Montesquieu in England: his ‘Notes on England’, with Commentary and Translation Commentary

translation and annotations by Iain Stewart

Includes an English translation of Montesquieu: Notes sur l’Angleterre

(2002) Oxford U Comparative L Forum 6 at | How to cite this article



Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), is best known for The Spirit of Laws (De l’esprit des lois), published in 1748. This was arguably the first major work of legal science in the modern sense of ‘science’ – an exercise in systematic and comparative observation.1 The work’s fame today, however, rests on a doctrine said to be presented in section 6 of Book 11: that of ‘separation of powers’ – although ‘division of powers’, which is sometimes preferred, more accurately represents Montesquieu’s meaning.
With this doctrine, it is supposed, Montesquieu advocated that state power be divided into a legislative, an executive and a judicial power and that these three should be kept ‘separate’, so that the bearers of each will be vigilant that the bearers of the other two will remain within the bounds of their constitutional authority.
This doctrine, however, is one that Montesquieu did not write. The similar doctrine that he did write is, moreover, one that he went on in the same section to reject in favour of a quite different doctrine. That doctrine is addressed to different questions. And those who have pointed these things out have been largely ignored.
Early in Book 11.6, Montesquieu does speak of a legislative, an executive and a judicial power and advocate their separation. Even within that section, however, he goes on to reject the idea of a professional or even permanent judiciary; he thereby excludes the judiciary from the scheme of vigilance. Then, by the end of the section, he prefers a different division of powers – an executive power and two legislative powers. The idea of this division addresses not the question of constitutional authority but the question of the location of sovereignty and the question of corruption.
In this light, Montesquieu is not guilty of the offences with which he is commonly charged: that he naïvely supposes that completely ‘separate’ powers could check and balance each other; and that he takes the British constitution as his model yet woefully misunderstands it. As to the charge of naïvety, Montesquieu simply does not envisage complete separation. That partly answers the charge of ignorance. It can be further answered by examining the notes, or what survives of them, that Montesquieu made during the year and a half that he had spent in England, when he had moved in the most powerful circles.
These appeared posthumously as ‘Notes on England (Notes sur l’Angleterre)’ – hereafter, ‘Notes’. The Notes are a close precursor of the section on division of powers in The Spirit of Laws, since a first draft of that section was completed not long after Montesquieu’s return to France.2 Yet the Notes have been largely ignored, even by French scholars. They appear never to have been translated into English. A translation is given below. Although the Notes run to only a few pages, the task of translation has been onerous. Montesquieu’s language is frequently cryptic and makes little or manifestly inadequate sense unless one seeks out the personalities, events and institutions to which they refer. The translation is accordingly accompanied by extensive annotations.
The Notes show that Montesquieu had quite a good, if not wholly accurate, understanding of the British constitution. They also show that he knew that British politics were thoroughly corrupt. The division of powers that he proposes thus appears as an answer to the conundrum: how do you keep the bastards honest, when everybody in power is a bastard? The answer that I think Montesquieu gives is: divide power among the bastards, so that they will tend to keep each other honest.3

Juristic and Political Interpretations

Montesquieu’s discussion of division of powers has entered into constitutional theory and constitution framing throughout the world.4 In the process, Eisenmann has found, it has received two, incompatible interpretations.5

The Juristic Interpretation

In a ‘juristic’ interpretation, which in the twentieth century has become orthodox to the extent of seeming obvious, Montesquieu is understood to have proposed a hermetic separation of three ‘powers’: a legislative, an executive and a judicial power. These, Eisenmann summarises, are to be: ‘(1) composed of totally different elements, (2) each charged with exercising one of the three powers of state, (3) devoid of any mutual influence and (4) having no relation or communication with each other’.
In more detail:

  • (1) there shall be three organs (or groups of organs – which does not need repeating)
  • (2) each of the three powers must be the business of an ‘absolutely distinct’ organ; no individual or ‘college’ may take part in more than one organ, hence no two organs will share a common ‘cell’
  • (3) each organ shall exercise that power ‘in its totality’, not sharing it in any way
  • (4) each organ shall exercise its ‘function’ in complete independence, shielded from any kind of influence from the other two, and be committed to maintaining that independence

This group of ‘principles’, however, is supplemented by a series of guarantees:

  • (5) ‘the mutual irrevocability of the three orders of organ’: no organ will have a right to abolish an organ belonging to a different order
  • (6) none of the three organs will have either a right or means to prevent an organ belonging to a different order from exercising its functions or to require it to exercise them
  • (7) between those charged with or participating in the exercise of the three functions, there shall be ‘absolutely no’ direct relation or communication: they must not exercise their functions by meeting together or even in each other’s presence; if they must communicate, they may do so only through messages

By analogy: ‘according to Montesquieu, the best constitutional world would be formed by three bodies each of which would move in a sphere of its own with an autonomous motion – independently, neither subjected to any attraction or repulsion from the others nor exerting any such upon them’.6
Eisenmann attributes this view to various European constitutional lawyers of his day,7 but it is also recognisably the interpretation of Montesquieu to be found in works on constitutional law in the common-law world. This interpretation is intrinsically absurd. It is also obviously false, so far as Montesquieu alleges that it describes English constitutional law and practice of his day. But is it even what Montesquieu said? It is indeed what he appears to say in the first few paragraphs of Book 11.6. But, Eisenmann points out, one has also to accommodate Montesquieu’s theme, later in the same section, of a ‘balance (modération)’ in which ‘power may check power (le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir)’. Rather, Eisenmann says, on closer and further reading, both in Book 11.6 and elsewhere in The Spirit of Laws, a directly opposite interpretation is required.8

The Political Interpretation

This is a ‘political’ interpretation, which originated in the eighteenth century and predominated during the nineteenth.9 This interpretation finds in Montesquieu not a single principle, of ‘separation’, but a mixture of two principles: they are of equal, primordinate status and are mutually irreducible; however, ‘one of them comes in after the other and in order to solve a different problem’.

Principle of Non-Confusion

According to the first of these principles, ‘no two of the three powers of state, and a fortiori not all three of them, should be placed in the hands of one and the same organ’. Or, in terms of the organs themselves, no single organ should acquire any two, or a fortiori all three, of the powers of state. This differs from the ‘separation’ view in the following ways:

  • (1) It is sufficient if the organs exercising different powers are not composed of precisely the same elements, are not identically composed. This is a principle of ‘non-identity’ or ‘non-confusion’. Provided that it is satisfied, an individual may be a member of different organs and participate in the exercise of more than one power.
  • (2) It is sufficient if a particular power is not allocated ‘en bloc, in its totality’ to more than one organ. A limited exercise of one power may be allocated to an organ that has primary responsibility for another.

Eisenmann finds that this first principle in the political interpretation is clearly assumed in Montesquieu’s remarks on English constitutional law and practice. It addresses the issues of respect for the law and, with that, security of the citizen.10

Principle of Complexity

The second principle in the political interpretation addresses a different issue, that of the location of sovereignty. It is not concerned with all three powers – as would follow on the ‘separation’ view, which assumes that Montesquieu places all three powers on the same level. Rather, it concerns only the legislative and executive powers. Only these are ‘powers’ in ‘a political sense’. Montesquieu, Eisenmann finds, appears to see the judge as a ‘syllogism machine’, an adjudicative automaton or pure logician. The judge makes judgements of fact, after which the application of law is mechanical. Montesquieu’s judges, moreover, are not a permanent body but only occasional. Hence, as Montesquieu puts it, the judicial power is ‘so to speak, invisible and null’. ‘A famous formula’, Eisenmann observes, ‘and frequently cited, but then entirely left out of the picture’.
Montesquieu’s approach to the location of sovereignty begins, then, with only the legislative and executive powers. He allocates the executive power to a monarch. Then he divides the legislative power in two: a part in the hands of an aristocracy and a part in the hands of the people. This produces a different threefold division of powers – corresponding to the English division among king, lords and commons. The basic elements of this design, however, transcend the English scene. They could be transferred to a republic or a democracy. As Eisenmann puts it: ‘The cogs would be different, but the clockwork would be the same.’
Thus, for Eisenmann the second principle in the political interpretation is: ‘sovereign power should not be placed in the hands of a simple organ, be that a single individual or a single assembly; on the contrary, it must be allocated to a complex organ – that is, an organ composed of several basically different and heterogenous elements, embodying distinct political principles and forces, which will exercise them jointly, together’. In this way, ultimate political decisions, which would be primarily legislative, ‘will express not the will of a single political force but the common and concordant will of several; hence the managing (direction) of the state would lie only in their coming together, their union (leur réunion seule, leur union). Or, in terms of organs: the supreme or sovereign organ should be … politically composite.’ This is what Montesquieu envisages when he observes that in England legislation requires the consent of king, lords and commons.
These three organs stand in a relation of mutual equality. It is these that are to ‘check’ and ‘balance’ each other. The second principle, of this tripartite division, addresses the issue of political balance. To put this negatively, it addresses the problem of abuse of power. Not, however, ‘abuse’ in the juristic sense – an exceeding of legally conferred authority. That, in Eisenmann’s view, is a complete misreading of Montesquieu. The question is of ‘abuse’ in a political sense – the difference between good and bad government. Balance, in this sense, is a resultant, a compromise – it is government by the middle way (juste milieu). Montesquieu sees it as achieved politically. Although sometimes he seems to think that this can be achieved through respect for the law, a more consistent interpretation is to say that he sees it as achieved, and achievable, only politically. After all, Eisenmann observes, legality is compatible with ‘pure autocracy or the most perfect dictatorship’.
Hence, of the two principles identified in the political interpretation, the second is ‘by far the more important’.

Montesquieu’s Politics

Montesquieu’s constitutional analysis, in this interpretation, corresponds to his overall political outlook. He envisages an apparatus of government that is, Eisenmann finds, ‘a projection on the constitutional plane of his image of society: three social forces, therefore three political forces embodying them – the correspondence is perfect’. Montesquieu’s thought thus exhibits ‘a complete harmony among all its parts: social ideas, political principles, constitutional maxims and concrete rules – faultless in continuity, progression and rationality.’11
Althusser has gone on from there to observe that this balance among political forces preserves a compromise that preserves the power of the aristocracy, to whom our Baron belonged.12 Althusser could have found support for this interpretation in the Notes, where Montesquieu says that it behoves a ‘good Englishman’ to try to defend liberty against attacks both by the monarch and by the commons. At the same time, this is the unreformed House of Commons – to which only wealthy men could be elected and many of these represented ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs whose small electorates were in the pocket of the local lord. The compromise in which these three political forces had invested constituted an alliance against those below them – whom Montesquieu dismisses in the Notes as ‘the rabble (la canaille)’.
Someone who respects the law and the security of the citizen is described by Montesquieu as ‘respectable (honnête)’. The opposite of respectability, for him, is ‘corruption (corruption)’. He uses both expressions in ways that come over today as ambiguous between two levels. On one level, there is an opposition between the person of upright character and the person of dubious character – in terms of public life, between integrity and bastardry. On a second level, there is an opposition between honesty and dishonesty. The first of these levels is primary: the person of political integrity will be tend to be honest, while the political bastard will tend to be dishonest. It is therefore very important how integrity is conceived.
In the Notes I have translated honnête as ‘respectable’, but that should be understood to carry the secondary meaning of ‘honest’. Likewise, while ‘corruption’ is the obvious translation for ‘corruption‘, ‘corruption’ should be read both as the opposite of ‘respectability’ and as the opposite of ‘honesty’. However, Montesquieu’s meaning of ‘corruption‘ as the opposite of respectability has shades of Machiavelli’s conception of it as the opposite of ‘virtue’ – seeing both virtue and its opposite as intrinsic, almost physical characteristics.13 For today’s purposes, to maintain the Machiavellian conception of ‘corruption’ as the contrary of intrinsic ‘virtue’ would be both intellectually and politically reactionary. That nuance of Montesquieu’s meaning needs to be set aside. Then, given that all power tends to corrupt, in applying the opposition between integrity and bastardry the safer path is to presume a degree of bastardry. In that sense, the division of powers that Montesquieu prefers is directed to keeping bastards ‘honest’. To the evident criticism that this view is reactionary, in that the problem is not to keep bastards honest but to get rid of them, one can partially respond that Montesquieu’s outlook is relevant to the tendency of all power to corrupt.
These things said, Montesquieu’s conception of power is shallow. He conceives power solely as an ability to get others to do things. He does not add an ability to determine the range of options or an ability to get people to change their very desires.14 These extra dimensions need to be taken into account in designing political institutions, although whether they could be components of the design itself is less evident.
On the other hand, on the planes of public bastardry and dishonesty, one could today add into the calculation a free press. Montesquieu’s comments on press freedom in the Notes indicate that he would probably have relished the notion of the press as a ‘fourth estate’.

England in The Spirit of Laws

Books 11 and 12 of The Spirit of Laws form a pair, in which Montesquieu examines the content and requirements of ‘political liberty’: in Book 11 as to laws that establish political liberty in its relation to the constitution15 and in Book 12 as to those that establish it in relation to the individual.
He reviews the various meanings of ‘liberty’ (11.2) and chooses to understand political liberty as ‘the right to do everything permitted by law’ (11.3). This is with an eye to the constitution: later he will specify, with regard rather to the individual, that political liberty ‘lies in security, or in one’s estimation of security’ (12.1).16
Political liberty, he thinks, is not assured solely through aristocracy or democracy: there must, in addition or in any case, be ‘balance’. Political liberty is found only ‘within balanced forms of government (dans les gouvernements modérés)’. Not, however, in all ‘balanced States (États modérés)’, but only when in addition power is not abused. The only way to prevent abuse is through constitutional design: ‘So that power may not be abused, it is necessary that, through the way in which things are arranged, power may check power (le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir)’. The other side of this coin would be liberty: a constitution ‘may be so framed that nobody shall be compelled to do those things that they are not compelled to do by law, or compelled not to do those that the law permits them to do’ (11.4).
He then turns his attention to the content of constitutions (11.5). ‘Although’, he observes, ‘every State has in general one and the same aim, which is self-preservation, each State also has an aim that is special to itself.’ The latter has been: in Rome, aggrandisement; in Sparta, war; in the Judaic laws, religion; in Marseilles, commerce; and so on. There is one State in the world whose special aim, and ‘the direct aim of its constitution’, is political liberty – and that is England. He will examine the ‘principles’ on which England bases political liberty. If those principles be good, ‘liberty will appear in them as in a mirror’. That, he believes, should not be a difficult task. And, if one can find such principles in a constitution, there will be no need to go on looking for them – that is, through philosophical speculation.
There follows the famous section ‘De la constitution de l’Angleterre (On the Constitution of England)’ (11.6). Montesquieu’s interest continues to lie in ‘principles’ alone. Near the end of the section, he emphasises that he is not interested in whether the English do currently enjoy political liberty: ‘It is enough for me to state that it is established by their laws and I am not looking further than that.’
The section opens:

Il y a dans chaque État trois sortes de pouvoirs: la puissance législative, la puissance exécutrice des choses qui dépendent du droit des gens, et la puissance exécutrice de celles qui dépendent du droit civil.

