Biography of Montesquieu

François Cadilhon

1In his “Mémoires de ma vie” (Pensées, no. 1236), Montesquieu may have intended to write his own biography, but, with his genealogy, the whole thing remained a regrouped project in the Pensées or the Spicilège. Charles Louis de Secondat was born on 18 January 1689 in the château of La Brède, the heir of a family lately come to Bordeaux, in the early 17th century, but which had managed to adopt the causes and marry the daughters of the parlement of Guyenne. Jean-Baptiste Gaston, grandfather of the philosopher, managed one of the finest matches in the city by marrying the daughter of Joseph Dubernet, the first President of the sovereign court. While with nine children (three girls and six boys) the family’s future seemed assured, the hazards of life were such that only his fourth son, Jacques, had any progeny that was viable or unbound by religious vows. The firstborn, Charles Louis, baptized the very day of his birth, was godfathered by one of the parish poor, following a fairly widespread custom in Guyenne, but his entire education – in a certain measure his later behavior and personal sufferings – rested on the weight of traditions and the constant concern for what was to become of the name.

2After his preliminary domestic instruction, dispensed by the schoolmaster of La Brède, a certain Soubervie, the boy was sent to the prestigious Oratorian academy at Juilly, near Meaux, for secondary studies, in many ways essential. Since the end of the 16th century, the Bordelais elite had been in the habit of entrusting their children to the Jesuits of the city, installed in the Collège de La Madeleine. Their excessive proselytism – Montesquieu recalled that in “1622 of sixty pupils of the Jesuits there were thirty who entered the monasteries” (Pensées, no. 180) – and new pedagogical conceptions nonetheless modified the practices in Bordeaux. The education dispensed in Juilly associated aristocratic values with bourgeois conceptions of decidedly professional purpose. Unlike the Jesuits, the Oratorians judged the performance of plays unnecessary, but the learning of history or French letters occupied a large place in the schedule, and not to the neglect of mathematics or physics. The register of inscriptions allows us to measure the Bordelais frequentation of Juilly, which began at the end of the 17th century and, quite exceptionally, reached its peak in 1704.

3Charles Louis de Secondat had been admitted there on 11 August 1700 under the name of Montesquieu de La Brède, and was joined there the following year by his younger brother Joseph. The trip there was a long one and staying there costly. The two children’s education cost their father 4867 livres for room and board alone, but there were also numerous supplements that had to be paid. It was therefore a fortunate elite with which the Secondats were rubbing shoulders within that institution, reinforcing, furthermore, the predestination of the ones and the others. The near totality of the children who came from far-away Guyenne were noble, most of them the heirs of some parlementaire, and were expected to follow the footsteps of their father or, like Montesquieu, their uncle. Charles de Secondat, who sketched his first literary essays at Juilly, was apparently a good student, for his professors never ceased praising him, stressing how he studied “with the greatest application in the world” (letter from Brother Andrieu to J.-B. de Secondat, 5 March 1704, Bordeaux, bibliothèque municipal, Ms2562/10).

4In 1705, at sixteen, Montesquieu left the collège for the law school in Bordeaux. This choice is surprising and significant. The majority of the Oratorian students indeed headed for the University of Paris, compounding thereby the decline of the one in Bordeaux, riddled with inner strife. Charles having made clear his repugnance for a forced vocation, it seems clear that paternal surveillance was stronger in Bordeaux: “When I left the collège, law books were placed in my hands; I sought the spirit of them, I worked, I did nothing worthwhile” (letter to Solar, 7 March 1749, OC, t. XX). On 29 July 1708 Montesquieu de La Brède was received bachelor of laws, then licencié in law and admitted to practice law in the Bordeaux parlement. This rapid succession was in no way exceptional because, much more in function of financial means than of academic results, the course of study was often adapted to individual needs. His father and uncle then offered Montesquieu the opportunity to travel to Paris, in the heart of the world of letters, for what was to remain one of the least known periods of the philosopher’s life. The death of Jacques de Secondat on 15 November 1713 in any case recalled Charles to Guyenne.

