confiés à la bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux par Jacqueline de Chabannes, Bordeaux: William Blake and Co., 2005.

— “Une nouvelle ‘chaîne secrète’” de L’Esprit des lois : l’histoire du texte”, in Montesquieu en 2005, SVEC, 2005, p. 83-216 (partly reprinted in OC, t. III).
- Manuscrit : mode(s) d’emploi.
- Le manuscrit BNF de L’Esprit des lois
- De la main à la plume : les secrétaires de Montesquieu. Une mise au point
- Genèse de L’Esprit des lois
- Annexes

— “‘Une plume trempée dans le sang…’ : écriture et sensibilité chez Montesquieu”, Du goût à l’esthétique: Montesquieu, Pessac: Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007, p. 125-146.

—, Lire Montesquieu, multimedia webdoc (technical dir. Christophe Porlier), Lyon: ENS de Lyon, ENS Média, 2010 :
- Lire Montesquieu, III De L'Esprit des Lois (Colloque, “Évitons les polémiques? L’autocensure dans L’Esprit des lois” [].
- Lire Montesquieu, II, Les enseignements des manuscrits (séquence 1, “Lire des manuscrits” ; séquence 2 : “Les manuscrits de Montesquieu” [])
- Lire Montesquieu, IV, La question de l’esclavage (séquence 2, “Structuration du livre XV” ; séquence 3, “Le livre XV de L’Esprit des lois : une interprétation fondée sur la lecture du manuscrit de travail”) [].

Maxime Triquenaux, “La fabrique du style dans le livre IV du manuscrit de L’Esprit des lois”, in Le livre IV de L’Esprit des lois (manuscrit), transcription, annotations and commentary (augmented version: C. Volpilhac-Auger and Maxime Triquenaux, ENS de Lyon), 2011 [].

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, with the collaboration of Gabriel Sabbagh and Françoise Weil, Un auteur en quête d’éditeurs? Histoire éditoriale de l’œuvre de Montesquieu (1748-1964), Lyon: ENS Éditions, “Métamorphoses du livre”, 2011.