In every State there are three modes of governance: legislative power, executive power over matters subject to the law of nations, and executive power over those subject to the law of the particular state.17

This is a statement of general theory. Its generality is the more marked by the fact that it is couched in categories of Roman law, with which Montesquieu was intimately acquainted but with which English law had long parted company. Firstly there is ‘legislative power’: power to make leges, general norms. Then there is ‘executive’ power: power to apply those norms to particular issues. Finally, executive power has two aspects: its application to matters arising from the ius gentium (‘the law of nations’18), ie matters arising under norms recognised by all (civilised) peoples; and its application to matters arising from the ius civile (‘the law of the particular state’, eg the law followed in the city of Rome).19
Montesquieu explains the three powers further:

Par la première, le prince ou le magistrat fait des lois pour un temps ou pour toujours, et corrige ou abroge celles qui sont faites. Par la seconde, il fait la paix ou la guerre, envoie ou reçoit des ambassades, établit la sûreté, prévient les invasions. Par la troisième, il punit les crimes, ou juge les différends des particuliers. On appellera cette dernière la puissance de juger, et l’autre simplement la puissance exécutrice de l’État.

Through the first, the prince or magistrate makes laws of temporary or permanent duration, and revises or repeals those already made. Through the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives diplomatic missions, provides security and prevents invasion. Through the third, he punishes crime or judges disputes between individuals. One may call the last the power to judge, and the other simply the executive power of the State.20

A ‘power’ in a legal sense is an authorisation to act. Montesquieu’s English predecessors on this issue had assumed a ‘legislative power’ in the sense of a constitutional authorisation to create general norms. The assumption of generality was derived from the western legal tradition back to the concept ‘lex‘ in Roman law. These general norms would be applied to particular situations. Certain persons would be constitutionally authorised to do that, to ‘execute’ the laws; their authority to do so would be an ‘executive power’. The distinction between the legislative and executive powers was, to that extent, a logical one – a distinction between the creation of general and of particular norms.21 So far, the juristic interpretation holds.
Consideration of laws that establish political liberty in relation to the individual could not, however, be entirely deferred. Implicitly recognising that the aim of liberty in a constitution has benefits in the end only with regard to individuals, Montesquieu takes up the theme of security with regard to the individual as ‘citizen’. The principle of division is then introduced on this plane: ‘in order that one may possess this liberty, the form of government must be such that no citizen need fear another’. Such fear will exist, and hence liberty will not, if any two or all of the three powers are held by a single person or a single body of persons.
An additional danger, he thinks, lies in placing the judicial power in the hands of a permanent body, status group (état) or profession. He prefers the Athenian model of a tribunal elected from among ‘the people’, annually on a date prescribed by law, and in session for as long as may be required. The judges in a particular case should be of the same social status as the accused and subject to objections from the accused to the extent that an accused can, in effect, choose their own judges. This sort of judicial power, not being attached to a particular status group or profession, is ‘so to speak, invisible and null (invisible et nulle)’. He proceeds to delete it from the list of ‘powers’, leaving only the legislative and executive powers. They are later referred to as the only ‘visible powers (pouvoirs visibles)’ (19.27).
His image of an occasional judicial power is plainly different from the English model, in which (then as now) the power to judge is located in a permanent judiciary selected by the executive from among a powerful legal profession. At first sight it seems odd that Montesquieu should have incorporated this model within a reference to England. Yet there are several ways in which the difference is smaller than appears. First, as has been noted: Montesquieu’s focus is on principles, not actuality. Second: he is influenced by the mythology of the ‘ancient law’ or ‘good old law’ of pre-Norman England.22 It is, he believes, from the Germanic tribes that the English have derived their idea of a political system: ‘This fine system has been found in the forests’. In that system, he states on the authority of Tacitus, minor matters were decided by the chiefs and major matters by an assembly of the whole people as well as being examined in depth by the chiefs. For Montesquieu, the distance between the Areopagus and a Teutonic glade is not great. Third: those who will form the judicial power will not make law; they will be ‘only the mouth that pronounces the words of the law, inanimate beings that are not able to modify either its force or its rigour’. This corresponds to the then prevailing English judicial myth that judges do not make the common law but are merely its ‘oracles’.23 Fourth: he goes on to propose that, if the law is found to be too strict, then by way of exception the legislature in its ‘supreme authority’ may constitute within itself a court that can ‘adjust (modérer) the law for the benefit of the law itself, by pronouncing less rigorously than it’. This is not far from the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, which then as now was the supreme court of Great Britain. Finally: Montesquieu’s judicial power resembles a grand jury and he writes elsewhere that in England juries judge.24 His image of the judicial power is thus a hazardous mish-mash of Athenian, Germanic / Anglo-Saxon, Norman and contemporary English ideas, but by characterising the judicial power as non-creative and subject to the legislature’s supervision he maintains a separation of the judicial and legislative rôles to perhaps the maximum extent feasible.
Montesquieu then switches back into the theme of ‘balanced government’ or, more fully in contemporary terms, ‘mixed and balanced government’. On this tack, he admires the English division of legislative power among King, Lords and Commons. In doing so, he acknowledges that this is for the executive to participate in the exercise of legislative power through its capacity to prevent legislation. Since Montesquieu refers here to ‘the monarch’, he appears to have in mind the capacity to refuse assent to legislation – which at that time one could still think to exist, even though in fact the last exercise of it had already passed.25 Without at least this, Montesquieu considers, the monarch and the royal ‘prerogatives’ would be under threat from the legislature.
There are other, more detailed respects in which Montesquieu accepts overlap among the three powers. However, he concludes that he has outlined ‘the fundamental constitution’ under which England is governed.26 Yet by this point he is talking about a different set of ‘three powers’: two legislative powers, composing the upper and lower houses of the legislature, and an executive power. The judicial power has been made ‘invisible and null’ within his own argument. He has reverted to the more traditional image of mixed and balanced government, adopting along the way some reigning myths of the judicial and legislative róles. These three powers, he says, might conceivably lie in a state of ‘rest or inaction’; yet, since things are necessarily in motion, the three ‘are compelled to move on, will be forced to move in concert’. They will be so forced, he appears to assume, by the State’s overriding aim of self-preservation.
Montesquieu’s key vocabulary about ‘powers’ gives the translator a headache: I have generally translated gouvernement as ‘form of government’, pouvoir primarily as ‘mode of governance’ and puissance as ‘power’. In the juristic interpretation, puissance would have the primarily legal sense of a bundle of authorisations. However, the word appears also, or instead, to have here the meaning of a physical ‘force’. That may be taken to reflect Montesquieu’s interest in the methods of the physical sciences, which was one source (or reflection) of his commitment to dispassionate enquiry.27 At the same time, it is far from clear what conception of political interaction may underlie the apparent metaphor.28
To the extent that Montesquieu’s analysis is mechanistic, it is a serious category-mistake to incorporate it directly into the framing of a constitution.29 On the other hand, to the extent that his resort to a mechanistic perspective is one of the ways in which he deals with the problem of corruption, the analysis is indirectly relevant to the framing and interpretation of any constitution.
Montesquieu presents ‘balance’ as a normal feature of any successful state, which gives his apparently descriptive statements a prescriptive edge. His declared model is England, already a constitutional monarchy, which he and many of his Continental contemporaries admired as a land of liberty compared with the nonconstitutional monarchies under which most of them lived. Montesquieu’s account of the English system is effectively a recommendation for France. That account is somewhat idealised and it is accordingly easy to suppose that Montesquieu was seeing England through rose-tinted spectacles.
To an extent, the question is not of spectacles but of blinkers. The Continental admirers of English liberty, like their counterparts in England, were no democrats as one would now understand the term. Their concern was with extending aristocratic liberties to the rising middle class or, in the case of Baron Montesquieu, with preserving aristocratic liberties through sharing them with the rival class. This was already being achieved in England, partly by a downward extension and partly through merger of the two classes. The joint ascendancy of these classes carried with it, as the other side of the coin, continued repression of the lower classes. It was good to be free from lettres de cachet, but the disciplining of uppity peasants had never been so formal. The dominant classes were served, not threatened, by the press gang, by enclosures and by vastly extending the range of capital offences.30 Nor did it matter to the Continentals that every English liberty could be removed at any moment by legislation, if not merely by a judgement, since they were used to that and worse.
There remains a puzzling absence. Montesquieu admires English liberty and security, assured by respect for the law. He would surely have known that, both in fact and in judicial rhetoric, English liberty and security through law had been established far less through legislation (apart from Magna Carta) than by the judiciary. He would also have discovered, especially because he was himself a judge, that the English judiciary was a permanent and professional body. Why, then, does he omit the actual judiciary from his picture and, to find a body that will express the ‘spirit’ of English law, instead reach back into the dim pre-Norman past and to ancient Athens and arrive at a body that is ‘invisible and null’? One reason may be that, as Eisenmann observes, he did not see adjudication as a political function. Another may be that Montesquieu did not see the English judiciary as a distinct organ: in the Notes, as has been seen, he is well aware that its site of final appeal lay in the House of Lords. Indeed, he appears to overstate that rôle of the Lords. To avoid the judiciary, he has to reach back beyond the Norman Conquest, on which the judiciary’s authority rested.

Montesquieu and England

Our author was not without ambition nor without grounds upon which to entertain it. He had achieved fame in political literature with Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) (1721), written in the genre of an oriental epistolary novel. Fictional Persian characters write to each other letters that are critical of European institutions. The contrasts drawn include favourable remarks on the English political system.31 Published at first anonymously, the book went through four authorised and at least as many pirated editions in its first year and was placed on the Index in 1722. This achievement and further writings secured his election to the coveted Académie Française in 1727. By 1728 he had decided that, as a man of eminence and independent means but no longer young, it was time for his European tour. He visited Austria (where he met the Emperor), Venice, several other Italian states, Rome twice (where he met a future Pope), Switzerland, Bavaria and other German states including Hanover (where he dined with the Elector, who was also King George II of Great Britain), then Holland and finally England. He arrived in England in November 1729 and left there in April 1731; all or almost all of his stay appears to have been spent in London. Everywhere he went on his tour, he appears to have made extensive notes. What seems to have survived of his notes on England, apart from some scattered comments, is translated below.
This was by no means Montesquieu’s first acquaintance with English affairs. He had attended a school that was modelled on the English public schools and was attended by several English boys. An earlier English pupil had been James Fitzjames, later Duke of Berwick,32 a French-born illegitimate son of the exiled English King James II. Berwick would become a Marshal of France and a lifelong friend of Montesquieu, providing him with much information about English affairs and some valuable introductions. One of the most valuable was to his nephew Lord Waldegrave, who became Montesquieu’s travelling companion on the first leg of his European tour. Waldegrave had recently been British ambassador in Paris and at the time of Montesquieu’s tour was Hanoverian ambassador to Vienna.33
At that time, English politics was dominated by Sir Robert Walpole, today counted as the first Prime Minister. Walpole’s arch-enemy was Henry Bolingbroke. The boy Montesquieu may have met Bolingbroke when the latter paid a family visit to the school, but at least they met after Montesquieu had moved to Paris. Some acquaintance with English affairs would have been acquired through his membership of the Academy of Bordeaux, a society for inquiring and confiding minds. More intimate contact with the British could have occurred in Paris through Montesquieu’s membership of the similar Club de l’Entresol. Its membership included Bolingbroke when in exile, as well as the Scots theologian Andrew Ramsay. Visitors included Walpole, then British ambassador to France, who harangued the members for two hours.34 Like his intellectual contemporaries, Montesquieu read reports of English affairs in French and Dutch periodicals.35 Waldegrave introduced Montesquieu to Lord Chesterfield, a passionate francophile serving as British ambassador to The Hague; Chesterfield gave Montesquieu a lift to London on his yacht, accommodated him in his house in St James’s Square and introduced him widely in London society. Montesquieu’s status as a member of the Académie Française would itself have opened many a door.
While in Hanover, as has been mentioned, through Waldegrave’s good offices Montesquieu had dined and discussed affairs with King George II. By the time that Montesquieu arrived in London, the Lettres persanes was already circulating in an English translation which would be reprinted at least once during his stay.36 He met the King again, with Queen Caroline and Frederic Louis the Prince of Wales. The Queen eagerly discussed the Lettres persanes with him. Montesquieu had also published in the sciences and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He also made contact with English freemasons. He attended debates in both Houses of Parliament and witnessed there some of the battles between Walpole and his adherents, and those of Bolingbroke. He read the English press, including Bolingbroke’s political periodical The Craftsman.
Montesquieu could have found in The Craftsman political ideas that his own would closely resemble.37 While copies of The Craftsman are rare today, Bolingbroke’s own contributions to it while Montesquieu was in England are reproduced in his Remarks on the History of England, published pseudonymously in 1743.38 Bolingbroke argues, against a ‘dependence of the legislative on the executive power’, that ‘nothing surely can be more evident than this; that in a constitution like ours, the safety of the whole depends on the balance of the parts, and the balance of the parts on their mutual independency on [sic] one another’. He quotes, in Latin and in English translation, words put by Thuanus into the mouth of Ferdinand of Spain: ‘the public safety depends on the equal balance of the power of the king, and of the power of the kingdom; and that if ever it should happen that one outweigh’d the other, the ruin of one, or of both, must undoubtedly follow.’39 He delves into the mythology of the ‘old constitution’ preceding the Norman invasion, to find in ‘the supreme power centured in the micklemote or wittagenmote, composed of the king, the lords, and the Saxon people’ the ‘original sketch of a British parliament’.40 He specifies that the ‘powers’ may be ‘absolutely distinct, and absolutely independent’, as in a ‘federation’.41 In that independence lies their capacity for interdependence. He defines the ‘division of powers’ that characterises the British constitution:

A king of Great-Britain is that supreme magistrate, who has a negative voice in the legislature. He is entrusted with the executive power; and several other powers and privileges, which we call prerogatives, are annex’d to this trust. The two houses of parliament have their rights and privileges; some of which are common to both; others particular to each. They prepare, they pass bills, or they refuse to pass such as are sent to them. They address, represent, advise, remonstrate. The supreme judicature resides in the lords. The commons are the grand inquest of the nation; and to them it belongs likewise to judge of national expences, and to give supplies accordingly.

