The Spirit of Laws

Why is Marseilles “a necessary retreat in the midst of a tempestuous sea”? What does Marseilles help Montesquieu explain about his theory of commerce? In Chapter 1, Montesquieu claims that "commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices” and is associated with “agreeable manners.” Why is this? How does commerce bring about these causes?
How does the system proposed by Montesquieu relate to the idea of the division of labor in Smith (Document 9? Does Montesquieu address some of the challenges about trade raised by Mun and Hamilton (Documents 1 and 14)?

No related resources

Source: Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, “On the laws in their relation to commerce, considered in its nature and its distinctions” in The Spirit of the Laws in The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, [1748] 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 2. Accessed: March 23, 2020.


CHAP. I. Of Commerce.

. . . COMMERCE is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.

Let us not be astonished, then, if our manners are now less savage than formerly. Commerce has everywhere diffused a knowledge of the manners of all nations; these are compared one with another, and from this comparison arise the greatest advantages.

Commercial laws, it may be said, improve manners, for the same reason as they destroy them. They corrupt the purest morals; this was the subject of Plato’s complaints: and we every day see, that they polish and refine the most barbarous.[1]

 CHAP. II. Of the Spirit of Commerce.

PEACE is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who traffic with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.

But if the spirit of commerce unites nations, it does not in the same manner unite individuals. We see, that in countries[2] where the people move only by the spirit of commerce, they make a traffic of all the humane, all the moral virtues: the most trifling things, those which humanity would demand, are there done, or there given, only for money.

The spirit of trade produces in the mind of man a certain sense of exact justice, opposite on the one hand to robbery, and on the other to those moral virtues which forbid our always adhering rigidly to the rules of private interest, and suffer us to neglect this for the advantage of others.

The total privation of trade, on the contrary, produces robbery, which Aristotle ranks in the number of means of acquiring; yet it is not at all inconsistent with certain moral virtues. Hospitality, for instance, is most rare in trading countries, while it is found in the most admirable perfection among nations of vagabonds.

It is a sacrilege, says Tacitus, for a German to shut his door against any man whomsoever, whether known or unknown.[3] He who has behaved with hospitality to a stranger, goes to shew him another house where this hospitality is also practiced; and he is there received with the same humanity. But when the Germans had founded kingdoms, hospitality was become burthensome. This appears by two laws of the code of the Burgundians; one of which inflicted a penalty on every barbarian, who presumed to show a stranger the house of a Roman; and the other decrees, that whoever received a stranger should be indemnified by the inhabitants, every one being obliged to pay his proper portion.

CHAP. III. Of the Poverty of the People.

THERE are two sorts of poor; those who are rendered such by the severity of the government; these are indeed incapable of performing almost any great action, because their indigence is a consequence of their slavery. Others are poor, only because they either despise, or know not the conveniences of life; and these are capable of accomplishing great things, because their poverty constitutes a part of their liberty.

CHAP. IV. Of Commerce In Different Governments.

TRADE has some relation to forms of government. In a monarchy it is generally founded on luxury; and though it be also founded on real wants, yet the principle view with which it is carried on, is to procure everything that can contribute to the pride, the pleasure, and the capricious whimsies of the nation. In republics, it is commonly founded on œconomy. Their merchants having an eye to all the nations of the earth, bring from one what is wanted by another. It is thus that the republics of Tyre, Carthange, Athens, Marseilles, Florence, Venice, and Holland, engaged in commerce.

This kind of traffic has a natural relation to a republican government; to monarchies it is only occasional. For as it is founded on the practice of gaining little, and even less than other nations, and of remedying this by gaining incessantly; it can hardly be carried on by a people swallowed up in luxury; who spend much, and see nothing but objects of grandeur.

Cicero was of this opinion, when he so justly said, “that he did not like that the same people should be at once both the lords and factors of the whole earth.”[4] For this would indeed be to suppose, that every individual in the state, and the whole state collectively, had their heads constantly filled with grand views, and at the same time with small ones; which is a contradiction.

Not but that the most noble enterprises are completed also in those states which subsist by œconomical commerce: they have even an intrepidity not to be found in monarchies. And the reason is this:

One branch of commerce leads to another; the small to the moderate, the moderate to the great; thus he who has gratified his desire of gaining a little, raises himself to a situation in which he is not less desirous of gaining a great deal.

Besides, the grand enterprises of merchants are always necessarily connected with the affairs of the public. But in monarchies, these public affairs give as much distrust to the merchants, as in free states they appear to give safety. Great enterprises therefore, in commerce, are not for monarchical, but for republican governments.

In short, an opinion of great certainty, as to the possession of property in these states, makes them undertake everything. They flatter themselves with the hopes of receiving great advantages from the smiles of fortune, and thinking themselves sure of what they have already acquired, they boldly expose it, in order to acquire more; risking nothing but as the means of obtaining.

I do not pretend to say that any monarchy is entirely excluded from an œconomical commerce; but of its own nature it has less tendency towards it: neither do I mean that the republics, with which we are acquainted, are absolutely deprived of the commerce of luxury; but it is less connected with their constitution.

With regard to a despotic state, there is no occasion to mention it. A general Rule: A nation in slavery labors more to preserve than to acquire; a free nation, more to acquire than to preserve.

CHAP. V. Of Nations That Have Entered into an Oeconomical Commerce.

MARSEILLES, a necessary retreat in the midst of a tempestuous sea; Marseilles, a harbor which all the winds, the shelves of the sea, the disposition of the coasts, point out for a landing-place, became frequented by mariners! while the sterility of the adjacent country determined the citizens to an œconomical commerce. It was necessary that they should be laborious, to supply what nature had refused; that they should be just, in order to live among barbarous nations, from whom they were to derive their prosperity; that they should be moderate, to the end that they might always taste the sweets of a tranquil government; in fine, that they should be frugal in their manners, to enable them to subsist by trade, a trade the more certain, as it was less advantageous.

We everywhere see violence and oppression give birth to a commerce founded on œconomy, while men are constrained to take refuge in marches, in isles, in the shallows of the sea, and even on rocks themselves. Thus it was, that Tyre, Venice, and the cities of Holland, were founded. Fugitives found there a place of safety. If was necessary that they should subsist; they drew therefore their subsistence from all parts of the world.

  1. 1. Plato (c. 429 – 347 BCE) was an Athenian Greek philosopher. He was the student of Socrates who is the first philosopher—though we do not have any of his writings—and was put to death for philosophizing by the people of Athens. Plato recorded many of Socrates’ dialogues and this is how we have his teachings. Plato also went on to found the Academy—the first Western institution of higher learning and was the teacher of Aristotle.
  2. 2. Montesquieu notes Holland here.
  3. 3. Tacitus (56-c.120 AD) was one of the greatest Roman historians and was also a politician. He is most famous for his writings about Germany and his histories of the emperors, Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero titled the Annals and the Histories.
  4. 4. De Republica 4.7. Cicero was one of the greatest Roman orators and a statesman. He tried to uphold republican principles in the period before the onset of the Roman Empire, including helping to stop an attempt at the overthrow of the government in the Caitlinian Conspiracy and opposing both Julius Caesar’s power and Mark Antony’s rule. He was put to death by Mark Antony for his opposition, and Antony further humiliated the memory of Cicero by putting his severed head and hands-on public display.
Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.