Charles-Louis de Secondat was born near Bordeaux, France, in 1689 to a bourgeois (noble) family. He received a law degree from the Université de Bordeaux in 1708 where he would have been taught Justinian's Institiutes in first year as it was made a mandatory part of the curriculum for a license en droit in France as of 1700 (the U. of Bordeaux law school is now named after Montesquieu).
Montesquieu moved to Paris to practise law until 1713.
In 1715, the long reigning Louis XIV died, leaving the French kingdom to an inept son, Louis XV (1710-1774). Thus, Monesquieu's French audience was only too keenly alive to the failings of a monarchy form of government.
Montesquieu was not one to pass up on the perks of nobility, taking the family name of Montesquieu in 1716, and becoming the Baron of Montesquieu.
But once he inherited his family's money, he returned to Bordeaux, gave up the practise of law and turned to writing.
He became a literary success with a novel in 1721 and then spent many years traveling including a stint in London where he studied the British system of government (his mother was of English heritage). In London, he saw first-hand a model for the separation of governmental powers: England's innovative constitutional monarchy at work, where a sovereign was able to exist and work with an elected Parliament. This, as a result of the 1689 Bill of Rights, conceded by the British monarchy in the very year Montesquieu was born.
In 1731, he began work on Esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), which was only published in two volumes in 1748, to much public appeal and the wrath of the Roman Catholic church, which promptly censured it. Montesquieu had reflected that:
"No kingdom has shed more blood than the kingdom of Christ."
But there was no stopping Esprit des lois: sales were phenomenal and its political influence world-wide.
Quotes from Montesquieu:
"An empire founded by war has to maintain itself by war."
"The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.
"If I knew something that would serve my country but would harm mankind, I would never reveal it; for I am a citizen of humanity first and by necessity, and a citizen of France second, and only by accident.
"Peace is a natural effect of trade.
"There is no nation so powerful, as the one that obeys its laws not from principals of fear or reason, but from passion.
"In the infancy of societies, the chiefs of state shape its institutions; later the institutions shape the chiefs of state.
"Luxury ruins republics; poverty, monarchies."
It is difficult to catalogue Esprit des lois or to extract points from it because of its sheer depth. To some, anything short of a complete reproduction would not do it justice.
However, Montesquieu's l'Eprit des lois spread out to the common criticism why we have laws in the first place. Then, he went on to describe the ideal system of government, which is what we have today: an administrative or executive, a judicial and a legislative branch, for the most part independent the one from the other.
This replaced the historical division of power between the church, the nobles and the commoners.
He went on to coin the phrase Byzantine to refer to the latter Roman Catholic Roman Empire, from about 300 to 1450.
Charles de Secondat, the Baron of Montesquieu died in Bordeaux on February 10, 1755 but his brilliant ideals had immediate and long-term impact in firing two revoutions: that of the United States of America (1755-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799).
- Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company)
- de Sevondat, Charles Louis (Baron de Montesquieu), English translation of Esprit des lois, edition 1752, The Spirit of Laws
- Lewis, Andrew, "Montesquieu Between Law and History", published in Law and History, 2003, Volume 6, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pages 83-95.