Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes

Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes

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Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes (6 December 1721 – 23 April 1794), often referred to as Malesherbes or Lamoignon-Malesherbes, was a French statesman, minister, and afterwards counsel for the defence of Louis XVI
Louis XVI of France
Louis XVI was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre until 1791, and then as King of the French from 1791 to 1792, before being executed in 1793....

.

Biography


Born at Paris from a famous legal family, he 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
Parlement
Parlements were regional legislative bodies in Ancien Régime France.The political institutions of the Parlement in Ancien Régime France developed out of the previous council of the king, the Conseil du roi or curia regis, and consequently had ancient and customary rights of consultation and...

of Paris in 1750 on the promotion of his father, Guillaume de Lamoignon de Blancmesnil
Guillaume de Lamoignon de Blancmesnil
Guillaume II de Lamoignon, seigneur de Blancmesnil et de Malesherbes was a French magistrate.-Biography:The second son of the président Chrétien François de Lamoignon, he was named general avocat for the Parlement of Paris on 2 July 1707 and then became président à mortier to the same parlement on...

, 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 connection 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
Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent person during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie....

, and Friedrich Melchior, baron von Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, baron von Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm was a German-born French author.-Early years:Grimm was born at Regensburg, the son of a pastor...

 even goes so far as to say that "without the assistance of Malesherbes the Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

would probably never have been published".

In 1771 he was called to become involved in 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 all 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 Malesherbes, to be recalled, however, with the old parlement on the accession of Louis XVI
Louis XVI of France
Louis XVI was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre until 1791, and then as King of the French from 1791 to 1792, before being executed in 1793....

, and to be made minister of the maison du roi
Secretary of State of the Maison du Roi
The Secretary of State of the Maison du Roi was the secretary of state in France during the "Ancien Régime" and Bourbon Restoration in charge of the Département de la Maison du Roi...

 in 1775.

He held office only 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 (Les Remontrances) is one of the most important documents of ancien régime 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 the Netherlands. 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 Malesherbes was world famous; he had written against Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopedic author.His works influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Georges Cuvier...

 on behalf of the botanists whom Buffon had attacked, and had been elected a member of the Académie des sciences as far back as 1750. He was now elected a member of the Académie française
Académie française
L'Académie française , also called the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution,...

, 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.

On 17 April, the King
Louis XVI of France
Louis XVI was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre until 1791, and then as King of the French from 1791 to 1792, before being executed in 1793....

 read a speech, written by Lamoignon's cousin Chrétien François de Lamoignon, that spoke of judicial reforms of 'breathtaking sweep and boldness'. The main aim of the reforms was to undermine the power of the Parlement
Parlement
Parlements were regional legislative bodies in Ancien Régime France.The political institutions of the Parlement in Ancien Régime France developed out of the previous council of the king, the Conseil du roi or curia regis, and consequently had ancient and customary rights of consultation and...

 in favour of government-controlled grands bailliages and create an 'enlightened justice'. But, in fact, the people of France reacted angrily - considering Lamoignon's policies an extension of governmental despotism - causing many of the provincial intendants to flee:


In the Breton city of Rennes, the intendant, Bertrand de Moleville, barely escaped being stoned. In early June, when the Parlementaires were required to leave by lettres de cachet, it was the intendant, not the magistrates, who beat a hasty retreat. It took an investment of some eight thousand troops in the city before the situation was calmed in July.


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 Malesherbes.

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 undertook, with François Tronchet and Raymond Desèze
Raymond Desèze
Raymond Romain, Comte de Sèze or Desèze was a French advocate. Together with François Tronchet and Malesherbes, he defended Louis XVI, when the king was brought before the Convention for trial.-Biography:...

, the defence of the king before the Convention
National Convention
During the French Revolution, the National Convention or Convention, in France, comprised the constitutional and legislative assembly which sat from 20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795 . It held executive power in France during the first years of the French First Republic...

, 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 Rosanbo, and his grandchildren, imprisoned in the Prison Port-Libre, and on the 23 April 1794 he was guillotine
Guillotine
The guillotine is a device used for carrying out :executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which an angled blade is suspended. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the head from the body...

d, after having seen all whom he loved in the world executed before his eyes for their relationship to him.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica writes of him
He was the great-grandfather of Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was a French political thinker and historian best known for his Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution . In both of these works, he explored the effects of the rising equality of social conditions on the individual and the state in...

.