5Jacques de Secondat’ testament made of his eldest son his unique heir. The legacy amounted to 126,000 livres – a handsome sum for the time – but in 1714 Montesquieu, involved in the purchase of a charge as counselor at the parlement for 24,000 livres, also had to settle his father’s debts, honor his pious bequests, and pay damages to several parties, in particular a legal portion of 30,000 livres to his brother Joseph. This makes it easier to understand the real financial worries of the young magistrate at the start of his career. Jacques de Secondat expressed the posthumous wish that his son should marry promptly, for in addition to the always strong anguish over remaining without descendants, a well-negociated contract was often the best solution for inexpensively “fertilizing his fields” (an allusion to the assistance which a dowry would provide to the estate). At first, the new lord of La Brède had in mind to marry Germaine Denis, the daughter of an influential elected official in Bordeaux. The marriage was planned and the dowry of 75,000 livres settled, when rumors in the city, reported by the counselor and chronicler Labat de Savignac, stressed the “demoiselle’s modest birth”. On 30 April 1715 Montesquieu finally married Jeanne Lartigue, of recent nobility, a Protestant, but whose dowry of 100,000 livres might overcome many prejudices. The ceremony was celebrated very quietly at Saint-Michel de Bordeaux. The couple settled at first with the bride’s family in the old Hôtel de Carles, where Calvin had preached in the 16th century. Three children were born of this marriage, more one of reason than of the heart: Jean-Baptiste in 1716, Marie in 1717, and Denise in 1727.

6One year after the marriage, the death without issue of the head of the family, Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, his prestigious and admired uncle on 24 April 1716 in certain measure sealed a destiny, or in any case an preparation. According to the family arrangements negotiated many years earlier, the Baron de La Brède became first of all Baron de Montesquieu and président à mortier in the Bordeaux parlement. Charles de Secondat moreover saw his fortune considerably increased, for the benefactor was a rich landowner in Entre-deux-Mers and the seigniory of Raymond, grouped about a 16th-century maison-forte, amalgamated numerous properties in Cadarsac, Nérigean, Baron, Saint-Quentin-de-Baron, Saint-Germain-du-Puch or Tizac-de-Curton. Montesquieu, in whose judgment “no one likes to be counted for nothing in society” (Pensées, no. 2040), could henceforth measure his position in Guyenne by the number of parlementary processions.

7The traditional organization of Montesquieu’s biographies divided the years in the Bordelais from the Paris years. The philosopher’s official addresses reinforce this bipolarity. Between 1716 and 1726, Charles de Secondat would seem to have resided nine years in Bordeaux against only one in Paris, and between 1741 and 1755, things were very nearly the reverse of that (four against ten). The statutes of the sovereign court, which he at least at first made a point of respecting obliged him to live in Bordeaux. The counselor Montesquieu, from the same family as a serving President, had to begin by soliciting a family dispensation while remaining an active and dutiful magistrate. However, his activity abated spectacularly on his uncle’s death. The young baron was not yet twenty-seven; forty was the required age to preside over the sessions and the king had to grant a new dispensation and even the wages and honors due to a function largely empty of meaning. On 31 March 1717, for the first time, Montesquieu installed himself in Paris, but his increasingly frequent bending of the rules apparently was of little concern to his colleagues who, according to an old tradition, regularly wished him “good travels and a timely return”. The success of the Persian Letters, published in 1721, the support of influential personages, like the Marshall of Berwick, and perhaps his personal approaches in Versailles, allowed him in any case to obtain, on 3 July 1723, the long-awaited authorization and a royal annuity of 375 livres.

