© 2013 Miro Roman

The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu, 1750



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.

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.

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, grashoppers, 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.

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.

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?

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