Theories of Race

Charles-Louis Secondat, Baron de la Brède et Montesquieu

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    Charles-Louis Secondat, Baron de la Brède et Montesquieu



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Montesquieu was one of the first political philosophers to seek a foundation for the principles of government not drawn from classical models or feudal regimes. Deeply impressed by the liberties granted by the English constitution, Montesquieu established the rationale for a republican form of government based not on the exercise and maintenance of power but on “virtue,” and dedicated not to the interests of the rulers but to the liberty and happiness of the people. Among his conceptual innovations was the principle of the separation of powers, which sought to limit the authority or influence of any one class or sector in order to ensure an interdependence that would compel cooperation and facilitate mutual trust. His most important book, The Spirit of Laws, was published in France in 1748 and translated into English in 1750, in which form it was read widely in the American colonies in the years before the Revolution, including by James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.”

The Spirit of Laws displays a classificatory spirit similar to the one that animated Linnaeus and other scientists but applied to political and social formations rather than to the natural world. Analyzing the “necessary relations arising from the nature of things,” Montesquieu develops a series of interrelated concepts designed to illuminate the God-given but sometimes hidden forces that regulate natural, social, and political life, ranging from climate and soil to the principles of justice (Vol. I, Bk. I, Ch. I).

The concept of race arises in the context of Montesquieu’s analysis of the history of political and legal systems, which he sees as advancing through distinct phases. While he refers on one occasion to the human race, he also describes the Franks—the Germanic peoples who emerged with the collapse of the Western Roman empire and, under Charlemagne, assumed power over much of what became France beginning in 800 AD—as the “first race.” The primacy of the Franks, in Montesquieu, is not only historical, however, because the system of rule they instituted represents the first step towards realization of the true principles of morals and government. Defined by a combination of environmental, social, and political structures, the Frankish “race” also represents a principle of dynastic succession. [On the Franks, see Gobineau]. The Franks were followed by the second race, the feudal Carolingians, who were in turn succeeded by a third race whose emergence was marked by the ascension in 987 of Hugh Capet, when “the kingdom passed from a state of anarchy to some kind of government” (Vol. II, Bk. XXXI, Ch. XVI).

Montesquieu makes a less idiosyncratic and more direct contribution to the emergent discourse on race in his discussion of slavery. As the passages from Book XV in The Spirit of Laws reproduced below demonstrate, Montesquieu deplores slavery in all forms, ancient and modern, and rejects all philosophical attempts (e.g., Aristotle) to identify some people as “natural” slaves. In these passages, he focuses squarely on the European practice of enslaving Africans in the process of colonizing the Americas. In the conditional tense (“were I to vindicate . . .”) and a spirit of satire that can, out of context, easily be mistaken for a serious proposal, he proposes various justifications for slavery, listing what would become in other hands actual rationales [See Meiners, Soemmering, Nott, Gliddon]. These are followed by a series of statements concerning the “true origins” of the practice that are grounded not in the supposed inferiority of the Negro but in the stresses placed on people by extreme heat and by the economic interests of the colonial powers.

The historian of race Ivan Hannaford says of Montesquieu that “his extremely important contribution was to consolidate a new theory of ‘racial’ origins for the legitimization of politics qua politics and for the overthrow of existing unjust regimes.”* This may be, but one unintended consequence of casting historical progress in racial terms appeared when those whose definition of race was quite different from Montesquieu’s undertook to rank races according to their level of political or cultural development. Races other than Asians and Europeans were often characterized as “first races” that had, perhaps for reasons connected to their biology, remained in a primitive or undeveloped condition while the rest of the world had advanced; in another model, the original races had “degenerated” and fallen off from their original condition while others had remained in a more pristine state.

While Montesquieu is not a theorist of race, The Spirit of Laws brings into close proximity a number of concepts that would become increasingly important in the development of the race concept in the following century: the place of races in the history of humanity, the concept of slavery, the slave trade in the Americas, racial typology, and racial antipathy towards Negroes in particular, all in a context of concern for a virtuous social and political order.

*Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 202. 

The Spirit of Laws, Vol. I



CHAP. I.: Idea of this Book.

THAT the laws of education ought to be relative to the principle of each government has been shewn in the preceding book. Now, the same may be said of those which the legislator gives to the whole society. The relation of laws to this principle strengthens the several springs of government; and this principle derives from thence, in its turn, a new degree of vigour. And thus it is, in mechanics, that action is always followed by re-action.

Our design is, to examine this relation in each government, beginning with the republican state, whose principle is virtue.

CHAP. II.: What is meant by Virtue in a political State.

VIRTUE in a republic is a most simple thing; it is a love of the republic; it is a sensation, and not a consequence of acquired knowledge; a sensation that may be felt by the meanest as well as by the highest person in the state. When the common people adopt good maxims, they adhere to them steadier than those we call gentlemen. It is very rare that corruption commences with the former: nay, they frequently derive from their imperfect light a stronger attachment to the established laws and customs.

The love of our country is conducive to a purity of morals, and the latter is again conducive to the former. The less we are able to satisfy our private passions, the more we abandon ourselves to those of a general nature. How comes it that monks are so fond of their order? It is owing to the very cause that renders the order insupportable. Their rule debars them of all those things by which the ordinary passions are fed; there remains, therefore, only this passion for the very rule that torments them: the more austere it is, that is, the more it curbs their inclinations, the more force it gives to the only passion left them.

CHAP. III.: What is meant by a Love of the Republic, in a Democracy.

A love of the republic, in a democracy, is a love of the democracy; as the latter is that of equality.

A love of the democracy is, likewise, that of frugality. Since every individual ought here to enjoy the same happiness and the same advantages, they should, consequently, taste the same pleasures and form the same hopes; which cannot be expected but from a general frugality.

The love of equality, in a democracy, limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow-citizens. They cannot all render her equal services, but they all ought to serve her with equal alacrity. At our coming into the world, we contract an immense debt to our country, which we can never discharge. . . .

The good sense and happiness of individuals depend greatly on the mediocrity of their abilities and fortunes. Therefore, as a republic, where the laws have placed many in a middling station, is composed of wise men, it will be wisely governed; as it is composed of happy men, it will be extremely happy.


CHAP. I.: Of civil Slavery.

SLAVERY, properly so called, is the establishment of a right which gives to one man such a power over another as renders him absolute master of his life and fortune. The state of slavery is, in its own nature, bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because, by having an unlimited authority over his slaves, he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and from thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel.

In despotic countries, where they are already in a state of political servitude, civil slavery is more tolerable than in other governments. Every one ought to be satisfied, in those countries, with necessaries and life. Hence the condition of a slave is hardly more burdensome than that of a subject.

But, in a monarchical government, where it is of the utmost importance that human nature should not be debased nor dispirited, there ought to be no slavery. In democracies, where they are all upon an equality, and in aristocracies, where the laws ought to use their utmost endeavours to procure as great an equality as the nature of the government will permit, slavery is contrary to the spirit of the constitution: it only contributes to give a power and luxury to the citizens which they ought not to have.

CHAP. II.: Origin of the Right of Slavery among the Roman Civilians.

ONE would never have imagined that slavery should owe its birth to pity, and that this should have been excited three different ways.

The law of nations, to prevent prisoners from being put to death, has allowed them to be made slaves. The civil law of the Romans empowered debtors, who were subject to be ill used by their creditors, to sell themselves. And the law of nature requires, that children, whom a father, in the state of servitude, is no longer able to maintain, should be reduced to the same state as the father.

These reasons of the civilians are all false. It is false that killing in war is lawful, unless in a case of absolute necessity: but, when a man has made another his slave, he cannot be said to have been under a necessity of taking away his life, since he actually did not take it away. War gives no other right over prisoners than to disable them from doing any farther harm, by securing their persons. All nations concur in detesting the murdering of prisoners in cold blood.