If the legislative, as well as the executive power, was wholly in the king, as in some countries, he would be absolute; if in the lords, our government would be an aristocracy; if in the commons, a democracy. It is this division of powers, these distinct privileges attributed to the king, to the lords and to the commons, which constitute a limited monarchy.

[…] If any one part of the three, which compose our government, should, at any time, usurp more power than the law gives, or make an ill use of a legal power, the other two parts may, by uniting their strength, reduce this power into its proper bounds, or correct the abuse of it; nay, if at any time two of these parts should concur in usurping, or abusing power, the weight of the third may, at least, retard the mischief, and give time and chance for preventing it.

This is that balance, which has been so much talk’d of; and this is the use of it.42

There appear here a ‘division of powers’ among king, lords and commons – the then prevalent idea of mixed and balanced government. There is no suggestion of a separate judicial power – on the contrary, Bolingbroke accepts that supreme judicial power lies with the lords and, for the commons, he blurs the distinction between adjudication and political deliberation. Montesquieu adds a separate judicial power into the picture, but quickly removes it. Bolingbroke’s position is the conservative position in which Montesquieu ends up.
Montesquieu has other concerns in common with Bolingbroke: corruption and faction. Throughout the Remarks, Bolingbroke identifies ‘corruption’ and the divisions of ‘faction’ as the greatest threats to liberty. He presents mixed and balanced government as the solution to these linked problems. Montesquieu shares this view. He deals only briefly with faction in The Spirit of Laws (19.27), perhaps because the intricacies of faction baffled him but probably also and more justifiably because they are difficult to address as issues of principle. He devotes Book 8 of The Spirit of Laws to ‘corruption’, but his concern there is less with corruption in the sense of venality than with it in the Machiavellian sense of a degeneration of ‘virtue’. In the Notes, however, he is concerned with ‘corruption’ as dishonesty: in England, he finds, ‘Corruption has spread among all stations in society.’ He also emphasises the importance of individuals being honnêtes.
Again like Bolingbroke, he favours mixed and balanced government as the solution to corruption. He observes that in England ‘unlimited power’ is split between the King and Parliament, and executive power is held by the King only subject to statute. He gives in some detail the example of a bill against electoral corruption that was approved by the Commons, the Lords and the King, against the actual wills of all three and solely because of competition between the Commons and the Lords. He comments: ‘Thus one can see that the most corrupt of parliaments is that which has best ensured public liberty.’
Corruption appears here, as with Bolingbroke, as the immediate threat to liberty. Government might be internally honest yet oppressive, but corrupt government will certainly oppress. And Montesquieu knows that the English system of government is thoroughly corrupt.43 The great political sin of the day was not to be corrupt but to get caught. Once caught, one’s liberty would definitely be in peril: Montesquieu would surely have heard about the frequent use against political opponents of Acts of Attainder for high treason.44

The ‘Notes on England’

The status of the Notes is problematic. They might or might not be properly located with the rest of the notes on Montesquieu’s European tour, the Voyages. They are much less finished than any of the other notes. Even so, the other notes vary among themselves.
Those on Italy are the fullest and smoothest, no doubt because Montequieu was fluent in Italian: they contain numerous passages in Italian. Those on Italy, as well as those on Germany and Holland, contain detailed political and economic data, to the extent sometimes of statistical tables. All of these notes have a clear chronological and hence also geographical order. The dates may sometimes be mixed up, but it is generally plain where Montesquieu was and when. These notes, and the many encounters with rulers and other notables that are recorded in them, show preparation for a diplomatic career. He met many diplomats while in Vienna and soon expressed to several correspondents an ambition to become an ambassador.45 After a few months in England, Montesquieu lodged a job application with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.46 But it came to nothing: his mouth got in his way. While in London, both at Court and even at the French embassy, he justified his praise of English institutions and criticism of France too eagerly for the taste of the French ambassador, who warned him to be more discreet and reported that assessment when asked to comment on his application.47 At the same time, the notes on Italy in particular contain much on art and architecture, which indicates that whatever Montesquieu’s diplomatic ambitions the option of continuing as a man of letters was by no means given up.
In contrast with the other travel notes, those on England are just disparate jottings. They have no overall structure: there is not even a chronological arrangement; the few dates given are unrelated to each other and in some instances dubious. There is even, at one point, what appears to be a two-letter abbreviation made for the sake of speed, ‘S.M.‘ for ‘se maintenir‘. The sad explanation for this discrepancy seems to be that Montesquieu had made much fuller notes on England but only these pages survive.
None of the notes on Montesquieu’s tour appeared in his lifetime. The ‘Notes on England’ were the first to appear, in the edition of the Œuvres complètes published in Paris in 1818 by Lefèvre; the title is presumably editorial. Lefèvre mysteriously declines, however, to explain how he came by the text: ‘Il est inutile de dire comment le morceau suivant s’est trouvé en notre possession (It is useless to state how the following fragment came into our possession)’.48 The manuscript is now lost.
On 10 March of the same year, however, Montesquieu’s grandson Joseph-Cyrille sent to his cousin Charles-Louis in England (to where the latter had originally fled to escape the Terror) what Shackleton justifiably describes as ‘a vast collection of manuscripts’. Joseph-Cyrille’s catalogue of this collection survives and gives one item as a ‘carton contenant: Un Voyage en Italie & dans quelques parties de l’Allemagne, Voyage en Angleterre mis au net, prêt à imprimer, pouvant former un vol. in-octavo (box containing: Travels in Italy and in certain parts of Germany, Travels in England in fair copy, ready to print, sufficient for an octavo volume)’. Shackleton assumes that among these manuscripts was a substantial set of notes on England. He appears to do so on the strength of the separate catalogue title ‘Voyages en Angleterre’. It would also be reasonable to assume that Montesquieu kept such a journal, both because he was planning a diplomatic career and because it would have been odd for him to have made such detailed notes on his earlier travels but not on his much longer sojourn in England. If he gave it up after his rejection for a diplomatic position, there should still have been extensive notes made before that – indeed, the more extensive, being made in immediate hope of a positive response.
Charles-Louis died in 1824: his will, of 1822, directs ‘that all my manuscripts which shall be found after my decease may be carefully packed up and sent to Prosper de Montesquieu of Bordeaux … if then alive, but if he shall be dead, then that [they] be burned immediately’. Prosper, son of Joseph-Cyrille, lived to 1871. He appears to have gone to England and returned with some manuscripts, though with little of what had once existed. He appended to the 1818 catalogue a note suggesting that Charles-Louis had carried out the destruction himself: ‘Tous les manuscrits [deleted and amended to ‘une partie des manuscrits’] ont été brulés par mon oncle à très peu d’exception. Je n’ai rapporté de Londres que quatre volumes reliés (All of the manuscripts [deleted and amended to ‘part of the manuscripts’] were burned by my uncle with very few exceptions. I brought back from London only four bound volumes’ as well as ‘deux cartons ou portefeuilles, l’un intitulé Voyages, contenant divers matériaux (two boxes or portfolios, one of them titled Travels, containing various materials)’. That would be, at least, the manuscript of the pre-English Voyages, which still survives.
Shackleton accepts that, although the wording permits the possibility that this batch contained a whole English journal, in the absence of any other record of the text beyond what was published in 1818 ‘it must be held well-nigh certain that Montesquieu’s account of his travels in England was burned, in England, by his grandson’.49 There is little other record of Montesquieu’s stay in England – even his correspondence with Chesterfield has not survived. Since many other letters by Chesterfield still exist, it is puzzling that both sides of this correspondence appear to have vanished.
How, however, does one reconcile Lefèvre’s coyness about the present text with the apparent simultaneous existence of its manuscript, and possibly a much larger manuscript, in the Montesquieu family’s hands? It does not seem a big stretch of the imagination, to suppose that the manuscript of the present text was not actually written by Montesquieu but consisted of extracts made by someone else from his larger text. They do have an air of ‘juicy bits’ when read in contrast with the other Voyages notes, which are filled with detail of mundane and passing interest. That impression seems consistent with the Notes being written out by somebody else, as reading-notes. In that case, the words would remain more or less Montesquieu’s own, the most likely change being contraction. The absence of even a chronological structure would be explained.
It is not necessary, however, to make this suggestion serve also as an explanation for the surprising misspellings of names: particularly the rendering of ‘Townshend’ as ‘Thousand’ even though Lord Townshend was a prominent figure whom Montesquieu had met and whose name he would frequently have heard as well as seen in the press. A more probable explanation is that Montesquieu had rotten eyesight and usually dictated his works to secretaries, whose abilities varied; parts of the Voyages were being dictated or fair-copied, presumably after revision, up to the end of his life.50
How good was Montesquieu’s English? He had learned a little English before arriving in England. He could read it and had purchased dictionaries, yet to speak or hear it was another matter. He had a little tuition in it (from an Irishman) while in Rome earlier in 1729, but he comments himself: ‘I will have to start again’.51 The prospect of Montesquieu attempting to communicate in a mixed French and Irish accent is appealing.52 Moreover, the Notes contain signs that his English was not hot. The one, brief passage in English has French grammar: ‘give to him encouragement’. It accordingly seems reasonable to suppose that, when Montesquieu attended parliamentary debates, most of the argument would have gone over his head and that his knowledge of it was derived from subsequent conversations and from press reports. Indeed, one debate that he discusses took place before his arrival. (Its inclusion is a further indication that the Notes are research notes, however scrappy.) Many of the English people Montesquieu met would have been able to converse with him in French. On returning to France, however, Montesquieu read widely in English.

Translating the Notes

The ‘Notes on England’ appear not to have been translated before.
The text translated here relies principally on the Pléiade edition of Montesquieu’s works: ‘Notes sur ‘lAngleterre’ in OC Caillois i.875-84, notes i.1631-2. Ellipses are Montesquieu’s. Insertions in brackets [ ] are my own. Since the only source for the text of the Notes is a printed edition of 1818, there is no room for significant variation by later editors. As one would thus expect, there are no significant differences between the texts of the Notes in the Pléiade edition of the works and in the two other editions that I have been able to consult: OC Masson iii.283-93 and OC Oster 331-4. Caillois and Oster include the Notes in the ‘Voyages’ while Masson treats them as a separate work, but such is the confusion over Montesquieu’s Nachlass that little hangs on that. It remains the case that the Notes refer to the same trip.
I have benefited from the editorial notes and commentaries in all of these editions. As to Montesquieu’s references, however, my own notes are much more extensive.
For the purpose of the translation I have assumed that the Notes were composed by Montesquieu, though probably by dictation, and that they are personal jottings rather than anything whose publication was envisaged without substantial working-up. Nothing known about Montesquieu guarantees that the Notes were written while he was actually in England, or that they were not revised later, yet everything about them is consistent with contemporaneity.
Where it is important to reflect language of the time, I have preferred that language even if today a different expression would be more natural: for example, ‘liberté‘ and ‘liberty’ are such key expressions in Montesquieu’s works and in English political writings of the age that in the Notes I have always translated the former by the latter, even though (for instance) ‘freedom of the press’ would today be more natural than ‘liberty of the press’. I have commented above on translation of ‘honnête‘. Where Montesquieu refers to someone as ‘M.’, ie ‘Monsieur’, I have left it as ‘M.’ since ‘M.’ is not as specific as ‘Mr’ and to substitute ‘Mr’ would on one occasion suggest that Montesquieu is unaware of Sir Robert Walpole’s knighthood.
Passages from De l’esprit des lois are my own translations from the Pléiade text: OC Caillois ii.225-995, notes ii.1496-1540. There are two English translations of the whole work. The better known is, as yet, the translation of the first edition by Thomas Nugent, which Montesquieu admired53 and which is historically important since it has served generations of constitution framers: Baron de Montesquieu The Spirit of the Laws (1751; New York Hafner 1949). As a translation it is superseded by Montesquieu The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge Cambridge UP 1989), which renders the book in its final version. Translations of selections from The SpIrit of Laws also appear in M Richter The Political Theory of Montesquieu (Cambridge Cambridge UP 1977).
Montesquieu gives some dates in new style, some in old style: while in England, he was having to think in both styles.54 All dates given here, unless otherwise stated, are old-style.
In the translation, ‘England’ always translates ‘l’Angleterre‘ and ‘English’ always ‘anglais‘. Although Montesquieu sometimes refers to ‘England’ where he should have said ‘Great Britain’, that matters little for his purposes.
In quoting from a British treaty or English statute, I have modernised the capitalisation or italicisation. English statutes of this period did not have short titles: in stating short titles I have followed later convention where possible, otherwise my nose. The mode of reference to a statute is standard: eg ‘1 Geo 1 stat 2 c 16’ refers to the sixteenth Act (chapter 16) passed in the second session of Parliament held during the first year of the reign of King George I.
Dramatis personae are identified so far as I have been able to trace them using the resources of my university’s library. The Dictionary of National Biography has been invaluable. Help has also been found in R Sedgwick The House of Commons 1715-1754 (London HMSO 1970, in The History of Parliament). Parliamentary debates are referenced to Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, vol 8, published in 1811 (hereafter ‘Cobbett’).
The political labels I have attached to some of the characters on this stage are merely pointers. The principal political marker was one’s relation to the towering figure of Walpole. Coxe’s Walpole gives the flavour:

Until the death of George the First [in 1727], the component parts of this heterogeneous body [the Opposition], which consisted of a few disappointed Whigs, Tories, and Jacobites, did not cordially coalesce. Many of those Whigs and moderate Tories, who looked up to that event as a prelude to their own admission into the ministry, kept aloof from those who, as being professed Jacobites, or violent Tories, could not expect the same success. But no sooner had the continuance of Walpole in office annihilated their hopes, than the whole body became compact and united. In this respect the Whigs became Tories, the Tories Whigs; and the Jacobites assumed every shape which tended to promote their views, by distressing government, and harassing the minister, whom they considered as the great supporter of the house of Brunswick.

