Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V17, Page 488 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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CHRETIEN GUILLAUME DE LAMOIGNON DE MALESHERBES (1721-1794), commonly known as Lamoignon-Malesherbes, French statesman, minister, and afterwards counsel for the defence of Louis XVI., came of a famous legal family. He was born at Paris on the 6th of December 1721, and was educated for the legal profession. The young lawyer soon proved his intellectual capacity, when he was appointed president of the cour des aides in the parlement of Paris in 1750 on the promotion of his father, Guillaume de Lamoignon, to be chancellor. One of the chancellor's duties was to control the press, and this duty was entrusted to Malesherbes by his father during his eighteen years of office, and brought him into connexion with the public far more than his judicial functions. To carry it out efficiently he kept in communication with the literary leaders of Paris, and especially with Diderot, and Grimm even goes so far as to say that " without the assistance of Malesherbes the Encyclopedia would probably never have been published." In 1771 he was called upon to mix in politics; the parlements of France had been dissolved, and a new method of administering justice devised by Maupeou, which was in itself commendable as tending to the better and quicker administration of justice, but pernicious as exhibiting a tendency to over-centralization, and as abolishing the hereditary " nobility of the robe," which, with ali its faults, had from its nature preserved some independence, and been a check on the royal power. Malesherbes presented a strong remonstrance against the new system, and was at once banished to his country seat at St Lucie, to be recalled, however, with the old parlement on the accession of Louis XVI., and to be made minister of the maison du roi in 1775. He only" held office nine months, during which, however, he directed his attention to the police of the kingdom, which came under his department, and did much to check the odious practice of issuing lettres de cachet. The protest of the cour des aides in 1775 is one of the most important documents of the old regime in France. It gives a complete survey of the corrupt and inefficient administration, and presented the king with most outspoken criticism. On retiring from the ministry with Turgot in 1776, he betook himself entirely to a happy country and domestic life and travelled through Switzerland, Germany and Holland. An essay on Protestant marriages (1787) did much to procure for them the civil recognition in France. He had always been an enthusiastic botanist; his avenue at St Lucie was world famous; he had written against Buffon on behalf of the botanists whom Buffon had attacked, and had been elected a member of the Academic des sciences as far back as 1750. He was now elected a member of the Academia francaise, and everything seemed to promise a quiet and peaceful old age spent in the bosom of his family and occupied with scientific and literary pursuits, when the king in his difficulties wished for the support of his name, and summoned him back to the ministry in 1787. Lamoignon-Malesherbes held office but a short time, but returned to his country life this time with a feeling of insecurity and disquiet, and, as the troubles increased, retired to Switzerland. Nevertheless, in December 1792, in spite of the fair excuse his old age and long retirement would have given him, he voluntarily left his asylum and under-took with Tronchet and Deseze the defence of the king before the Convention, and it was his painful task to break the news of his condemnation to the king. After this effort he returned once more to the country, but in December 1793 he was arrested with his daughter, his son-in-law M. de Rosambo, and his grand-children, and on the 23rd of April 1794 he was guillotined, after having seen all whom he loved in the world executed before his eyes for their relationship to him. Malesherbes is one of the sweetest characters of the 18th century; though no man of action, hardly a man of the world, by his charity and unfeigned goodness he became one of the most popular men in France, and it was an act of truest self-devotion in him to sacrifice himself for a king who had done little or nothing for him. There are in print several scientific works of Malesherbes of varying value, of which the most interesting is his Observations sur Buffon et Daubenton, written when he was very young, and published with a notice by Abeille in 1798. There exist also his Memoire pour Louis XVI., his Memoire sur la liberte de la presse (published 1809) and extracts from his remonstrances, published as fEuvres choisies de Malesherbes in 1809. For his life should be read the Notice historique (3rd ed., 1806) of Dubois, the .loge historique (1805) of Gaillard, and the interesting Essai sur la vie, les ecrits et les opinions de M. de Malesherbes (in 2 vols., 1818), of F. A. de Boissy d'Anglas. There are also many eloges on him in print, of which the best-known is that of M. Dupin, which was delivered at the Academy in 1841, and was reviewed with much light on Malesherbes's control of the press by Sainte-Beuve in the 2nd volume of the Causeries du lundi. The protest of the tour des aides has been published with translation by G. Robinson in the Translations and Reprints of the University o Pennsylvania (1900). For his defence of Louis XVI. see Marquis e Beaucourt, Captivite et derniers moments de Louis XVI. (2 vols., 1892, Soc. d'hist. contemp.), and A. Tuetey, Repertoire general des sources manuscrites de l'hist. de Paris pendant la Rev. fr., vol. viii. (1908).

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