Neither is it true that a freeman can sell himself. Sale implies a price: now, when a person sells himself, his whole substance immediately devolves to his master; the master, therefore, in that case, gives nothing, and the slave receives nothing. You will say he has a peculium. But this peculium goes along with his person. If it is not lawful for a man to kill himself, because he robs his country of his person, for the same reason he is not allowed to barter his freedom. The freedom of every citizen constitutes a part of the public liberty; and, in a democratical state, is even a part of the sovereignty. To sell one’s freedom is so repugnant to all reason as can scarcely be supposed in any man. If liberty may be rated with respect to the buyer, it is beyond all price to the seller. The civil law, which authorizes a division of goods among men, cannot be thought to rank, among such goods, a part of the men who were to make this division. The same law annuls all iniquitous contracts: surely, then, it affords redress in a contract where the grievance is most enormous.

The third way is birth; which falls with the two former: for, if a man could not sell himself, much less could he sell an unborn infant. If a prisoner of war is not to be reduced to slavery, much less are his children.

The lawfulness of putting a malefactor to death arises from this circumstance; the law, by which he is punished, was made for his security. A murderer, for instance, has enjoyed the benefit of the very law which condemns him; it has been a continual protection to him; he cannot therefore object against it. But it is not so with the slave. The law of slavery can never be beneficial to him: it is in all cases against him, without ever being for his advantage: and therefore this law is contrary to the fundamental principle of all societies.

If it be pretended, that it has been beneficial to him, as his master has provided for his subsistence; slavery, at this rate, should be limited to those who are incapable of earning their livelihood. But who will take up with such slaves? As to infants, nature, who has supplied their mothers with milk, had provided for their sustenance; and the remainder of their childhood approaches so near the age in which they are most capable of being of service, that he who supports them cannot be said to give them an equivalent, which can entitle him to be their master.

Nor is slavery less opposite to the civil law than to that of nature. What civil law can restrain a slave from running away, since he is not a member of society, and consequently has no interest in any civil institutions? He can be retained only by a family law, that is, by the master’s authority.

CHAP. III.: Another Origin of the Right of Slavery.

I would as soon say that the right of slavery proceeds from the contempt of one nation for another, founded on a difference in customs.

Lopez de Gamar relates, “that the Spaniards found, near St. Martha, several baskets full of crabs, snails, grasshoppers, and locusts, which proved to be the ordinary provision of the natives: this the conquerors turned to a heavy charge against the conquered.” The author owns that this, with their smoking and trimming their beards in a different manner, gave rise to the law by which the Americans became slaves to the Spaniards.

Knowledge humanizes mankind, and reason inclines to mildness, but prejudices eradicate every tender disposition.

CHAP. IV.: Another Origin of the Right of Slavery.

I would as soon say that religion gives its professors a right to enslave those who dissent from it, in order to render its propagation more easy.

This was the notion that encouraged the ravagers of America in their iniquity. Under the influence of this idea, they founded their right of enslaving so many nations: for these robbers, who would absolutely be both robbers and Christians, were superlatively devout.

Lewis XIII was extremely uneasy at a law, by which all the Negroes of his colonies were to be made slaves; but, it being strongly urged to him as the readiest means for their conversion, he acquiesced without farther scruple.

CHAP. V.: Of the Slavery of the Negroes.

WERE I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the Negroes, these should be my arguments.

The Europeans, having extirpated the Americans, were obliged to make slaves of the Africans, for clearing such vast tracts of land.

Sugar would be too dear, if the plants which produce it were cultivated by any other than slaves.

These creatures are all over black, and with such a flat nose, that they can scarcely be pitied.

It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body.