The chief aim of the minister was to comprehend almost all the Tories as enemies to the government, by the name of Jacobites, or at least to give that stigma to every one who was not a profest and known Whig.55

However, Montesquieu makes little reference to party allegiances in the Notes. His only discussion of them in The Spirit of Laws (19.27) contains no conception of political parties as contributors to political balance and honesty – instead, the reverse. Montesquieu takes the standpoint of Bolingbroke, who equated party with faction. Condemning faction, Bolingbroke attempted to supersede the Whig-Tory division both in theory and in practice. Bolingbroke preferred to distinguish a ‘Court Party’, around the King and Walpole, and a ‘Country Party’. For him, this was the axis around which the ‘factions’ grouped and regrouped. Montesquieu may have refrained from discussing the British parties or factions simply because, understandably, they bewildered him.56 He makes no attempt to comprehend the religious dimension of British politics, which was linked to that of treason through Jacobite rebellion – most recently in 1715 and the ’45 was to come – and consorting with the French arch-enemy. He appears, likewise and wisely, to have preferred broad acquaintance to any commitment during his stay in London.57 His misspelling in the Notes and elsewhere of ‘Whig’ as ‘wigh’ can be attributed to a secretary – Montesquieu would have read the word frequently, but ‘wigh’ sounds like a francophone’s pronunciation.
For background I have greatly benefited from Robert Shackleton Montesquieu: a Critical Biography (London Oxford UP 1961), especially ch 6 ‘Travels in England, 1729-31’, and Charles Dédéyan Montesquieu ou les lumières d’Albion (Paris Nizet 1990), which frequently draws upon Shackleton’s book. The two books are referred to respectively in the annotations as ‘Shackleton Montesquieu‘ (I also refer to briefer works by Shackleton) and ‘Dédéyan’.58


I am indebted to Emeritus Professor Angus Martin for drawing on his deep knowledge of eighteenth century French language and culture to make many most helpful comments on the translation and particularly for confirmation that some of Montesquieu’s phrasing is downright obscure; any errors that now occur in the translation, and any errors in the commentary and notes, are mine alone. David Blomfield generously advised about the history of Kew; I owe to him the reference to Cloake’s book.


Works by Montesquieu are cited, in preference, from the Pléiade edition (OC Caillois). While other editions of Montesquieu’s works may be better, this is the only edition that a university or major public library outside France will probably contain and the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade is of a consistently high standard.
Notes: ‘Notes sur ‘lAngleterre’ in OC Caillois i.875-84, notes i.1631-2.
OC Caillois: Montesquieu Œuvres complètes ed R Caillois (Paris Gallimard 1949-51Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2 vols).
OC Masson: Montesquieu Œuvres complètes ed A Masson (Paris Nagel 1950-55, 3 vols).
OC Oster: Montesquieu Œuvres complètes ed D Oster (Paris Seuil 1964).
Pensées: ‘Mes Pensées’ in OC Caillois i.973-1574, notes i.1636-57.
Spicilège: ‘Spicilège’ in OC Caillois ii.1265-1438, notes ii.1556-81.
Voyages: ‘Voyages’ in OC Caillois i.533-972, notes i.1614-36.

Notes on England

I left The Hague on the last day of October 1729,59 making the voyage with Lord Chesterfield,60 who very kindly offered me a berth on his yacht.
Londoners eat a great deal of meat, which makes them very strong; but they snuff it at around 40 or 45.
Nothing is so frightful as the streets of London. They are very dirty; their paving is so badly maintained that it is almost impossible to go by carriage, and you need to make your will before getting into a hackney coach,61 which is a cab as tall as a theatre and the driver is higher still, his seat being on the very top of the thing. These hackneys bang into the holes in the streets and jolt along fit to shake your head off.
Young English gentlemen fall into two categories. Some of them know a lot, because they have spent a long time at university, which has given them an awkward air as if they had something to be ashamed of. The others know absolutely nothing, have not the slightest shame and are the nation’s young men of fashion. In general [however] the English are self-effacing.
On 5 October 1730 (new style62) I was presented to the Prince, and to the King and Queen, at Kensington.63 The Queen, after discussing my travels, talked about English theatre. She asked Lord Chesterfield53 how it came about that Shakespeare, who lived in the time of Queen Elizabeth, was so bad at making women speak and made them so stupid. Lord Chesterfield cannily replied that, in that period, women did not appear on the stage and these rôles were played by bad actors, which is why Shakespeare did not take much trouble to make them speak well. I would suggest another reason: that, to make women speak, you need to be acquainted with society and decorum, while, to make heroes speak well, you need only to be acquainted with books. The Queen asked me whether it was not true that, with us, Corneille was rated higher than Racine. I replied that most people regarded Corneille as the greater mind but Racine as the greater writer.65
It seems to me that Paris is a beautiful city with some comparatively ugly things in it, while London is a hideous city with some very beautiful things.
In London, liberty and equality. London liberty is a liberty of respectable people, in which it differs from that of Venice, which is a liberty to live obscurely and with p…s and to marry them. London equality too is an equality of respectable people, in which it differs from the liberty of Holland, which is a liberty of the rabble.66
The Craftsman67 is produced by Bolingbroke68 and M. Pulteney.69 They get the advice of three lawyers before printing, to check whether the paper contains anything that would fall foul of the law.
The complaints of foreigners in London, especially the French, are appalling. They say that they can’t make friends; that, the longer they stay, the fewer friends they have; and that their compliments are received as insults. Kinski,70 the Broglies,71 La Vilette, who in Paris used to call Lord Essex her son,72 distribute little remedies to everybody and ask every woman for news about her health: these people want the English to be the same as themselves. How could the English like foreigners when they don’t even like each other? How could one invite them to dinner when they don’t even invite each other? ‘But one visits a country in order to be liked and respected there.’ That doesn’t necessarily happen: in that case, one has to do as they do; live for oneself, as they do; and not care about anybody, like anybody or count on anybody. In the end, one has to take each country as it is: when I am in France, I am friendly with everybody; in England, I am not friendly with anybody; in Italy, I flatter everybody; in Germany, I drink with everybody.
They say: In England, no-one ever gives me a friendly word. But is it necessary to give you a friendly word?
What an Englishman needs is a good income, a good dinner and a girl.73 Since he doesn’t go out much and spread himself around, when his money runs out and he can’t have this any more he either kills himself or becomes a thief.
15 March (old style). Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t lose all respect for the King of England. A few days ago Lady Bell Molineux, an enterprising girl, ordered the removal of some trees on a small plot of land that the Queen had bought for Kensington and then sued the Queen, without making any attempt to come, on some pretext, to an understanding with her. She kept the Queen’s secretary waiting for three hours, after he had come to inform her that the Queen had not thought that she had a seigneurial property right over the plot while the other had it for a term of three lives although with a caveat against sale.74
Most princes, it seems to me, are more respectable people than we are, because they have more to lose as to their reputations, since they are constantly under observation.
Corruption has spread among all stations in society. Thirty years ago one never heard of a thief in London; today there are nothing but thieves. Whiston’s book attacking the Saviour’s miracles,75 which is read by the the common people, will never reform morals. But those who want people to write attacking ministers of state accordingly favour liberty of the press.76
As to the ministers, they have no fixed plan. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.77 They govern day by day.
Nonethless, there is considerable external liberty. Lady Denham, while masked,78 said to the King: ‘Tell me, when will the Prince of Wales arrive? Are they scared to bring him out? Could he be as stupid as his father and grandfather?’ The King took steps to find out from his entourage who she was. From that moment, whenever she went to court, she was as pale as death.
Money here is esteemed here like a sovereign, but honour and virtue little.79
One can hardly send folk here who have too much intelligence. Without it, they would always make mistakes among the people and never get to know them.80 If the English arrive at a particular opinion, they stick to it. But there are a hundred million little opinions, as there are passions. D’Hiberville, who saw Jacobites everywhere, let himself be drawn into getting the French court to believe that it would be possible to obtain a Tory parliament; he became a Whig, after a lot of money had been thrown away, and that was a cause, it is said, of his disgrace.81 [French] ministers of my time know no more about England than a six month old child. Kinski was always wrong about reports from Tories.82 When you see the devil in the periodicals, you can believe that the people will rebel tomorrow. You merely need to get your mind around the fact that, in England as elsewhere, the people are discontented with their ministers and write in the periodicals what is thought elsewhere.83
I see the King of England as a man who has a beautiful wife, a hundred servants, fine carriages and a good table; he is thought to be happy. But that is all on the outside. When everyone has retired and the door is closed, surely he quarrels with his wife and servants and swears at his butler; he is no longer so happy.84
When I travel in a country, I don’t inquire whether it has good laws but whether those that it has are applied,85 for there are good laws everywhere.
Since the English are people with intelligence, as soon as a minister from a foreign country turns out not to have much they despise him right away, and immediately he is finished, because they never retract scorn.86
The King levies a duty on all periodicals, and there are about fifty of them, so he gets paid every time he is insulted.87
Since people here don’t like each other, for fear of being fooled they become hard.
A roofer had a newspaper delivered to him on the roof so that he could read it. 88
Yesterday, 28 January 1730 (old style), M. Chipin89 spoke in the House of Commons on the subject of national armies. He said that only a tyrant or a usurper would need an army for his self-preservation, and that consequently that is a means that the incontestable right of S.-P. could not require.90 At the words tyrant and usurper, the whole House was astonished and he repeated them a second time; he went on to say that the disliked the Hanoverian maxims … This was so provocative that the House was scared to debate it. Everybody called for a division, in order to bring the debate to an end.91
When the King of Prussia wanted to make war on Hanover, he was asked why he had suddenly mobilised his army before demanding satisfaction. The King of Prussia replied that he had sent a demand two or three times but his minister Reichtembach had always been snubbed and ignored by Prime Minister Debouche, who had an aversion to the colour blue. Now, it so happened that Reichtembach’s best outfit (which I have seen on him) was blue; with the result that the said minister could never get a moment’s audience.92
There are Scots members [of Parliament] who are short of two hundred pounds sterling for their vote and sell it at that price.93
The English are no longer worthy of their liberty. They sell it to the King; and, if the King gave it back to them, they would sell it to him again.94
A minister dreams only of triumphing over his opponent in the lower House; and, if he can accomplish that, he will sell England and every power in the world.
A gentleman named … who has an income of fifteen crowns sterling expended, on several occasions, one hundred guineas – each guinea of which would earn him ten, as he invested it in the theatre. Backing a play to collect a thousand guineas, and this despicable deed is not regarded with horror! It seems to me that a lot of extraordinary things are done in England; but all of them are done for the sake of money. Not only are there no honour and virtue here, but there is not even the idea of them: the aim of an exceptional deed, in France, is to spend money; here, it is to get it.95
I do not judge England by these men; rather, I judge England by its approval of them. And, if these men had been regarded here as they would be in France, they would never have dared to act as they have.
I have heard from some clever people that, in times of national effort, England is able to wear only five million pounds in tax without ruining itself; yet at the moment, a time of peace, it is spending six.96
The day before yesterday, I visited Parliament and attended the lower house; they were debating the Dunkirk affair.97 I have never seen passions run so high. The sitting lasted from an hour after midday until three hours after midnight. The French copped it severely; I observed the extent of the frightful jealousy that exists between these two nations. M. Walpole98 attacked Bolingbroke in the cruellest fashion, alleging that he was responsible for the whole plot. Sir [William] Windham99 defended Bolingbroke. M. Walpole paid Bolingbroke the compliment100 of telling the story of a peasant who, passing under a tree with his wife, found that a hanged man was still breathing. He cut the man down and carried him to their home, where the man regained consciousness. The next day they found that the man had pocketed their cutlery. They said: ‘One mustn’t interfere with the course of justice; we should stick him back where we found him.’101
It is a longstanding custom for the Commons to send to the Lords two bills102: one against mutineers and deserters, which the Lords have always passed; the other against corruption, which they have always rejected. In the last session, Lord Thousand103 said: Why do we always bring upon ourselves the public shame of always rejecting the bill? We must increase the penalties, amending the bill so that the Commons will reject it themselves. On hearing these excellent ideas, the Lords increased the penalty, for the corrupter as well as the corrupted, from ten to five hundred pounds. They also provided that [the probity of] elections would be determined by the judges of the ordinary courts and not by the Commons; the most recent precedent would be followed in every court. But the Commons, who may have seen through this stratagem, or wanted to turn it to their own ends, also passed the bill, and the King was compelled to follow suit. Subsequently, when new elections were held, the Court lost several members who had been selected from among the great landowners; and it will be difficult to form a new Parliament to the liking of the Court. Thus one can see that the most corrupt of parliaments is that which has best ensured public liberty.104
This bill is miraculous, since it has got through against the wills of the Commons, the Lords and the King.
In England in bygone days, the king had a quarter of the property, the lords another quarter and the clergy another quarter. The result was that, when the lords and the clergy joined forces, the king was always beaten. Henry VII allowed the lords to alienate their property and the people bought, which raised up the commoners. It appears to me that under Henry VII the people obtained the nobility’s property, while under Henry VIII the nobility obtained the clergy’s. The clergy, under Queen Anne’s ministry, recovered some of their strength and greatly enriched themselves year after year. The English ministry, wanting to get the clergy’s support, persuaded the Queen, out of piety, to to hand over to the clergy certain royal entitlements, such as the first year’s revenue of each bishopric, and a few other items, amounting to fourteen thousand pounds sterling a year, to supplement poor livings. There was also a clause that the ecclesiastics managed to get included: that any benefactor of a living who requested that part of that sum be applied would be required to find the same amount from their own resources to increase the revenue from the living. It was further provided that one could make gifts to the church, including by will. This repealed the previous law, and meant that the clergy would not stop enriching themselves, despite the paucity of religion in England. The Whig ministry would not have done this: but it has not dared to change it, for it still has need of the clergy.105
I believe it is in France’s interest for the monarchy to be maintained in England, since a republic would be much more disastrous. England would then act with all its forces combined, instead of acting, under a king, with its forces divided. However, things cannot remain like that for long.
Wherever there is property, there is power. The nobility and the clergy possessed the property in times gone by: they lost it in two ways. First, by an increase in the number of pounds equivalent to a mark (the mark worth three pounds, under Saint Louis,106 little by little came to be worth 49, its current level).107 Second, through the discovery of the Indies,108 which made silver very common, so that the lords’ incomes, which were almost entirely in silver, disappeared. The king surcharged the commoners in proportion to what the lords had lost to them; and the king became a prince fearsome to his neighbours, with a nobility whose only remaining resource lay in service, and commoners109 whom he had made pay up according to his whim: the English are the cause of our servitude.
There is in this structure110 a defect that seems to me to be that in the spirit of the nation for which the structure has been made, a nation that is concerned less with its own prosperity than with envying the prosperity of others. This is its predominant spirit, as it can readily see in all the English laws on commerce and navigation.
I don’t know what will be the result of sending so many of Europe’s and Africa’s inhabitants to the West Indies,111 but I think that, if any nation is abandoned by its colonies, that will begin with the English.
There is no English word for ‘valet de chambre‘, because they don’t have any, and no difference between masculine and feminine [nouns]. When one would say in France ‘to eat one’s property’,112 in England people say ‘to eat and drink one’s property’.113
The English rarely say anything complimentary to you, but never anything uncomplimentary.
The women here are reserved, because Englishmen see little of them. They imagine that a foreigner who speaks to them is looking for a leg-over. ‘No way do I wish’, they say, to ‘give to him encouragement‘.114
No religion in England: four or five members of the House of Commons go to mass or to a sermon in the House; except on great occasions, when one arrives early. Whenever anyone refers to religion, everybody starts laughing. When one man said, in my presence, ‘I believe this as an article of faith’, everyone began to laugh. There is a committee to review the state of religion; the project is regarded as a joke.
At present, England is the freest country in the world; I don’t except any republic. I say free, because the prince lacks the power to inflict any wrong imaginable upon anybody at all, since his power is controlled and limited by statute.115 But, if the lower house were to become master, its power would be unlimited and dangerous, because it would simultaneously possess executive power116; instead of which, unlimited power is currently held by parliament and the king, and executive power lies with the king, whose power is restricted.
It therefore behoves a good Englishman to try to defend liberty against attacks both by the crown and by the [lower] house.
If a man in England were to have as many enemies as he has hairs on his head, nothing would happen to him: and that means a lot, for the health of the soul is as necessary as that of the body.
When M. de Broglie’s blue ribbon was seized,117 one man said: ‘Look at this nation: they have chased out the Father, denied the Son and confiscated the Holy Spirit’.118

