Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson on Montesquieu

Political Philosophy

October 6, 2021
by Haimo Li Also by this Author


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Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy (1754–1836) was a famous French Enlightenment philosopher. Thomas Jefferson admired him, and was so impressed with his writings that he translated one of his works into English and published it. In 1811, Jefferson completed his translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Commentary on Montesquieu, writing in thepreface:

Montesquieu’s immortal work on the Spirit of laws could not fail of course to furnish matter for profound consideration. I have admired his vivid imagination, his extensive reading, and dexterous use of it, but I have not been blind to his paradoxes, his inconsistencies, and whimsical combinations. and I have thought the errors of his book the more important to be corrected, as it’s truths are numerous, and of powerful influence on the opinions of society. these opinions attemper the principles on which governments are administered, on which so much depend the happiness & misery of men.[1]

On January 26, 1811 Jefferson sent a letter to De Tracy in which he wrote:

I had, with the world, deemed Montesquieu’s a work of much merit; but saw in it, with every thinking man, so much of paradox, of false principle, & misapplied fact, as to render it’s value equivocal on the whole.[2]

On May 15, 1817 Jefferson wrote another letter to De Tracy, in which he observed:

those of your Commentaries on Montesquieu, will, I am persuaded, have much and lasting effect in reclaiming us from his errors, ridding us of his artificial principles, and fixing our government on the basis of reason and right.[3]

As we can clearly see, Jefferson explicitly criticized Montesquieu’s method.

The regular academic interpretation of Jefferson’s criticisms on Montesquieu is that Jefferson supported the French Revolution and Montesquieu’s ideas were against it. Montesquieu was seen “as an idolator of the English constitution but also as a spokesman for the ancien regime, particularly the noblesse.”[4] But, if this is really the case, then obviously, as the opponent of the French Revolution, Burke should stand in the same camp along with Montesquieu (Burke, in the early 1790s, had been fiercely criticized by Jefferson for holding that stance.)[5] Nonetheless, there are plenty of cases where Burke criticized Montesquieu instead of merely praising him.

What often has been ignored by modern scholars is this paragraph in Burke’s Regicide Peace writings (published in 1796), in where Burke explicitly criticized French republican politicians:

There was no point on which the discontented diplomatic politicians so bitterly arraigned their Cabinet, as for the decay of French influence in all others. From quarrelling with the Court, they began to complain of Monarchy itself; as a system of Government too variable for any regular plan of national aggrandizement. They observed, that in that sort of regimen too much depended on the personal character of the Prince; that the vicissitudes produced by the succession of Princes of a different character, and even the vicissitudes produced in the same man, by the different views and inclinations belonging to youth, manhood, and age, disturbed and distracted the policy of a country made by nature for extensive empire, or what was still more to their taste, for that sort of general over-ruling influence which prepared empire or supplied the place of it. They had continually in their hands the observations of Machiavel on Livy. They had Montesquieu’s Grandeur & Décadence des Romains as a manual; and they compared with mortification the systematic proceedings of a Roman senate with the fluctuations of a Monarchy. They observed the very small additions of territory which all the power of France, actuated by all the ambition of France, had acquired in two centuries. The Romans had frequently acquired more in a single year. They severely and in every part of it criticised the reign of Louis the XIVth, whose irregular and desultory ambition had more provoked than endangered Europe. Indeed, they who will be at the pains of seriously considering the history of that period will see, that those French politicians had some reason.[6]

Even though in the end of this passage Burke frankly admitted that “those French politicians had some reason,” it is easy to see that Montesquieu, along with the “discontented diplomatic politicians,” were largely playing a pretty negative role in Burke’s theoretical construct. As pointed out by Rachel Hammersley, “it was these men [the “diplomatic politicians”], Burke insisted, together with the philosophers who were ultimately responsible for bringing about the Revolution in 1789. According to Burke they were avid readers of Machiavelli’s Discourses and Montesquieu’s Considerations and on the basis of these works they compared the French monarchy unfavourably with the Roman system.”[7] What is more, this is not the only place that Burke talked about Montesquieu negatively in the Regicide Peace; in that work, we also find this paragraph:

