BARON DE LA BREDE ET DE (1689-1755), French philosophical historian, was born at the château of La Brede, near Bordeaux, in January 1689. His mother was Marie Francoise de Penel, the heiress of a Gascon-English family. She had brought La Brede as a dowry to his father, Jacques de Secondat, a mem ber of a good if not extremely ancient house, which seems first to have risen to importance in the early days of the 16th century. The title of Montesquieu came from his uncle, Jean Baptiste de Secondat, "president a mortier" in the parliament of Bordeaux— an important office, which, as well as his title, he left to his nephew. Montesquieu was in his youth known as M. de la Brede. His mother died when he was seven years old. The boy was edu cated at the Oratorian school of Juilly, near Meaux, and of ter wards at Bordeaux. His father died in 1713, and a year later Montesquieu was admitted counsellor of the parlement. In 1715 he married Jeanne Lartigue, an heiress, plain, somewhat ill-edu cated, and a Protestant. They appear to have lived on good terms. In 1716 his uncle died, leaving him his name, his im portant judicial office and his whole fortune.
He continued to hold his presidency for twelve years, and he contributed papers on philosophy, politics and natural science to the Bordeaux Academy. During the earlier years of his presi dency he finished the Lettres persanes, printed anonymously at Amsterdam, 1721, though Cologne appears on the title-page. In the guise of letters written by and to two Persians of distinction travelling in Europe, Montesquieu satirized unmercifully the social, political, ecclesiastical and literary follies of his day in France, and indulged in a great deal of the free writing which was characteristic of the tale-tellers of the time. But what scandalized grave and precise readers naturally attracted the majority, and the Lettres persanes were very popular, passing, it is said, through four editions within the year, besides piracies. Then the vogue suddenly ceased, or at least editions ceased for nearly nine years to appear. Possibly a formal ministerial prohibition was the cause of this ; for, though the regent and Guillaume Dubois must have enjoyed the book thoroughly, they were both shrewd enough to perceive that underneath its playful exterior there lay a spirit of very inconvenient criticism of abuses in church and state. The fact is that the Lettres persanes is the first book of what is called the Philosophe movement. It is amusing to find Voltaire describ ing the Lettres as a "trumpery book," a "book which anybody might have written easily." It is not certain that, in its peculiar mixture of light badinage with serious purpose and moderation, Voltaire could have written it himself, and it is certain that no one else at that time could.
Montesquieu composed for, or at any rate contributed to, one of the coteries of the day the clever Dialogue de Sylla et d' Eucrate, in which the dictator gives an apology for his conduct. For Mlle. de Clermont he wrote the curious prose-poem of the Temple de Gnide. A later jeu d'esprit of the same kind, which is almost but not quite certainly Montesquieu's, is the Voyage a Paphos, in which his warmest admirers have found little to praise. In 1725 Montesquieu was elected a member of the Academy, but an almost obsolete rule requiring residence in Paris was appealed to, and the election was annulled. In 1726 Montes quieu sold the life-tenure of his Bordeaux office, reserving the reversion for his son, and went to live in the capital, returning, however, for half of each year to La Bride. Fleury, a precisian in many ways, was shocked by the Lettres Persanes, and his oppo sition had to be overcome before Montesquieu was admitted, in January 1728, to the Academy.
Almost immediately afterwards he started on a tour through Europe to observe men, things and constitutions. He travelled through Austria to Hungary, but was unable to visit Turkey as he had proposed. Then he made for Italy, where he met Chesterfield. At Venice, and elsewhere in Italy, he remained nearly a year, and then journeyed by way of Piedmont and the Rhine to England. Here he stayed for some eighteen months, and acquired an admiration for English character and polity which never afterwards deserted him. He returned, not to Paris, but to La Brede, and to outward appearance might have seemed to be settling down as a squire. He altered his park in the English fashion, made sedulous inquiries into his own genealogy, arranged an entail, asserted, though not harshly, his seignorial rights, kept poachers in awe and so forth. But in his great study at La Brede (a hall rather than a study, some 6o ft. long by 4o wide) he was constantly dictating, making abstracts, revising essays, and in other ways preparing his main book. He may have thought it wise to soften the transition from the Lettres persanes to the Esprit des lois, by interposing a publication graver than the former and less elaborate than the latter. The Considerations sur les causes de la grandeur et de la decadence des Romains appeared in 1734 at Amsterdam, without the author's name. This, however, was per fectly well known; indeed, Montesquieu formally presented a copy to the French Academy.