Annotations to Commentary and Translation

* Division of Law, Macquarie University, Sydney 2109, Australia;

1 See generally S Goyard-Fabre La philosophie du droit de Montesquieu (Paris Klincksieck 1973) and Montesquieu: la nature, les lois, la liberté (Paris PUF 1993).

2 Shackleton (Montesquieu p 285) says that the first draft of the section was already complete by the end of 1733; see also his essay on the manuscript of De l’esprit des lois now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, OC Masson iii.567-77.

3 ‘Keep the Bastards Honest’ has been a slogan of the Australian Democrats party.

4 WB Gwyn The Meaning of the Separation of Powers (New Orleans Tulane U 1965) ch 7; MJC Vile Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers (Oxford Clarendon P 1967).

5 C Eisenmann ‘La pensée constitutionnelle de Montesquieu’ in (various authors) La pensée politique et constitutionnelle de Montesquieu: bicentenaire de L’esprit des lois 1748-1948 (Paris Recueil Sirey 1952) pp 133-60. Even Eisenmann ignores the Notes, stating only that ‘around 1730 Montesquieu had studied and observed government in England on the spot’: p 133n1.

6 Eisenmann ‘La pensée constitutionnelle’ pp 136-41.

7 ‘Jellinek and Laband in Germany; Esmein, Duguit, Carré de Malberg in France – all representatives of the austere discipline of “public law (droit public)”, of Staatsrechtswissenschaft‘: Eisenmann ‘La pensée constitutionnelle’ p 135. I shall not try to assess Eisenmann’s attributions.

8 Eisenmann ‘La pensée constitutionnelle’ pp 141-6; cp C Eisenmann ‘L’Esprit des lois et la séparation des pouvoirs’ in (various authors) Mélanges Carré de Malberg (Paris Sirey 1933) pp 163-92.

9 He lists ‘in the late eighteenth century: the fathers of the American Constitution, the authors of the Federalist – Hamilton, Jay, Madison; members of the [French] Constituent Assembly of 1789 and especially the “monarchists (monarchiens)”, who declared themselves to be and were recognised as disciples of Montesquieu; Sieyès at the time of the Thermidorian Convention when, having “survived” so long (après “avoir vécu” et survécu), he returned to speaking out and made oracular pronouncements on constitutional matters; and, in the nineteenth century: Destutt de Tracy, Benjamin Constant, Laboulaye. All of them politicians or political writers – most of them both at once’: Eisenmann ‘La pensée constitutionnelle’ p 135. Again, I shall not try to assess Eisenmann’s attributions.

10 Eisenmann ‘La pensée constitutionnelle’ pp 147-50.

11 Eisenmann ‘La pensée constitutionnelle’ pp 150-6.

12 L Althusser ‘Montesquieu: Politics and History’ (1959) in his Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx tr B Brewster (London New Left Books 1972), especially ch 5 ‘The Myth of the Separation of Powers’.

13 Honnête might also have been translated as ‘virtuous’, a counterpart to ‘corrupt’ in both senses, but I expect that if Montesquieu had wanted to lean heavily toward the Machiavellian connotation he would have written ‘vertueux‘.

Honnête has, however, the primary meaning of ‘honest’ in Montesquieu’s comment on victims of Henry VIII (Pensées no 1659):

Cruel is the story of Henry VIII. Not one honest man in his whole reign! (Pas un honnête homme dans tout son règne!) Though probably one should except Cranmer and of course More. It is here that one can see that tyrants who plan to make use of the laws are as much tyrants as those who crush them underfoot. This king did through his parliament the things he would never have dared to undertake by himself. What laws he got through – that required a girl whom a king was going to marry to declare if she was not a virgin, on pain of treason! Idem, that mothers and [other] relatives who could have known about it had to make a similar declaration, on pain of misprision and treason. Nobody dared to tell him he was about to die, for fear that he would punish [them] under the law that had been passed against any who predicted the King’s death, making it treasonable to do so.

During his reign, in 1539, the practice began of trying people without a hearing and then sentencing them. This may perhaps have originated in more barbaric times, like (I think) bills of attainder.

The words ‘misprision’ and ‘attainder’ are in English. ‘Misprision’ usually means concealment of a serious crime of which one knows but to which one was not a party, but it appears to refer here (and accurately) to contempt for the sovereign. Henry VIII (1491-1547) was king of England from 1509. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the first Protestant to be Archbishop of Canterbury (1533-1556), was royal advisor, propagandist and diplomat under Henry VIII; he was convicted of heresy for promoting Protestantism under the Catholic Queen Mary I and burned at the stake. Sir Thomas More (1477-1535) was Chancellor of England (1529-1532) and author of the humanist classic Utopia (1516); he was beheaded for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as head of the newly formed Church of England and canonised in 1935, the patron saint of lawyers. Montesquieu is nothing if not even-handed. The comment on honesty echoes the legend of the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, that he was asked why he walked with a lantern in daylight and replied ‘I am searching for an honest man’.

An interest in republican virtue also appears in a comment on King William III (Pensées no 1669):

King William, to whom someone said during a discussion: ‘But, Sire, it seems quite possible that we shall turn into a republic’, replied with his usual sang-froid: ‘Oh, that doesn’t scare me at all: you people aren’t honest enough for that (vous n’êtes pas assez honnêtes gens pour cela).’ Well said! and I’m astonished that it was said by a king. Moreover, this was a newly made king. He saw clearly that to make a republic requires virtue and love of the public good. Also, after Cromwell, a republic was not to be built in a day. The government was changed every week, everybody looked only after his own interests and, in the end, they had to recall the King.

William III or William of Orange (1650-1702) was stadholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands as Willem III (1672-1702) and king of Great Britain (1689-1702), reigning jointly with Queen Mary II until her death in 1694. A stadholder was the governor of one of the seven provinces forming the Republic of the United Netherlands (1588-1795). These positions, though republican, were usually held by princes of the House of Orange; Willem/William was stadholder of five provinces and was opposed especially by the dominant province, Holland. So he was a king who knew about republics. After his death, the positions of stadholder became vacant and the Netherlands was dominated by the oligarchy that controlled Holland. Montesquieu observes (Pensées no 1674):

I have said: ‘If there were no king in England, the English would be less free.’ This is proved by Holland, where people have become more enslaved since there has no longer been a stathouder: all the magistrates in every town – little tyrants.

He uses the Dutch, stathouder. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was Lord Protector of the republican Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1653 until his death, when he was succeeded by his son Richard, whose resignation after a few months was followed by a period of political confusion before the monarchy was restored unconditionally in 1660.

14 Cp S Lukes Power: a Radical View (London Macmillan 1974).

15 Montesquieu introduces the English sense of the word ‘constitution’ into French: previously, ‘une constitution‘ had rendered the ‘constitutio‘ of Roman law, which was any type of imperial legislation. In his day, moreover, ‘la constitution‘ meant the papal bull Unigenitus (1713) proscribing Jansenism: Shackleton Montesquieu p 284; see also Montesquieu’s own essay on Unigenitus, ‘Mémoire sur la Constitution’ OC Caillois ii.1217-21.

16 That is, security of both person and property, which in this age were overlapping concepts: cp CB Macpherson The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (London Oxford UP 1962).

17 exécutrice should properly be translated as ‘executory’, but ‘executive’ is so firmly established, both in scholarship and in constitutions, that to do so would seem pedantic. The Notes contain ‘exécutive‘, but that might be an error of transcription. Montesquieu’s nomenclature here is in any case unfamiliar to the contemporary reader: Shackleton Montesquieu p 286.

18 Not to be confused with ‘the law of nations’ in the sense of law between nation-states, ie public international law. The ius gentium consisted primarily of private law: it was a device to facilitate long-distance trade. Montesquieu’s meaning, however, does not seem to be that narrow.

19 Justinian Institutes 1.2.1-2.

20 This purported amplification is askew: the difference between the ius gentium and the ius civile was not a difference between execution and adjudication; nor is that between international law and domestic law. The whole activity of domestic execution is encompassed in the idea of ‘security’.

21 WB Gwyn The Meaning of the Separation of Powers (New Orleans Tulane UP 1965); MJC Vile Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers (Oxford Clarendon P 1967).

22 On the mythology, see JGA Pocock The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge Cambridge UP 1987 reissue).

23 W Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford Clarendon P 1765-9; London Dawsons 1966) i.69.

24 ‘Les jurés jugent en Angleterre’: Spicilège p 1308. It would indeed be correct to say that, in jury trials, the power to judge is split between the judge and the jury.

25 In 1707. Blackstone, in 1765, thought that it still existed: Commentaries i.150. So did Dicey as late as 1913 and George V in 1914: V Bogdanor The Monarchy and the Constitution (Oxford Clarendon P) pp 129-321.

26 Here again the language is technical: cp JW Gough Fundamental Law in English Constitutional History (Oxford Clarendon P 1955). Montesquieu refers to the ‘fundamental laws’ of England later in The Spirit of Laws (19.27).

27 J Harari and J McLelland ‘Montesquieu’ in G Stade ed-in-c European Writers (New York Scribners 1983-91) iii.345-66.

28 This is an ambiguity with which, much later, detractors were to charge ‘functionalist’ sociology. Cp the functionalist version of the ‘separation of powers’ doctrine developed in WI Jennings The Law and the Constitution (London U London P 5th edn 1959). The point might be deepened through a comparison of Montesquieu’s conception of natural law with the positivist conception held by the founder of functionalism, Spencer: as to Montesquieu, see for a short treatment Shackleton Montesquieu ch 11; as to Spencer, see my ‘Positivist Natural Law in Spencer’s Social Darwinism’ (1997) Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie Beiheft 70(4), 78-86.

29 For example, the Australian Constitution vests in apparently separate organs a ‘legislative power’, an ‘executive power’ and a ‘judicial power’: ss 1, 61 and 71.

30 The ‘Black Act’ 1723 (9 Geo 1 c 22; 5 Statutes at Large 323) created a range of new offences, principally to do with poaching, of which between 50 and 250 (depending on interpretation) were capital: see EP Thompson Whigs and Hunters: the Origin of the Black Act (London Allen Lane 1975). Although Statutes at Large places the Act in 1722, Thompson (p 21) is sure that it was passed in May 1723.

31 Dédéyan pp 9-12.

32 1670-1734, created Duke of Berwick by James II in 1687; cp Dédéyan pp 33ff.