It is so natural to look upon colour as the criterion of human nature, that the Asiatics, among whom eunuchs are employed, always deprive the blacks of their resemblance to us by a more opprobrious distinction.

The colour of the skin may be determined by that of the hair, which, among the Egyptians, (the best philosophers in the world,) was of such importance, that they put to death all the red-haired men who fell into their hands.

The Negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite nations so highly value; can there be a greater proof of their wanting common-sense?

It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men; because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow, that we ourselves are not Christians.

Weak minds exaggerate too much the wrong done to the Africans. For, were the case as they state it, would the European powers, who make so many needless conventions among themselves, have failed to enter into a general one, in behalf of humanity and compassion?

CHAP. VI.: The true Origin of the Right of Slavery.

IT is time to enquire into the true origin of the right of slavery. It ought to be founded on the nature of things: let us see if there be any cases where it can be derived from thence.

In all despotic governments, people make no difficulty in selling themselves; the political slavery, in some measure, annihilates the civil liberty.

According to Mr. Perry, the Muscovites sell themselves very readily: their reason for it is evident; their liberty is not worth keeping.

At Achim, every one is for selling himself. Some of the chief lords have not less than a thousand slaves, all principal merchants, who have a great number of slaves themselves, and these also are not without their slaves. Their masters are their heirs, and put them into trade. In those states, the freemen, being overpowered by the government, have no better resource than that of making themselves slaves to the tyrants in office.

This is the true and rational origin of that mild law of slavery which obtains in some countries: and mild it ought to be, as founded on the free choice a man makes of a master, for his own benefit; which forms a mutual convention betwixt the two parties.

CHAP. VII.: Another Origin of the Right of Slavery.

THERE is another origin of the right of slavery, and even of the most cruel slavery which is to be seen among men.

There are countries where the excess of heat enervates the body, and renders men so slothful and dispirited that nothing but the fear of chastisement can oblige them to perform any laborious duty: slavery is there more reconcileable to reason; and the master being as lazy, with respect to his sovereign, as his slave is, with regard to him, this adds a political to a civil slavery.

Aristotle endeavours to prove, that there are natural slaves; but what he says is far from proving it. If there be any such, I believe they are those of whom I have been speaking.

But, as all men are born equal, slavery must be accounted unnatural, though, in some countries, it be founded on natural reason; and a wide difference ought to be made betwixt such countries and those in which even natural reason rejects it, as in Europe, where it has been so happily abolished.

Plutarch, in the life of Numa, says, that, in Saturn’s time, there was neither slave nor master. Christianity has restored that age in our climates.

CHAP. VIII.: Inutility of Slavery among us.

NATURAL slavery, then, is to be limited to some particular parts of the world. In all other countries, even the most servile drudgeries may be performed by freemen.

Experience verifies my assertion. Before Christianity had abolished civil slavery in Europe, working in the mines was judged too toilsome for any but slaves or malefactors; at present, there are men employed in them who are known to live comfortably. The magistrates have, by some small privileges, encouraged this profession; to an increase of labour they have joined an increase of gain; and have gone so far as to make those people better pleased with their condition than with any other which they could have embraced.

No labour is so heavy but it may be brought to a level with the workman’s strength, when regulated by equity and not by avarice. The violent fatigues which slaves are made to undergo, in other parts, may be supplied by a skilful use of ingenious machines. The Turkish mines, in the Bannat of Temeswear, though richer than those of Hungary, did not yield so much, because the working of them depended entirely on the strength of their slaves.

I know not whether this article be dictated by my understanding or by my heart. Possibly there is not that climate upon earth where the most laborious services might not, with proper encouragement, be performed by freemen. Bad laws having made lazy men, they have been reduced to slavery because of their laziness.

Andrew S. Curran, The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 130-37.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Andrew S. Curran, “Introduction: The 1741 Contest on the ‘Degeneration’ of Black Skin and Hair,” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Andrew S. Curran, eds., Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022), 3-43, 19-21.