Front Page Titles (by Subject) Letter I.: Letter of Helvetius to President Montesquieu - A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's 'Spirit of Laws'
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Letter I.: Letter of Helvetius to President Montesquieu - 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).
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Letter of Helvetius to President Montesquieu
I have perused, even to the third time, my dear president, the manuscript which you communicated to me. You greatly interested me in this work, whilst I was at Brede. I know nothing that resembles it: indeed I know not whether our French heads are steady enough to enable us to discern all its great beauties. For my own part, I am enraptured with them : I admire the vast genius which created them, and the depth of research which you must have accomplished, in order to collect so much knowledge from the rubbish of those barbarian laws, from which I had believed so little could be derived for the instruction or benefit of mankind. I behold you, like the hero of Milton, after having traversed the immensity of chaos, rising illustrious out of darkness. Thanks to you, we shall now be correctly informed of the spirit of laws of the Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Visigoths; we shall now know through what intricate labyrinths human genius is compelled to pass, in order to relieve those unfortunate people who are oppressed by tyrants and religious oppressors. You bid us behold the world, how it has been governed, and how it is still ruled: but you too often give the world credit for reason and wisdom, which are in fact your own, and of which it will be much surprised at receiving the honors.
You compromise with prejudice, as a young man entering the world, does with certain females, who, although advanced in years, have still some pretensions, and by whom he wishes to be considered polite and well bred. But have you not flattered them too much? Such a course may propitiate the priests; and in dividing the spoil with those Cerberus's of the church, you silence them with respect to your religion:.... as to the rest, they will not be able to comprehend you. Our lawyers are not able either to read or understand you. As to the aristocrats, and our petty despots of all grades, if they understand you, they cannot praise you too much, and this is the fault I have ever found with the principles of your work. You may recollect, that in our discussions at Brede, I admitted that they might apply to the actual state of things; but I concluded that a writer, anxious to serve mankind, ought rather to lay down just maxims for an improved order of things yet to arise, than to give force or consequence to those which are dangerous, at the moment when prejudice is striving to preserve and perpetuate human ignorance and subjection. To employ philosophy in giving them consequence, is to give human genius a retrograde motion, and to perpetuate those abuses which interest and bad faith, are but too apt to uphold. The idea of perfectibility amuses our contemporaries, offends hypocrites, and men in power; but it instructs our rising generation, and is a light to posterity. If our offspring shall possess common sense, I doubt whether they will accommodate themselves to our principles of government, or adopt in their constitutions, which without doubt will be better than ours, your complicated balances and intermediary powers. Even kings themselves, if they understand their true interests (and why do they not consider them?) would, by dispensing with those pernicious powers, more securely establish their own happiness and the welfare of their subjects.
Instead of this, in Europe, which is now the least oppressed of the four quarters of the globe, where is there a prince, who, when all the streams of public revenue have passed through the hundred thousand channels of feudality, employs them to public advantage? One part of the nation enriches itself by the miseries of the other: the nobility, an insolent cabal: and the monarch, whom it flatters, is himself oppressed without being aware of it. History, well attended to, is a perpetual lesson. A king creates intermediate orders; they soon, become his masters, and the tyrants of the people. How are they to maintain their despotism? They must cherish anarchy for their own sakes; they are jealous of nothing but their privileges, which are at variance with the natural rights of those whom they oppress.
I have told you, and I repeat it, my dear friend, that your combinations of balanced powers only tend to separate and complicate individual interests, rather than to unite them. The example of the English government has seduced you: I am far from thinking that constitution perfect: I shall have much to say to you upon that subject. Let us wait, as Locke said to king William, until some great calamities which must originate in the vices of that constitution, shall have made us acquainted with its danger; until that corruption, already become indispensible, to overcome the force of apathy in their upper chamber, shall be established by the ministers in the commons, and until they shall no longer blush at it: then shall we see the danger of an equilibrium, which must be perpetually broken in order to accelerate or retard the movements of so complicated a machine. In effect, do we not see in our own day, that taxes are necessary to corrupt the very parliament, which gives the king the right to levy imposts upon the people?
The very liberty which the English nation enjoys, does it indeed result from the principles of that constitution, rather than from their good laws, which have no dependance upon it; which the French may have, and which alone, perhaps, would render their government supportable. As yet, we have no pretensions to it. Our priests are too fanatical, and our nobles too ignorant, to become citizens, or to perceive the advantages of becoming and forming a nation. Every one of them knows he is a slave, and lives with the hope of one day or another becoming a petty despot in his turn.
A king is also the mere slave of his mistresses, of his favorites, and his ministers. If he gets in a passion, the kicks which his minions receive, place him on a footing with the lowest blackguard: this, I think, is the only use for intermediaries in a government. In a state, ruled by the fantasies of a monarchy, the intermediaries who surround him, are alternately engaged in deceiving him, and in preventing the complaints of the people against the abuses by which they profit from reaching his ears. Is it the people who complain, that are dangerous? No: but those who are not heard: in such circumstances, the only persons to be dreaded in a nation, are those who hinder others from being heard. When the sovereign, notwithstanding the flatteries of the intermediaries, is forced to have the clamors of the people borne even to himself, the evil is at its height.... if a remedy is not then prompt, the ruin of the empire is at hand; the people may learn, too late, that the chief was imposed upon by his favorites.
You perceive, that by intermediaries, I mean the members of that vast aristocracy of nobles and priests, whose chief resides at Versailles, which usurps almost all the functions of power, and multiplies them at will, by the mere authority of birth.... without right, without talents, without merit; and which keeps even the sovereign in dependence, in order that the ministry may be changed as it shall suit their interests.
I will close, my dear friend, by acknowleging to you, that I have never well understood the subtle distinctions, so incessantly repeated, respecting the various forms of government. I know but two descriptions.... the good and the bad. The good, which is yet to be formed; the bad, the great secret of which is, to draw by a variety of means, the money of the governed into the pockets of the governors. That which the ancient governments acquired by war, our moderns obtain more certainly by financiering: it is only the difference in the means which makes any variety. I believe, notwithstanding, in the possibility of a good government, where the liberty and property of the people being respected, one may see the general good necessarily resulting, without your balances or particular interests. Such would be a simple machine, the springs of which, being easily regulated, would render unnecessary the complicated appendages of wheels and balances, so difficult to be kept in order by those unskilful people who usually meddle with the affairs of government. These people wish to do every thing, and they act upon us as upon an inanimate mass, which they fashion to their fancy, without consulting either our desires or our true interests; a course of conduct, which betrays at once their impertinence and their ignorance: and yet, after all this, they seem surprised, that the excess of their abuses should provoke a desire for reform, and attribute to every thing rather than their own mismanagement, the sudden impulse given to affairs by the diffusion of knowlege and the exercise of public opinion........ I dare to predict, that we approach such an epoch. I am, &c.