33 Lord James Waldegrave (1685-1741), one of Britain’s leading diplomats (having converted to Protestantism) and a confidant of Walpole. Another close friend of Montesquieu’s was Berwick’s brother-in-law Lord Francis Bulkeley (1686-1756), a Jacobite exile who became a French general.

34 Dédéyan pp 4-5, 13-21. Shackleton, however, thinks that Montesquieu was not a particularly active member – possibly after a work that he read there had been less than enthusiastically received: Montesquieu pp 63-5.

35 He may also have read, if belatedly, the Whig newspaper The Spectator (1711-12, 1714), which was translated entire into French in 1716: Dédéyan p 6.

36 Anon Persian Letters translated by ‘Mr [John] Ozell’ (London Tonson 1722, 2 vols); reprinted as Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu Persian Letters (New York Garland 1972, 2 vols). The introduction to the reprint notes that the translation went through further ‘editions’ in 1730, 1731 and 1736. A current translation is Montesquieu Persian Letters tr CJ Betts (Harmondsworth Penguin 1973).

37 Eg R Shackleton ‘Montesquieu, Bolingbroke, and the Separation of Powers’ (1949) in Shackleton Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment ed D Gilson and M Smith (Oxford Voltaire Foundation 1988) pp 3-15; Dédéyan pp 89-91.

38 Remarks on the History of England. From the Minutes of Humphrey Oldcastle, Esq (London Franklin1743); I refer to the third edn 1754.

39 Remarks p 30, cp p 80. ‘Thuanus’ is the romanised surname of Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1553-1617) – French statesman, bibliophile and historiographer.

40 Remarks pp 52-3. He means the witan or witenagemot, but it had no democratic element and (like the House of Lords) contained bishops; he may be confusing the witan with the moot.

41 Remarks p 81.

42 Remarks pp 82-4.

43 A concern with corruption (dishonesty) in English political life also appears in a letter of 1749 to an English friend, William Domville, incorporated in ‘Mes pensées’: Pensées no 1883; cp Dédéyan pp 72, 145-6, 181-5. Montesquieu notes how, in contrast with ancient Rome, the effects of corruption are mitigated by the political and economic structure: electoral corruption by division of the electoral body into separate constituencies; and corruption in general by the source of wealth lying in commerce and industry, so that the corruption occurs within a process that in any case enriches all.

44 Including that against Bolingbroke in 1714 (1 Geo 1 stat 2 c 16; 5 Statutes at Large 33). This was one of several Acts of Attainder passed in that year alone.

45 Shackleton Montesquieu p 91.

46 Montesquieu to Chauvelin 12 February (23 February ns) 1730 (OC Masson iii.938).

47 Dédéyan pp 30-1.

48 Quoted, Shackleton Montesquieu pp 118-19.

49 Shackleton Montesquieu pp 117-19; R Céleste ‘Histoire des manuscrits inédits de Montesquieu’ (1891) in Montesquieu Cahiers (1716-1755) ed B Grasset (Paris Grasset 1942) pp 267-90; OC Masson iii.1575-82. The reference to an octavo volume does not help: the surviving travel notes (omitting those on England) occupy 665 generously laid out octavo pages of text alone, in the edition of the Voyages by Baron Albert de Montesquieu: Voyages de Montesquieu (Bordeaux Gounouilhou 1894-6, 2 vols). Joseph-Cyrille’s estimate, which must be something of a guess, is consistent with both of two incompatible possibilities: on one hand, that there had been English notes as extensive as, or more extensive than, those on Italy; on the other, that all English notes, bar the Notes, had already been destroyed. Baron Albert, while quoting Joseph-Cyrille’s statement that Charles-Louis had burned many of Montesquieu’s papers, continues to assume that the Notes are all that Montesquieu wrote while in England: Voyages de Montesquieu i.xi-xii.

50 R Shackleton ‘Les secrétaires de Montesquieu’ OC Masson ii.xxxv-xlii; Shackleton Montesquieu pp 76, 233.

51 ‘An Irishman who tutored me in English taught me everything he knew about that language, but I will have to start again.’ (Voyages p 679). Cp Dédéyan pp 7-8, 23.

52 This lends plausibility to part of an account given by Diderot. Writing to his friend Volland in 1762, Diderot refers to the ‘adventure (aventure)’ of Montesquieu and Chesterfield. As to Montesquieu, he says, there is a tale that he was ‘in the company of some women, who included an Englishwoman to whom he addressed a few words in her language, yet so distorted by mispronunciation (si défigurés par une prononciation vicieuse) that she could not stop herself from laughing’: Diderot to Volland, 23 September 1762, in Diderot Lettres à Sophie Volland ed A Babelon (Paris Gallimard 1938) i.300-305 at 300-1.

But the rest of what Diderot recounts is impossible. He states that Montesquieu responded:

‘Well, I have had another mortifying experience in my life. I went to see the famous Marlborough at Blenheim. Before going to visit him, I stored in my memory all the useful phrases I had been able to learn in English and, as we were making our way through the rooms of his mansion, I employed them in talking to him. I had been speaking English to him for nearly an hour when he said to me: “Sir, please speak to me in English, because I don’t understand French”.’

The ‘famous’ Duke of Marlborough, whose brilliant generalship had stymied the territorial ambitions of the ‘sun king’ Louis XIV, was certainly someone whom Montesquieu would have been eager to meet – except that the said Duke had expired in 1722. Moreover, although Blenheim Palace – a new and magnificent baroque pile which would have interested Montesquieu for itself – is the Marlborough family seat, there was no Duke of Marlborough while Montesquieu was in England. There was however a Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, who held that title in her own right by Act of Parliament; conceivably, Montesquieu or Diderot has assumed that her husband – Francis, Earl of Godolphin – was Duke. See GE C[ockayne] The Complete Peerage of England Scotland Ireland and the United Kingdom (1910-40; Gloucester Sutton 1982) ii.748-9, iii.493-8. On the other hand, Montesquieu would not have been shown round the palace by its proprietor without an introduction, in person or by letter, from a respectable mutual acquaintance (such as Chesterfield), who would have explained to Montesquieu whom he was to meet. Dédéyan (p 7) repeats Diderot’s tale from Shackleton (Montesquieu p 120) without the latter’s footnote observation that the tale must be apocryphal since there was no Duke of Marlborough at the time. So, what we have from Diderot is a crudely dramatised rumour repeated more than three decades after the alleged events. All the same, as a close friend of Montesquieu, Diderot might have known the extent of his proficiency in English and perhaps have heard the tale from Montesquieu himself. If Chesterfield had been present, this visit would have been in the first half of Montesquieu’s stay.

53 Dédéyan p 188.

54 The reform of the calendar by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 had been adopted in France in the same year, but Britain did not adopt it until 1752, by which time the difference between ‘old style’ and ‘new style’ dates amounted to 11 days.

55 W Coxe Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford (London Cadell & Davies 1798 and later editions); quoted, 8 Cobbett 642. Montesquieu’s friend Ramsay had described the situation very similarly in 1719: ‘Les Whigs deviennent Torys et les Torys deviennent Whigs selon leur intérêt’ (Essai de politique; quoted, Shackleton Montesquieu p 293).

56 Shackleton Montesquieu pp 291-8. For one more thing, the ‘Court Party’ was not the same as the royal circle since the Prince of Wales’s circle was of the ‘country’ persuasion.

57 It is tempting to speculate that reflections on such matters, which must at least have occurred in Montesquieu’s head, were the reason for one of his heirs – living in England – to destroy the bulk of his English notes.

58 H Puget ‘Montesquieu et l’Angleterre’, in La pensée politique et constitutionnelle de Montesquieu pp 275-311, focuses upon influences of British thought on Montesquieu and the reverse, with little about his actual sojourn in England beyond referring to what he says in the Notes.

59 Presumably ‘new style’, which would be 20 October 1729 ‘old style’. He arrived in London on 3 November (ns), 23 October (os): Shackleton Montesquieu p 117. He returned to France in April 1731 (ns) (Dédéyan p 141); he was back in Paris by 21 May 1731 (Shackleton Montesquieu p 146).

60 Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773); at the time, ambassador to Holland. He had spent a period in France and was strongly francophile. He was very well connected, both politically and intellectually – he was on familiar terms with Pope and Swift, as well as Voltaire. Waldegrave had given Montesquieu a letter of introduction to him (Dédéyan p 21) and Montesquieu could scarcely have had a better friend to introduce him to London society. They became lifelong friends, but their correspondence is lost. In an obituary of Montesquieu for the London Evening Post, Chesterfield wrote: ‘He well knew, and justly admired, the happy constitution of this country, where fixed and known laws equally restrain monarchy from tyranny, and liberty from licentiousness.’ – The Letters of Phillip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield ed B Dobrée (1932; New York AMS P 1968) v.2136-7. The Letters contain a life of Chesterfield by the editor, i.1-225.

61 So called in the law under which they were licensed and regulated: Hackney Coaches and Chairs Act 1710 (9 Anne c 23; 4 Statutes at Large 472). The Act (s 2) provided for licensing up to 800 of them.

62 5 October 1730 (ns) would in Britain have been 25 September (os).

63 The King is George II (1683-1760); King of Great Britain, 1727-1760, and Elector of Hanover. Montesquieu had met and dined with him earlier, in Hanover (Voyages p 320). The Queen is the intelligent and well read Caroline of Brandenburg-Anspach (1683-1737). The Prince is Frederic Louis (1707-1751), the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. All three spoke French. The throne was to pass from George II to Frederic Louis’ son, George III (1738-1820). Kensington Palace, now embraced by central London, is still a residence for some members of the royal family.

64 Shackleton finds that Chesterfield could not have been present then: ‘Chesterfield returned to Holland on 6 August 1730 and remained there until after Montesquieu’s departure from England’ (Montesquieu p 121n2). However, the date given seems much too late: it seems unlikely that Montesquieu had to wait nearly a year to meet the King, with whom he had dined and conversed at length in Hamburg in September 1729 (Voyages p 844). But such a conversation with the Queen did take place: de Broglie complains in a despatch that, in discussing the politics of the Persian Letters, Montesquieu allowed the Queen to lead him into indiscretion (Dédéyan p 31); the date would no doubt be in the archived copy of the despatch. But this is probably not the only time that Montesquieu met the Queen. It therefore seems possible that Montesquieu has revised his manuscript and, in doing so, has merged at least two separate occasions.

65 Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699) were still the leading French tragic playwrights. They had been bitter rivals. The Queen might well have heard Racine praised over Corneille by Voltaire (1694-1778), who had recently spent two years in exile in England and had been presented at Court. At first Voltaire was patronised by Bolingbroke, but they quarrelled and Voltaire turned to Walpole’s circle. Montesquieu’s coy reply indicates that he knew the Queen might be leading him into deep water. Or this may be what he wished he had said.

66 In the references to Holland, Caillois, Masson and Oster all read ‘liberté‘ although ‘égalité‘ would make more sense.

67 An anti-Walpole newspaper, 1726-1736. Montesquieu appears to have been a regular reader while in England. It seems to have been from here that he learned of the value that the English put on liberty, or at least of their dominant self-image in that regard. Some notes from his reading of The Craftsman appear in the miscellaneous notes that he collected under the title ‘Spicilegium’ (Spicilège), at pp 1357-60 (ms pp 485-93). Notably:

‘The government is good when the laws are such as necessarily produce virtue and can ensure that even bad men become good ministers.’

‘The love of power is natural. It is insatiable almost, constantly whetted, never cloyed by possession.’ (quoted in English)

‘The Ministry … has spies everywhere, in order to find out how universally it is hated.’

‘Although the King of England may be the father of his people, he is only the son of his country.’

68 Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), a prominent but wayward Tory politician. He was head of government under Queen Anne until her death in 1714. To avoid impeachment, in 1715 he fled to France and became briefly Secretary of State to the Old Pretender, the exiled James III. He was able to return to England in 1725. While in France and later, he wrote several works of political analysis. Montesquieu had known him in France and some of his ideas prefigure Montesquieu’s on division of powers, although his principal work The Idea of a Patriot King (1738) appeared after Montesquieu was in England.

Whatever respect Montesquieu may have had for Bolingbroke on a personal level eventually waned: ‘I made the acquaintance of Lord Bolingbroke and I unmade it: I found nothing to learn from him on the score of morality (J’ai connu milord Bolingbroke, et je l’ai déconnu: je ne me souciais pas d’apprendre la morale sous lui)’ – ‘Pensées’ no 1351. But that might not be a reference to Bolingbroke’s political morality – he was a notorious libertine.

69 Either Daniel Pulteney (?1674-1731) or his cousin William Pulteney (1684-1764), both involved in The Craftsman and leaders of the Opposition Whigs in the House of Commons.

70 Caillois (OC Caillois p 1632) thinks this is ‘Philippe Kinsky’, the ‘Bohemian’ ambassador; although Black titles ‘Count Philip Kinsky’ the ‘Austrian Envoy Extraordinary in London’: J Black British Foreign Policy in the Age of Walpole (Edinburgh Donald 1985) p 24. It might however be the ‘le comte de Kinski’ whom Montesquieu says he met in Luxembourg and in Vienna and whom Oster identifies as Étienne-Guillaume Kinsky (Pensées nos 6 and 47 and note on ‘Kinsky’ at OC Oster p 1100). Or conceivably they are the same person.

71 François-Marie, Comte de Broglie (1671-1745), was the French ambassador. His despatches record that he had to take Montesquieu aside, to ask him to stop being so loquacious in praise of the English system and condemnation of that in France, both to the Queen and at the French Embassy: Dédéyan p 31.