I am not quite of the mind of those speculators, who seem assured, that necessarily, and by the constitution of things, all States have the same periods of infancy, manhood, and decrepitude, that are found in the individuals who compose them. Parallels of this sort rather furnish similitudes to illustrate or to adorn, than supply analogies from whence to reason. The objects which are attempted to be forced into an analogy are not found in the same classes of existence. Individuals are physical beings, subject to laws universal and invariable. The immediate cause acting in these laws may be obscure: the general results are subjects of certain calculation. But commonwealths are not physical but moral essences. They are artificial combinations; and, in their proximate efficient cause, the arbitrary productions of the human mind. We are not yet acquainted with the laws which necessarily influence the stability of that kind of work made by that kind of agent.[8]

Walter Douglas Love long ago pointed out that the theory Burke attacked here was in reality a “simpler” version of Montesquieu’s “theory of states.”[9] Why did Burke criticize Montesquieu? Part of the reason is that to some certain extent, French Revolutionaries claimed that they were the followers of Montesquieu’s teachings. F. P. Lock’s research clearly shows that “Montesquieu continued to exercise an influence, and was often appealed to by the leaders of the French Revolution.”[10]

When criticizing Montesquieu’s ideas about so-called Oriental despotism, Burke explicitly, “in short, that every word that Montesquieu has taken from idle and inconsiderate Travellers is absolutely false.”[11] Jennifer Pitts very nicely interpreted this as “Burke named Montesquieu as a culprit in the dissemination of the false portrait of India as a society without laws, rights, or honor.”[12]  Also, Sean Donlan’s research points out that “linked to European manners, Burke saw English, and European, law as having progressively improved over time. This modern view was very different from that of many of his contemporaries. Even Montesquieu, ‘the greatest genius, which has enlightened this age,’ was not above criticism.”[13] Moreover, as pointed out by Richard Bourke, “Burke specifically criticized the argument put forward in Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws to the effect that an intermediary nobility was adequate to the task of harmoniously regulating power in a state.”[14] Elsewhere, Bourke says: “admiration did not make Burke an obedient disciple so much as an appreciative but critical reader of Montesquieu’s work.”[15]

Last but not least, just as pointed out by Harvey Mansfield long ago, “in Burke’s opinion, the admiration of a Montesquieu for the British constitution can never inspire a founder or new-modeler; his theoretical understanding can only applaud the forbearance and delicacy of British statesmen. When the philosopher must admire unplanned practice, he loses his primacy over the practicing statesman.”[16]

All of this demonstrates that the late works of Edmund Burke (1790-1797) and those of Thomas Jefferson (1809-1826) shared plenty of overlapping consensus, much more than scholars generally ever think of. Their agreement on the assessment and evaluation of Montesquieu’s writings is a nice example. They both admired Montesquieu’s writings, but simultaneously harbored some dissatisfaction towards Montesquieu’s errors, particularly in regards to his method.


[1]The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, ed. J. Jefferson Looney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 199 – ), 3:311–312.

[2]Ibid., 3:334–339.

[3]Ibid., 11:359–360.

[4]A. Owen Aldridge: “Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment,” in Lawrence Henry Gipson Institute Staff (ed.), Revisioning the British Empire in the Eighteenth Century: Essays from Twenty-five Years of the Lawrence Henry Gipson Institute for Eighteenth-Century Studies(Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Lehigh University Press, 1998), 130-133.

[5]The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 20:391–392.

[6]Letters on a Regicide Peace(London: G. Bell, 1893), 115-116.

[7]Rachel Hammersley, The English Republican tradition and eighteenth-century France(Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[8]Letters on a Regicide Peace, 2-3.

[9]Walter Douglas Love, Edmund Burke’s Historical Thought(Berkeley: University of California, 1956), 170.

[10]F. P. Lock, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France(New York: Routledge, 2013).

[11]Daniel O’Neill, Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire(Berkeley, California: Univ of California Press, 2016), 103-104. See also Richard Bourke, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 20-21.

[12]Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 79-80.

[13]Sean Patrick Donlan, “Burke on Law and Legal Theory,” in David Dwan, Christopher Insole (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 69-70.

[14]Richard Bourke, “Theory and Practice,” in Richard Bourke, Raymond Geuss (ed.): Political Judgement: Essays for John Dunn(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 ), 97-98.

[15]Richard Bourke, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 20.

[16]Harvey C. Mansfield, Statesmanship and Party Government(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 238.

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