Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chap. XVIII.... Of ideas of uniformity. - A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's 'Spirit of Laws'
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Chap. XVIII…. Of ideas of uniformity. - Antoine Louis Claude, Comte Destutt de Tracy, A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s ’Spirit of Laws’ 
A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s ’Spirit of Laws’: To which are annexed, Observations on the Thirty First Book by the late M. Condorcet; and Two Letters of Helvetius, on the Merits of the same Work, trans. Thomas Jefferson (Philadelphia: William Duane, 1811).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Chap. XVIII.... Of ideas of uniformity.
We have now arrived at one of the most curious chapters of the work; it is one of those which obtained for Montesquieu the indulgence of all the prejudiced people, of all those who detest light, of all the protectors and participators in abuse: we shall examine it in detail.
1st. Ideas of uniformity and regularity, please all minds, and particularly sound minds.
2d. Can the great mind of Charlemagne be quoted in the eighteenth century, on the discussion of a philosophical question? It is undoubtedly a stroke of ridicule against those who might entertain the idea that Montesquieu was desirous of combating.
3d. We do not understand what is meant by the same weights in policy, the same measures in commerce. Commerce employs both weights and measures; policy meddles with both, but should really do so for no other purpose than to see that they have their proper quantity and value, and to keep them so, and to regulate them by standards established for this end.
4th. Uniformity of weights and measures can only displease those disciples of chicane, who fear to see the number of suits diminished, and those traders who apprehend the decrease of profit, from whatever contributes to render commercial transactions easy and simple. That which has been proposed for this purpose, with the common approbation of all enlightened men, is to determine on a natural, uniform, and unchangeable standard; to employ it in forming measures of length, superfices, capacity, and weight, so that the successive divisions in smaller weights and measures may be expressed by simple and commodious numbers; for these divisions and proportions, afterwards to be established, in a public and legal manner, and those exact means which natural philosophy furnishes; the exact relation of all the measures used in the country with the new ones, and which would forever put an end to law suits.... at least, on subjects depending on measures of every kind. Such new principles of admeasurement, should be exclusively adopted by the government, the assemblies of the state, the communities, &c. Individuals having the liberty of making use of such measures as they may choose. This change, then, would be effected without any restraint or compulsion, and without troubling commerce.... no one has ever proposed another method.
6th. As truth, reason, justice, the rights of man, the interests of property, of liberty, of security, are in all places the same; we cannot discover why all the provinces of a state, or even all states, should not have the same civil and criminal laws, and the same laws relative to commerce. A good law should be good for all men. A true proposition is true every where. Those laws which appear as if it were necessary they should be different in different countries, or exacted on objects which should not be regulated by general laws, consist for the most part of commercial regulations, or are founded on prejudices and habits which should be extinguished, and one of the best means of doing so, is to cease from giving them the countenance of the laws.
7th. Uniformity in laws may be established without trouble, and without producing any evil effects by the change.
This may be admitted for the establishment of a good criminal jurisprudence, but what trouble could a good civil code produce? It would change the order of the distribution of successions, but no succession in expectation is a right of possession, any more than a right to property declared to be bequeathed in a will, can become the property of the legatee, until after the death of the testator. Conventions made before the new law might preserve all their force, unless contrary to natural rights: conventions are of three kinds; their execution is immediate, or a time is fixed, or they are perpetual. In the two first cases, the performance of contracts made before the new law, might be adjudged according to the old jurisprudence without trespassing on the uniformity of laws; in the last case it might be injurious thereto, but the perpetuity of any convention cannot originate from the supposed right of possession, it is altogether founded on the sanction of the law, and consequently the legislator should in the nature of things, possess the right of changing these conventions, by preserving the original and true right of each of the parties or their heirs.
If an uniform and simple jurisprudence were a established, the first consequence would be that the advantage of the knowlege of forms would no longer be confined exclusively to lawyers; that all men, capable of reading, would be equally capable of comprehending, and conversant in the subject; and it is difficult to imagine that this equality should be considered as an evil.
8th. It is not hazarding any thing to assume that the establishment of an uniformity in social institutions, would give to all the inhabitants of a country precise ideas on objects of the first importance.... a more exact acquaintance with their interests.... and would diminish inequality among men in the common conduct of human affairs.
9th. A farmer general also exclaimed in 1775.... Why make changes, are we not very well us we are? Repugnance to change can only be reasonable in these two cases. 1. When the laws of a country approach so near to reason and justice, and the abuses are so trifling, that no sensible advantage could be expected from a change. 2. When it is supposed that there is no certain principle by which we might direct ourselves in security to the establishment of new laws. Now, all the nations that exist, are far from the first point, and we cannot be any longer of the second opinion.
10th. The greatness of genius is one of those vague expressions which strike little minds and impose upon them.... which please corrupt men, and are adopted by them. Some men, because they see nothing, are fond of believing that light does not exist: others, who fear light, labor under perpetual apprehension lest the people should open their eyes.
11th. When citizens follow the laws, of what consequence is it whether they follow the same laws? It is of consequence to follow good laws, and as it is difficult for two different laws to be equally good, just, and useful, it is of some consequence to them to follow that which is best; it is of consequence that they should follow the same laws, because it tends to establish equality among men. What relation has the ceremonial of the Tartars and Chinese with laws? This article appears to indicate that Montesquieu looked upon legislation as a game, in which it is indifferent whether this or that path be followed, so that the established rule whatever it may be, is adhered to. But this is not true, even of gaming, where the rules, though apparently arbitrary, are almost all founded on reasons which the gamesters indistinctly perceive, and which mathematicians, accustomed to the calculation of probabilities, can explain.