8Honored by the parlement, which called on him to deliver its inaugural address in 1725, Montesquieu was now an important man, but paradoxically his professional activity, attested by his signature on decrees, was always limited to such slight matters. From now on the first President Gillet de Lacaze no longer appreciated at all (the philosopher did not spare him an occasional allusion in his writings) the repeated requests for leave from an eminent judge he had to replace on short notice. Between a career in the magistracy, for which the wages were paid very irregularly, which by his own admission did not interest him – “My heart was quite upright; I understood the questions themselves; but as for procedure, I understood nothing about it” (Pensées, no. 213) – and his literary future, toward which Mme de Lambert, whose salon he frequented, encouraged him, his decision was quickly made, but not without regrets. Rather than a definitive and irreversible sale, Charles de Secondat opted, on the advice of his friend Barbot, for an astonishing transaction. On 7 July 1726, for a 5,200 livre annuity, he provisionally yielded his charge to the advocate-general Jean-Baptiste d’Albessard, reserving nonetheless to himself the possibility that he or his son could assume the office again at any time.

9More free to move about, Montesquieu was able to get himself elected to the Académie Française, then undertook, in the hope of obtaining a diplomatic post, a vast European voyage which over three years, from 1728 to 1731, took him to Austria, Hungary, Italy, Germany and the United Provinces, and finally to England, for a veritable discovery of the mores and spirit of the principal nations of the continent during an eighteen-month stay. It was in London that he was initiated into Freemasonry, under the aegis of his friends the dukes of Richmond and Montagu and the descendent of a former La Rochelle Huguenot, Desaguliers. Back in France, in April 1731, Montesquieu took part in the activities of the Paris and Bordeaux lodges. In the first case, his presence is mentioned in September 1734 and 1735, and letters to Richmond in 1735 testify to the persistance of these ties; in the second, after being denounced by the intendant Boucher on 12 April 1737 to the Cardinal de Fleury, he seems to have ceased all official ties with the movement (see OC, t. XIX, annex 5, « Montesquieu et la franc-maçonnerie ». His time in England in any case had a real influence on the thought of the philosopher, who moreover made no secret of the fact that his literary triumphs also authorized him to sell his wine there. Yet we know few details about the English life of Montesquieu, since his grandson destroyed most of his notes under the Restoration. Charles de Secondat was never again to leave French soil. In 1747, he had the opportunity to go to Lunéville for a brief stay at the court of Stanislas Leckzinski, but decided not to continue on to Berlin where Maupertuis was urging him to come.

10Montesquieu was never willing to abandon what connected Bordeaux to the world of Enlightenment. The Royal Academy of Sciences, Belle-lettres and Arts had been founded on 5 September 1712 at the instigation of a few devotees eager to promote and disseminate newfound knowledge to a larger public. In fact, the institution rapidly became an instrument in the hands of parlementarians who used its intellectual prestige to consolidate somewhat their authority over the city. Not all magistrates, of course, entered the Academy, but it was largely colonized by the great robes; and for a young, ambitious, and cultured counselor, the springboard of Bordeaux letters could turn out to be useful. Montesquieu’s candidacy was proposed on 3 April 1716 by M. de Navarre, an old fellow-student from Juilly, and the Baron de La Brède delivered his reception speech on 1 May, assuring his colleagues he “would always regard the letters of [their] establishment as family titles”. As in his judicial career, Montesquieu was at first an active and even zealous academician, whose activity has been traced by Pierre Barrière (p. 51-54). Fascinated by anatomy and physics, he made several reports on the causes of echoes, on renal glands, gravity and the transparency of bodies. As early as 1716 he offered, beyond his dues, a 300 livre anatomy prize and thought up a collective Histoire physique de la terre ancienne et moderne [‘Physical history of the earth ancient and modern’], announced in the Mercure on 1 January 1719 and the Journal des savants on 13 January 1719. Most of these projects never saw the light of day, or yielded modest results. Less assiduous at the Bordeaux sessions but leveraging his prestige as a member of the Académie Française, the baron over time imposed his personal choices on the company, in any case sufficiently to get his son admitted, and a few of his friends like abbé de Guasco, but not enough to avoid kindling some local instances of jealousy. The succinct reviews of Romans or L’Esprit des lois thus contrast with sometimes fulsome praise addressed to secondary writers.

