Montesquieu, "The Spirit of the Laws"

In The Spirit of the Laws published in 1748, Montesquieu took a less playful tone. Rather than lampooning French customs as he did in The Persian Letters, he offered a wide–ranging comparative analysis of governmental institutions. He argued that the type of government varied depending on circumstances. This idea might not seem very radical today, but in the eighteenth century it implied that the governments of the time need not be permanent. Like Locke, Montesquieu argued that government was not modeled on the authority of fathers in their families. Instead, the best government was the one that best accorded with the nature of the people in question.

It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.

In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected.

A monarchical state ought to be of moderate extent. Were it small, it would form itself into a republic; were it very large, the nobility, possessed of great estates, far from the eye of the prince, with a private court of their own, and secure, moreover, from sudden executions by the laws and manners of the country—such a nobility, I say, might throw off their allegiance, having nothing to fear from too slow and too distant a government.

A large empire supposes a despotic authority in the person who governs. It is necessary that the quickness of the prince's resolutions should supply the distance of the places they are sent to; that fear should prevent the remissness of the distant governor or magistrate; that the law should be derived from a single person, and should shift continually, according to the accidents which necessarily multiply in a state in proportion to its extent.


In Asia they have always had great Empires; in Europe these could never subsist. Asia has larger plains; it is cut out into much more extensive divisions by mountains and seas; and as it lies more to the south, its springs are more easily dried up; the mountains are less covered with snow; and the rivers being not so large, form more contracted barriers.

Power in Asia ought then to be always despotic; for if their slavery was not severe they would soon make a division inconsistent with the nature of the country.

In Europe the natural division forms many nations of a moderate extent, in which the ruling by laws is not incompatible with the maintenance of the state; on the contrary, it is so favorable to it, that without this the state would fall into decay, and become a prey to its neighbors.

It is this which has formed a genius for liberty that renders every part extremely difficult to be subdued and subjected to a foreign power, otherwise than by the laws and the advantage of commerce.

On the contrary, there reigns in Asia a servile spirit, which they have never been able to shake off, and it is impossible to find in all the histories of that country a single passage that discovers a freedom of spirit; we shall never see anything there but the excess of slavery.

Source: Merrick Whitcomb, ed., Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, vol. 6 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania History Department, 1899), 3–6.