Who Was Charles-Louis de Secondat?
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède and de Montesquieu (often known as Montesquieu) was born during the Age of Enlightenment. Through his education and travels, he became a sharp social commentator and political thinker who gained the respect of his fellow philosophers with his masterwork The Spirit of Laws, which went on to have a major influence on English and American government.
Montesquieu was born in the region of Bordeaux, France, on January 18, 1689, to a wealthy family, with maternal connections to the barony. His soldier father also had noble lineage. Even so, Charles-Louis was placed in the care of a poor family during his childhood.
His mother died when he was 7 years old, and at age 11, he was sent to the Oratorian Collège de Juilly near Paris to study literature, the sciences and other precepts of a classical education. He went on to take up law at the University of Bordeaux and began working in Paris after graduation.
But the next four years brought a quick succession of changes: He returned to Bordeaux in 1713 when his father died; in 1714 he became councilor to the Bordeaux parliament; in 1715 he married Jeanne de Lartigue (who came with a large dowry); and in 1716 his uncle died, leaving him lands and titles as the Baron de La Brède and de Montesquieu.
As such, he became deputy president of the Bordeaux Parliament. Now socially and financially secure, he devoted himself to his passions, including Roman law, history, biology, geography and physics.
Fame as Political Thinker
In 1721, Montesquieu gained fame with the publication of the Persian Letters, a politically biting satire of religions, monarchies and the rich French under the guise of an epistolary novel, although he disdained calling it that. He moved to Paris, traveled extensively, and continued to publish, switching to political treatises such as a consideration of the fall of Rome.
His masterwork, The Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, had enormous influence on how governments should work, eschewing classical definitions of government for new delineations. He also established the idea of a separation of powers — legislative, executive and judicial — to more effectively propagate liberty. Although the Catholic Church put Spirit on its list of banned books, the work influenced France's Declaration of the Rights of Man (Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen) and the U.S. Constitution. Montesquieu later published his Défense de L’Esprit des Lois in 1750.
Death and Legacy
Montesquieu died of a fever in Paris on February 10, 1755. Although he had fathered two daughters and a son with his wife, he had been devoted to his work. He was regarded as genial and generous, and had a wide and international circle of admirers, from Scottish philosopher David Hume to Hegel to future American president James Madison.
But Montesquieu's democratic outlook was still in part a reflection of his time. He believed women were supposedly unfit as heads of the home while fit to govern as written in The Spirit of Laws: "It is against reason and against nature for women to be mistresses in the house...but not for them to govern an empire. In the first case, their weak state does not permit them to be preeminent; in the second, their very weakness gives them more gentleness and moderation, which, rather than the harsh and ferocious virtues, can make for a good environment." Ironically, he had left his wife in charge of their household during his travels.
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