11After the success of the Persian Letters, and to a lesser degree of The Temple of Gnidus, Montesquieu had been elected on 18 December 1727 to the Académie Française. He delivered his reception speech on 24 January 1728, a few weeks before his departure for Austria. This literary coronation was the result of an intense campaign in the Parisian salons and at Versailles, led in particular by Mme de Lambert, but it also marked the inversion of the philosopher’s geographical habits. In Bordeaux, Charles de Secondat, sometimes lodged by his brother who had become dean of the prestigious chapter Saint-Seurin, henceforth let apartments as need occurred, on the rue Mautrec or the rue Porte-Dijeaux, in

12buildings owned by the Academy or the Carmelites in the city; whereas in Paris, after often changing places, rue Dauphine, rue de la Verrerie, rue de Beaune…, he finally settled into a small bachelor’s apartment in the rue Saint-Dominique, and though he had not had many opportunities to attend the sessions of the Academie Française, upon his return from England he was was assiduous in attending, at least until 1749.

13Between Paris and Bordeaux, La Brède remained a place for holidays and reflection but also a center of income amidst the vines, fields and pastures. A solid landowner, a scrupulous and meticulous administrator, well seconded by his wife and his notary Pierre Latapie, Montesquieu did not hesitate, in order to increase his revenues, either to make use of the discoveries of English or Dutch agronomy, or to speculate against the edicts prohibiting the extension of vineyards. Sure of his prestige, the baron solicited his Parisian relations directly, but his Mémoire contre l’arrêt du Conseil changed nothing and the government remained inflexible. When he pleaded his financial difficulties to justify the sale of his charge in 1726, the President Barbot tried nonetheless to reason with him: “I dare say that your creditors are nothing […]. Forty thousand livres are an atom compared to your holdings, two years residency at La Brède will better reassure and satisfy the most uneasy among them, if there were any, than a sale combined with your remaining in Paris” (Correspondance, t. XVIII, no. 159, p. 188).

14Montesquieu was very proud of having developed his holdings all by himself, without the help of the court which he did not like and where he seldom was seen, but his overly-touted difficulties gave rise to some derision in the face of the spectacle of a well-worn carriage and a scarcely dissimulated query: was the philosopher a miser? The question often returns in the historiographical debates, because it was raised during his lifetime, and still divides people of letters and historians. The latter draw upon much the same data as Barbot. In 1714, he in fact inherited 67,000 livres; in 1726 his fortune can be estimated at 550,000 livres, minus 40,000 in debt; in 1756, the whole of his estate, freed from all claims, reached a little more than 654,000 livres. The roles of the vingtième make it possible to resituate the baron in the fiscal hierarchy of the Bordeaux nobility. In 1754, Montesquieu was certainly far from being the person with the highest taxes, but he nevertheless placed well above the average sums claimed by the royal treasury. Charles de Secondat no doubt lived largely at odds with the ostentatious mores of his times, which he was already decrying in the Persian Letters. If the spectacular economic surge encouraged merchants and parlementaires, Bordelais as well as Parisians, to pursue luxury and refinement of every moment, the notarial inventories drawn up at the death of the Baron de La Brède reveal more a mentality than real financial difficulties. Though he never missed a chance to denounce cupidity, Montesquieu was certainly miserly and did not completely hide, it for “it is important to know the price of money” (Pensées, no. 1117). “Old, no good, tattered […]”: the terms used to define the items at La Brède are unambiguous and, from the descriptions, it seems evident that most of them came from an accumulation of successive inheritances. Most visitors were still in agreement, at the end of the 18th century, that his bedroom and the library alone were worthy of the philosopher. The marriage of his daughter Denise was certainly a significant episode. In 1745, Montesquieu still had no grandson, and in order to assure the future of the name he decided to marry her to a distant cousin, Godefroy de Secondat, who was somewhat low on funds. The baron did not like forced vocations (especially religious ones) but it was absolutely necessary to avoid the biological fatality that was causing old Bordeaux families – the Navarres, the Mullets, the Lalannes, the Cambabessouzes, whom he had known at Juilly, in the parlement, in the Academy and in the city salons – to be extinguished one after the other. Montesquieu hoped that the fiancé “would make no expense, neither wedding presents, nor any other present whatever for the young lady […], that the marriage should take place at Montesquieu […] so there will be no regrets about the smugness of the young ladies of Bordeaux […] [and] to avoid the ceremonial of endless numbers of relatives” (“Mémoire sur le mariage proposé », dans une letter to Godefroy de Secondat, 28 December 1744, OC, t. XIX, lettre 573).

