The Public Interest

Race and the Constitution

Diana Schaub

Fall 1990

IN a chapter of The Spirit of the Laws entitled “Of the Slavery of the Negroes,” Montesquieu presents all the standard justifications- economic, political, and religious—for race slavery. He speaks, ostensibly, in his own name, saying: “Were I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the negroes, these should be my arguments.” The conditional form of this opening sentence, however, serves to alert the reader to expect some ironic distance between Montesquieu’s own views and the “arguments” offered. For instance: “The Europeans, having extirpated the Americans, were obliged to make slaves of the Africans, for clearing such vast tracts of land,” or “These people are all over black, and with such a fiat nose that they can scarcely be pitied,” or “It is impossible for us to suppose these people to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.” Rather than sermonize on the injustice of slavery, Montesquieu mouths the self-incriminating arguments of slavery’s proponents. Stripped of all euphemism, these justifications appear for what they are: brutal, prideful, and absurd.

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