72 ‘La Vilette’ is presumably the intellectual and well connected Marie Claire Deschamps de Marcilly (1675-1750), who had married Bolingbroke during his exile. She was the widow of a French general, Philippe de Valais, Marquis de Villette (1631-1707). She could have continued to identify herself as ‘Villette’ because Bolingbroke’s viscountcy, lost when he fled to France, was never restored. She had been in England since May 1724: Daily Journal 25 May 1724; cited, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu Complete Letters ed R Halsband (Oxford Clarendon P 1965-7) i.53n2. Montesquieu’s ‘milord Essex’ is presumably William Capel, third Earl of Essex (1697-1743), gentleman of the bedchamber to George II both when Prince of Wales and as king. (The Capel Earls of Essex are not to be confused with the better known Devereux Earls of Essex – including the second Earl, close to Elizabeth I – whose line died out in 1646.) The Marquise appears to have addressed Essex, affectionately, as ‘mon fils‘. The relative precedence of a French marquise and the holder of an eminent English earldom, though very much younger, might have been a sensitive matter. Poignantly, the incident might have occurred after the death at the Siege of Belgrade of her real son, almost the same age as Essex, Ferdinand-Tancrède-Frédéric le Valais de Villette (1696-1717). Lady Montagu says of the Marquise: ‘Madame Villette has been the Favourite of the Town, and by a natural transition has become the aversion.’ – Lady Montagu to Lady Mar circa 10 June 1725; Complete Letters i.53. The reason was the Marquise’s gauche intriguing. George II is reported in 1724 to have said of her: ‘elle parle trop et sans respect (she talks too much and without respect)’: Cockayne Complete Peerage ii.207nc.

Roustan, however, seems to assume that ‘La Vilette’ is the Marquis père, referring to ‘l’aimable gentilhomme français‘: M Roustan ed Montesquieu: morceaux choisis (Paris Didier 1932) p 133n3. The character fits – the Duc de Saint-Simon describes him as ‘courageous, and by no means a bad officer, but awkward, dumb and inept to the last degree (brave, et point mauvais officier, mais gauche, bête, inepte au dernier point)’: Mémoires (1752; Paris Gallimard 1953-61) ii.672. But Montesquieu evaluates ‘these people’ in the present tense. Further light might be shed in a forthcoming fascicule of the Dictionnaire de biographie française covering the name ‘La Villette’.

73 Il faut à l’Anglais un bon dîner, une fille, de l’aisance: I have altered the word order, on which nothing seems to depend, to something that appears more natural in English.

74 This passage sounds scrambled. For a start, it is dreadfully written: from ‘A few days ago’ to ‘a caveat against sale’ is a single sentence punctuated only by commas; the ‘she (elle)’ who is the subject of a ‘seigneurial property right’ could, grammatically, be either party and consequently so could ‘the other (l’autre)’. I have rendered ‘un droit de properiété seigneuriale‘ literally, since Montesquieu (and perhaps, originally, Caroline) seems to be contrasting the position of a French landlord with the relativities of English property law.

Montesquieu appears to have mixed up Kensington and Kew. While he was in England, Queen Caroline was developing the royal estates both at Kensington and in the Richmond and Kew area. From 1721 she and George had lived betimes at Ormonde Lodge (which they had renamed Richmond Lodge) on the Richmond Estate, long in royal hands. Her developments at Kew included, in at least one case, the planting of a grove of trees. At Kew, too, she took 99 year leases on several neighbouring properties. Montesquieu says: ‘l’ayant pour trois vies, mais avec défense de la vendre‘; a term of ‘three lives’ was a contemporary expression for a 99 year lease. The caveat could have been against letting anyone else take the lease over.

One of the adjoining owners at Kew, who could therefore have been among those who leased land to the Queen for 99 years, was Lady Elizabeth Capel. She was descended from Lord Henry Capel (1638-1696), who half a century earlier had established around Kew House an extensive and well tended garden which was to become the basis for the now famous Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Her father had been Algernon Capel (1670-1710), the second Earl of Essex. Her husband was was Samuel Molyneux (1689-1728), who had been secretary to George II while the latter was still Prince of Wales. She was therefore intimate with the royal family, both through her brother the Earl of Essex (above) and through her husband. Samuel entered Parliament and at the time of his death was an active Lord of the Admiralty. He also became a noted astronomer, with a private observatory in a wing of Kew House. At least one English contemporary spelt the family’s surname as ‘Molineux’; that would also correspond to a Frenchman’s likely pronunciation of ‘Molyneux’. And Montesquieu or his secretary might have mistaken ‘Beth’ for ‘Bell’.

The description of her (supposing that it is she) as ‘an enterprising girl’ may be arch. He writes ‘maîtresse fille‘, literally ‘mistress girl’. She provoked considerable scandal by leaving Kew in an unseemly hurry – running off with Samuel’s physician, Nathaniel St André, allegedly on the very day of Samuel’s death. Hence ‘maîtresse’ might be a nod and ‘fille’ , which in this context is pejorative, a wink. Though absent, she would presumably have maintained a keen interest in her valuable ancestral property. The suspicious circumstances would no doubt have ended the intimacy with the King and Queen, without creating a proper deference to royal officials. She married St André on 7 May 1730, which might have been reported in the press with a variety of comments – Montesquieu was only just back in France by then and could have heard the news in that way. The estate was then placed in the hands of trustees, who in September 1731 indirectly leased it to Frederic Louis, the Prince of Wales. This manoeuvre made Frederic a neighbour of his parents and the complexity of the arrangement may have been a subterfuge to prevent his estranged father from stopping the move. This too indicates an estrangement between Elizabeth and the King and Queen.

If these are the actors, it remains unclear what Montesquieu thought was going on between them. Perhaps Caroline leased land from Elizabeth and had a grove of trees planted on it without Elizabeth’s consent, and Elizabeth arrogantly (seigneurially) had the trees removed without consulting Caroline. Conceivably Elizabeth then sued Caroline for the presumably readily remediable damage likely to have been caused by planting a grove of saplings that had now been removed. Caroline might have been able to counterclaim for loss of the saplings. Given the triviality of the issues, it would have made good sense for either party to send an emissary in search of a settlement, instead of suing or at least after an action had commenced. It would have made still more sense given the personal circumstances.

For background, see J Cloake Palaces and Parks of Richmond and Kew (Chichester Phillimore 1995-6, 2 vols), ii.30, 36, 62, 80-2.

75 William Whiston (1667-1752), an Anglican priest and mathematician, attempted to harmonise religion with science. In A New Theory of the Earth (1696) he argued that the biblical stories of the Creation, the Flood and a final conflagration could be explained scientifically. Despite those almost heretical views, he became an assistant to Newton at Cambridge and succeeded to the latter’s chair. The university sacked him when he went so far as to deny the divinity of Christ.

76 Montesquieu particularly enjoyed the freedom with which the English press was able to report French scandal. On 21 December 1729 he wrote of the ‘prying and unrestricted’ English daily press – mischievously drawing on it to report to a clerical friend that a French cardinal had acquired a dice-playing machine, which was of course deplorably frivolous, nay ‘heretical and Jansenist’: Montesquieu to Cerati 21 December 1729 (OC Masson iii.937-8, noting Appleby’s Weekly Journal 15 November 1729 and that the cardinal in question had tickets on himself as the leader of anti-Jansenist orthodoxy).

77 Matthew 6.34; I quote the King James translation.

78 At a masked ball. The King had a foul temper and was on very bad terms with his son, as he had also been with his own father. The point of the story is that, this being England, the only death that milady faced was social: cp The Spirit of Laws 6.16.

Milady Denham‘ is possibly Anne, wife of Dr William Derham (1657-1735), a natural historian and Fellow of the Royal Society; on the accession of George I in 1714 he became chaplain to the Prince of Wales, later George II, and at this time was Canon of Windsor. The only aristocratic ‘Denham’ or similar name that I can find in this period is more remote: Sir Archibald Denham, a relative of Sir James Steuart (1712-1780), later a renowned economist, who changed his name to Sir James Steuart Denham when he acquired an estate from Sir Archibald on the latter’s death in 1773.

79 L’argent est ici souverainement estimé; l’honneur et la vertu peu. A multiple play on words: the ‘sovereign’, a one-pound coin, was then one of the principal units of English currency; estimé also means ‘estimated’.

80 Perhaps a reflection on de Broglie: Dédéyan p 31.

81 I have not been able to trace d’Hiberville: perhaps he is a French diplomat (like Kinski) or one of the French ministers on whose ignorance Montesquieu proceeds to comment. The story could then be that d’Hiberville persuaded the French government to waste money, perhaps on bribes, to bring about a Tory government – which could indeed have been more favourable to French interests. But ‘il fut wigh‘ does not fit this: possibly it means that he reversed his advice, which led to a loss of confidence in him.

82 les mémoires de tories.

83 Similarly, Pensées no 1673.

84 Montesquieu’s initial esteem for George II evidently cooled.

85 si on exécute celles qui y sont; using the vocabulary of division of powers, in which legislation is ‘executed’.

86 Perhaps, again, a reflection on de Broglie: Dédéyan p 31. The relationship between Montesquieu and de Broglie seems really to have misfired. If Montesquieu had entertained propects of a diplomatic career, this was probably the end of them.

87 From 1712 a stamp duty was imposed on all frequently published periodicals, the forerunners of today’s daily newspapers. Initially a halfpenny or a penny, depending on the paper’s size, it was gradually increased until at fourpence, which could more than double the price of each copy, it priced these publications out of the hands of the working class. After decades of protest against the ‘tax on knowledge’, the duty was abolished in 1855.

88 Montesquieu marvels at the availability of an uncensored press and, in this example, at the eagerness with which common people would read it. A roofer may be singled out with metaphorical concern that, if the rabble can get ideas so high, they might hurl rubble down.

89 William Shippen (1673-1743), a Jacobite Tory, for years opposed the maintenance of a standing army, which in this period numbered about 18,000 men. He reportedly (8 Cobbett 772-3) referred to ‘the principle of self-preservation’ and went on:

Force and violence are the resort of usurpers and tyrants only. — I perceive some gentlemen take offence at my words, and therefore, that they may not be misconstrued, I will repeat them. — I assert then, it is a grounded maxim in civil science, that force and violence are the resort of usurpers and tyrants only; because they are, with good reason, distrustful of the people, whom they oppress; and because they have no other security for the continuance of their unlawful and unnatural dominion, than what depends entirely on the strength of their armies.

But it is the peculiar happiness and glory of Great Britain to be blessed with a Prince, who wants no such support; who reigns absolute in the hearts of his subjects …

The word ‘usurper’, coming from Shippen, would have been taken to allude to the Hanoverian monarchs. The word ‘tyrant’ in that period was not just a rhetorical expression but a political category; Charles I had been deposed and executed for being a ‘tyrant’. At the same time, since one use of a standing army was to deter a Jacobite invasion, for a Jacobite to argue against a standing army was suspicious.

Cobbett does not mention a division. Rather, Shippen is reported to have continued good-humouredly, expressing his approval of a good salary for ‘the Physician of the Tower’ given that so many Members, whether for speaking out or for corruption, had been sent there before and might yet be sent there and require his services. (The response would have been lively: Walpole had been a guest of the Tower in 1712, after impeachment for corruption on the initiative of Bolingbroke; two years later, when the tables had turned, Bolingbroke had escaped the same fate by fleeing to France; Shippen himself had been in the Tower in 1717; so had Wyndham in 1715.) After that, Cobbett says, the House carried the government’s proposal to fund an army of 17,709 men.

As to the division, however, Lord Egmont’s diary bears Montesquieu out:

Shippen said that at this rate he saw no prospect of being free from a government by a standing army; that he hoped the German constitution of ruling by an army was not to be introduced here, and that in England a King who should propose to govern by an army was a tyrant. This bold and audacious speech struck the House mute, till Sir William Yonge got up and said such things were not proper to be heard, and were intolerable, that the House ought to make him explain himself, not but that he believed the House understood his meaning. Shippen said something to extenuate his expression, but not to much satisfaction. Sir Robert Walpole said what was proper, and concluded that it was believed there would have been a long debate, but what Shippen had said had so shocked gentlemen that he could find nothing wiser than to go to the question immediately (quoted, R Sedgwick The House of Commons 1715-1754 (London HMSO 1970) ii.423).

These were days when the difference between a soldier and an armed citizen was so small that a standing army, and especially one composed mainly of biddable men too poor to find other employment, could be seen as more an internal threat than an external defence. The memory of a standing army during the revolutionary period of the previous century remained strong. One of the army’s main rôles continued to be the suppression of agitation. See B Williams The Whig Supremacy (Oxford Clarendon P 1939) pp 203-5. The motive for opposing a standing army should not, however, be assumed to be democratic: for example, vigorous opposition came from several lords during debate on the Mutiny Bill 1732 (8 Cobbett 1006-12); an army at the disposal of the state was a threat to their own interests.

90 besoin de troupes pour se maintenir, et qu’ainsi c’étaient des moyens que le droit incontestable de S.M. ne pouvait pas exiger.

91 After the Stuarts, who were Catholic, had been dethroned, the English Parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701 which stipulated that no Catholic could sit on the throne. A Protestant, Queen Anne, was installed in 1702 and, on her death in 1714, Georg, the Elector of Hanover, succeeded to the throne of Great Britain as George I.

92 According to the Dictionary of National Biography entry for ‘George II’, while George was in Hanover in May 1729:

Some Hanoverian soldiers carried off hay from Prussian territory, and some Prussian soldiers, travelling with passports in Hanover, were detained by the king’s express orders. Frederick William at first demanded satisfaction by duel, seconds were named, and a meeting arranged. Diplomacy, however, averted the duel and suggested an arbitration. Of this, however, George would not hear. Thereupon Frederick William mobilised forty-four-thousand troops, and began massing them on the Hanoverian frontier. George also made a show of warlike preparations, but eventually accepted the arbitration. (DNB vii.1041)

The Prussian king is Friedrich Wilhelm I (1688-1740). Friedrich Wilhelm and George were almost incestuously related:

George I’s daughter Sophia Dorothea (1687-1757) had married Frederick William I of Prussia (1688-1740) in 1706, whilst Frederick William’s father had married George I’s sister. George II was therefore brother-in-law and first cousin to Frederick William I, and uncle to his eldest son, Frederick the Great (II) who succeeded in 1740. (Black p 30).