15Robert Shackleton has shown (p. 139) that with the passing years Montesquieu’s sociability had evolved. Attentive in his youth to integrating himself as well as he could in the narrow circles of Bordeaux aristocracy, with its grand and petty vanities, now he made certain in Paris to frequent all the salons, paying no attention to social distinctions. Far from the starchy provincial proprieties, the republic of Parisian relations offered him the simplicity of tone he sought. Montesquieu was reputed to be ill at ease and awkward in public. The great man knew this, and did not hide it: “timidity has been the scourge of my whole life; it seemed to block even my voice, tie my tongue, cloud my thoughts, scramble my expressions” (Pensées, no. 1005 – at least if this passage can be considered autobiographical). After Mme de Lambert’s death, Charles de Secondat was generously welcomed by the Brancas, the d’Aiguillons and the Dupins, by Mme de Tencin, Mme Du Deffand or Mme Geoffrin. He was a regular associate of the Brancas and of Mme de Tarcin, less so of Mme Geoffrin and much less so of Mme Dupin. The publication of L’Esprit des lois in 1748 sometimes divided opinion, and Claude Dupin adopted a highly critical attitude.

16Because his son refused to become a magistrate, Montesquieu himself had to resign the ancestral post after the death of M. d’Albessard, and to let it go to the Leberthon family, on 4 August 1748, but all the same for 130,000 livres. He still continued to write, aided by his secretaries, and to turn up in the salons of Paris; also to receive, whatever the naysayers reported, and notably the numerous candidates to the Académie Française who came to seek the support of the director elected in 1753. In December 1754, he nonetheless broke his contract for his Parisian home and let his domestics go, determined as he was to end his days at La Brède, which he never again saw. In the Old Regime the winter months were periods that favored the dangerous fevers with which historical demography is well acquainted. Montesquieu contracted one in January 1755. After a long agony which many visitors were adamant to attend, in particular the Duc de Nivernais, the official representative of Louis XV, and even the Swedish ambassador to France, Charles Louis de Secondat deceased on 10 February 1755, attended notably by his son and, not the least of paradoxes, by two Jesuit confessors (his old friend the Reverend Father Castel, assisted notably by his grandson d’ Armajan and by two Jesuit confessors (his old friend Father Castel attended by an Irish priest named Routh) and the Chevalier de Jaucourt, the faithful servant of the Enlightenment.


Montesquieu, Correspondance, OC, t. XVIII, 1998, and XIX, 2014 (t. XX and XXI, forthcoming).

Pierre Barrière, L’Académie de Bordeaux, centre de culture internationale au XVIIIe siècle, Bordeaux: Bière, 1951.

Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: a critical biography, Oxford, 1961.

Louis Desgraves, Montesquieu, Paris: Mazarine, 1985.

François Cadilhon, Montesquieu ou l’ingrate réalité du quotidien bordelais, Mont-de-Marsan: Éditions interuniversitaires, 1996.

Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998.