The two kings also hated each other’s royal guts. They had fought as boys and Friedrich Wilhelm had been in love with Caroline who would later marry George. FW called George ‘the comedian’ while George called FW ‘the archbeadle of the Holy Roman Empire’ (DNB vii.1040-1). This history between the two makes the idea of a challenge less implausible. Had a duel taken place between these two experienced soldiers of similar age, it would have been a serious business. ‘Reichtembach’ and Debouche appear to be acting as the seconds.

Lord John Hervey (1696-1743) surmises that the challenge might have come from George:

It was reported, and I believe not without foundation, that our monarch on this occasion sent or would have sent a challenge of single combat to His Prussian Majesty; but whether it was carried and rejected, or whether the prayers and remonstrances of Lord Townshend prevented the gauntlet being actually thrown down, is a point which to me at least has never been cleared.

Some Materials Towards Memoirs of the Reign of King George II ed R Sedgwick (1931; New York AMS P 1970) i.103. As Hervey says – although he was a close friend of the King – on this matter he is not well informed.

Particularly given that Britain and Hanover shared a head of state, ‘Reichtembach’ might be Benjamin Reichenbach, a Prussian envoy in London. Montesquieu’s Voyages do not mention seeing him in Germany. I have not been able to trace ‘Debouche’, who is presumably Prime Minister (Montesquieu says ‘premier ministre‘) of Hanover, which had a separate ministry. Conceivably Montesquieu is thinking of Charles Dubourgay, who until 1730 was the British ambassador to Berlin and who seems to have had good reason to give Reichenbach a brush-off: T Carlyle History of Friedrich II. of Prussia Called Frederick the Great (1858-65; London Chapman & Hall nd) ii.5-80.

93 Obscure in the original. The large amount suggests a retainer rather than the sale of a vote on a single occasion. The tone (‘short of …’) may be that of a Scotsman-and-a-bawbee joke. Montesquieu was always puzzled by English humour (Dédéyan pp 25, 141), but as jokes of this type go it might be considered to make the grade.

94 The reference is presumably to the civil list. Part of the settlement of 1689 had been an allocation of a fixed sum to the monarch for ‘civil’ (personal) expenses. The monarch then could and sometimes did use some of this money to bribe supporters.

95 In ‘lorsqu’il jouerait sur le théâtre‘ I read ‘jouerait sur‘ in the sense of speculative investment and consequently treat the immediately following ‘Jouer une pièce‘ as contracted. This fits the financial remarks better than if one were to suppose that the man acted in the play.

It also makes Montesquieu’s moral indignation fit well with, on one account, his own charitable work in the London theatre. His friend and fellow académicien, the scientist and man of the theatre Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) recommended to him (at the request of an associate of Voltaire) a dancer, Marie Sallé. Fontenelle said she had been ‘ostracised’ from the Paris Opéra for (he implies) refusing someone’s advances and asked Montesquieu to use his contact with the Queen to suggest that Mlle Sallé be employed to teach dancing to the princesses: Fontenelle to Montesquieu in November 1730 (OC Masson iii.940-1). Marie Sallé had performed in London before. She and her brother, also a dancer, gave several very successful benefit performances there from November 1730 to April 1731. On 25 March 1731 the King, Queen and princesses attended their performance in Molière’s Les fourberies de Scapin. This is one of Molière’s last plays (1671), a farce whose theme is dishonesty; the dancers would have appeared during the interludes. Shackleton claims that Montesquieu, using his connections in response to Fontenelle’s request, ‘organised’ this performance (Montesquieu 144-5). He cites two sources: J Nichols, Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, published in 1812 (reprinted, Carbondale Southern Illinois UP 1967); and the biography by E Dacier, Une danseuse de l’Opéra sous Louis XV: Mlle Sallé (1707-1756) (Paris Plon 2nd edn 1909; reprinted Geneva Minkoff 1972). But Dacier says that she came with a stack of letters of recommendation, already had connections from her previous visit and never used the recommendation to Montesquieu. His evidence for that, however, is that the letter to Montesquieu was preserved by Voltaire’s associate. That could have various explanations: that she returned the letter unused, that she used it and it eventually came back, or that it was never given to her. Dacier also recounts that Fontenelle had given another French dancer a recommendation to Locke, so even if Montesquieu’s indignation has a specific French connection it might not relate to Mlle Sallé.

The theatre backer’s stated income does not remotely match his reported expenditure. An ‘income (rente)’ would ordinarily have been stated as an annual sum. A pound sterling was composed of 20 shillings and a crown sterling was five shillings; a guinea was 21 shillings. If the man annually received 15 crowns sterling = three pounds and fifteen shillings, he would hardly be laying out 100 guineas = 105 pounds sterling, either frequently or at any time.

96 On 28 January 1727, opening the House of Lords debate on the King’s Speech, Lord Bathurst reportedly said:

That one of our best mathematicians has foretold, That if ever England raises above five millions in a year, it will infallibly be exhausted in a few years: That if, at this juncture, we should enter upon a war, and not meddle with the Sinking-Fund, according to the scheme of those in the administration, they must be obliged to raise, at least, seven millions a year upon the people of England; the consequence of which was obvious to any one who admitted the principle of that great mathematician. (8 Cobbett 537; the ‘great mathematician’ is not named)

97 2 March 1730. France had re-fortified the major port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque), just across the Channel, in defiance of the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 between Britain and France, art 9: ‘The most Christian King [of France] shall take care that all the fortifications of the City of Dunkirk be razed, that the harbour be filled up’ etc. This move caused consternation in Britain (Black p 8), since it threatened a breach of the ‘universal and perpetual peace’ (art 1) that Britain and France had promised each other to end the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713). For the text of the treaty in English, see FL Israel ed Major Peace Treaties in Modern History 1648-1967 (New York Chelsea House 1967) i.177-217. Cobbett reports (8 Cobbett 798-800) that the Opposition, instigated by Bolingbroke, suspected that the government was conniving with France to permit the rebuilding. He describes a long and fiery debate with sparks between Walpole and Bolingbroke’s supporters, in which the latter came off badly. He does not mention the tale that Montesquieu attributes to Walpole, but given the spirit and length of the debate, and Montesquieu’s confident detail, no doubt it occurred. Cobbett relies on a letter by ‘Horace Walpole’, who would be Robert’s brother Horatio (1678-1757). The crisis continued: in June 1731 both armies were mobilised, but diplomacy averted a new war (Black p 12).

98 Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), the leading member of the Whig government and regarded today as the first British Prime Minister. In 1712 a Tory government, backed by some Whigs led by Bolingbroke, had him impeached for corruption as secretary at war; he was found guilty, expelled from the Commons and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Two years later, on the accession of George I, he returned to government as paymaster-general of the armed forces. He then chaired a secret committee that impeached Bolingbroke for corruption, although Bolingbroke fled to France.

99 Sir William Wyndham (1687-1740), a Tory leader and ally of Bolingbroke.

100 raconta en faveur de Bolingbroke: since Walpole and Bolingbroke were bitter enemies, this would have to be ironical on Montesquieu’s part.

101 The story alludes to Bolingbroke’s earlier prospect of impeachment and to his exile.

102 deux bills; Montesquieu uses the English word ‘bills’.

103 Presumably Charles, Viscount Townshend (1675-1738) who at the time of this bill was foreign secretary and one of the two leading figures, with his brother-in-law Walpole, in the government. But ‘Thousand’ is an odd error for Montesquieu to make. Townshend was a politician of the top rank and Montesquieu had been in England for a while. Moreover, he had met and got on well with Townshend earlier, in Hanover (Voyages p 844, where the name is spelt correctly). Probably, therefore, the name been misheard from Montesquieu by his secretary.

104 I have capitalised ‘Court (cour)’ when the reference is to the royal court, ie the royal circle. Although ‘la cour‘ could be translated as ‘the royal circle’, ‘the court’ (or ‘the Court’) was the English expression of the time.

The statute concerned is the Bribery at Elections Act 1729 (2 Geo 2 c 24, 5 Statutes at Large 510). Montesquieu could not have been present at these debates, since they took place before he arrived in England. The bill was introduced in the Commons on 13 March 1729, was passed in the Commons on 1 April, came back to the Commons on 6 May with the Lords’ amendments and was passed in the Commons with those amendments on 7 May (8 Cobbett 683, 700-1, 753-5).

Montesquieu’s grasp of the central issues is accurate. However, he is mistaken that the previous penalty was ten pounds (it was fifty), but the scale of new penalties did reach five hundred pounds. The penalties for bribery were not fines, but were to be sued for by an aggrieved individual. Certain actions, other than bribery, were classified as perjury.

Montesquieu is also unclear about the rôle of the courts. The Act provides that the courts will determine whether an individual has acted dishonestly, but (s 4) that the validity of the election as a whole remains ultimately a decision for the House of Commons. Had the Act provided that even the validity of the election as a whole would have been determined by the courts (as one form of the Bill had provided), then the question of validity would ultimately have been a decision for the highest court, which was the judicial committee of the House of Lords, and the Commons would have been subordinated once more to the Lords. As to the then enormous sum of five hundred pounds, Pulteney reportedly argued in the Commons on 7 May that it reflected the fundamental constitutional importance of electoral integrity. Cobbett records that the House was thinly attended, there was little debate, and the Bill passed by 91 votes to 89.

105 A ‘living’ is property providing the income of a priest. Montesquieu conflates statutes of 1703 and 1714.

The Queen Anne’s Bounty Act 1703 (2 & 3 Anne c 11; 4 Statutes at Large 148) recites that, under a law of Henry VIII (26 Hen 8 c 3) and later statutes, ‘upon every nomination or appointment to any dignity, benefice, office or promotion spiritual’ in the Church of England the whole of the first year’s revenues from the living and thereafter an annual tenth were payable to the monarch. However, in the cases of many clergy no provision had been made for their maintenance and, as a result, many were dependent on their congregations and thus often constrained to tell the congregation what it wanted to hear and not what it ought. Queen Anne, it is acknowledged, had voluntarily ‘remitted the arrears of your tenths due from your poor clergy’ and now wished to establish a more settled arrangement, by which all of the income in a first year and the tenths thereafter would be dedicated to augmenting the incomes of poor clergy. The Act provides for a body to receive and disburse these funds to be incorporated by letters patent. The earlier laws would remain in force. Once the new corporation was set up, ‘well-disposed persons’ would be able to transfer property to it by sale, gift or will.

The Queen Anne’s Bounty Act 1714 (1 Geo 1 stat 2 c 10; 5 Statutes at Large 8), referring to ‘the Governors of the Corporation of the Bounty of Queen Anne’ (s 1), notes and gives statutory force (s 3) to rules made by Queen Anne by letters patent under the Act of 1703 to the effect that, in order ‘to encourage benefactions from others, and thereby the sooner to complete the good that was intended by her said late Majesty’s Bounty, the said Governors may give the sum of two hundred pounds (which is the stated sum allowed to each cure which shall be augmented) to cures not exceeding thirty-five pounds per annum, where any person or persons will give the same or greater sum or value in lands or tithes’ (s 8). This is not quite how Montesquieu understands the matter, yet his account may be closer to the reality. Livings (‘cures’) producing less than fifty pounds a year had been exempted from the exaction of first fruits and tithes by the Queen Anne’s Bounty Act 1706 (5 Anne 24; 4 Statutes at Large 237) s 1.

Neither the 1703 Act nor that of 1714 introduces the possibility of gifts and bequests to the Church: on the contrary, they strongly encourage this traditional practice. The ‘repeal’ that Montesquieu refers to could only be the change effected by the Act of 1703 that the revenues in question would be received no longer by the monarch but by the new corporation.

The final sentence presumably notes that the Act of 1714 had been introduced by the new Whig government. It may also refer to the Queen Anne’s Bounty Act 1716 (3 Geo 1 c 10), also a Whig measure, which aimed to improve the efficiency with which the funds for the bounty were collected.

The corporation and the bounty lasted until 1947, when the scheme was merged into that of the Church Commissioners: Halsbury’s Statutes of England and Wales (4th edn) xiv.16, 1077.

106 ‘Saint Louis’: King Louis IX of France; reigned 1226-1270; canonised 1297.

107 Montesquieu refers to the French ‘marc (mark)’ – apparently the silver and not the gold marc – and ‘pound (livre)’. Cp The Spirit of Laws 22.

108 The ‘West’ Indies, ie the Americas.

109 roturiers: this and the next passage, beginning ‘There is in this structure’, appear to be about France.

110 Caillois, Masson and Oster all read ‘ouvrage‘, which doesn’t seem to fit if it is understood in the sense of a ‘work’, and accordingly they query it. Caillois and Oster suspect a misreading; Masson notes, ‘But it is not known which work’. However, ‘ouvrage‘ can also be understood as ‘structure’, which does seem to fit.

111 Again, the Americas.

112 manger son bien; ie to squander it.

113 manger et boire son bien; Montesquieu suggests (with some justification) a nation of topers.

114 ‘give to him encouragement’, in English in the original.

115 par un acte: Montesquieu refers to an Act of Parliament, using ‘un acte‘ contrary to its usual meaning even within French legal discourse – a formal document such as a birth certificate (acte de naissance). The ‘prince’ here is the ruler, ie the King.

116 la puissance exécutive.

117 Lorsqu’on saisit le cordon bleu de M. de Broglie: this presumably means that somebody British snatched it in a moment of pique; despite the later reference to confiscation (which could be understood as ironical), it would have been diplomatically scandalous for the British government to have impounded an ambassador’s award from his own country.

118 For the Father read James II, chased out by the revolution of 1688; for the the Son read his son James III, deposed by Parliament in 1701; the blue ribbon (le cordon bleu) was the Order of the Holy Spirit, worn by the French ambassador.

© 2002 I. Stewart This HTML edition © 2002 University of Oxford.
The contents of this page may be downloaded and printed out in single copies for individual use only. Making multiple copies without permission is prohibited.

1 thought on “Montesquieu in England: his ‘Notes on England’, with Commentary and Translation Commentary

  1. Pingback: How Do You Pronounce Montesquieu? – Almazrestaurant

Comments are closed.