Malesherbes, Christian-William De Lamoignon

, born at Paris, Dec. 16, 1721, was son of the chancellor of France, William de Lamoignon, a descendant of an illustrious family. He received his early education at the Jesuits’ college, and having studied law and political oeconomy, he was appointed a counsellor in the parliament of Paris, and in December 1750 he succeeded his father as president, of the “court of aids,” the duties of which were to regulate the public taxes. The superintendance of the press had been conferred upon Malesherbes by his father, at the same time that he received the presidentship of the court of aids; and this function he exercised with unusual lenity, promoting rather than checking those writings to which the subsequent miseries of his country have been attributed. His biographer classes it among his great merits that “to his care and benevolent exertions France is indebted for the Encyclopaedia, the works of Rousseau, and many other productions, which he sheltered from proscription;” and both Voltaire and D’Alembert acknowledged the obligation, and seem in their letters to hint that his partiality was entirely on their side. In this view of the subject, Malesherbes must be considered as in some degree instrumental in preparing the way for that revolution which has been the pregnant source of so many calamities.

In 1771, when the government had dissolved the whole legal constitution, and banished the parliaments, Malesherbes was banished to his country-seat by a “lettre de cachet,” and the duke de Richelieu, at the head of an armed force, abolished the court of aids. During his retirement, Malesherbes’s time was occupied with his family | and his books, and the cultivation of his grounds. His expenditure in public objects was large: he drained marshes, cut canals, constructed roads, built bridges, planted walks, and carried his attention to the comfort of the lower classes so far as to raise sheds on the sides of the river for the shelter of the women at their domestic labours. He was thus benevolently and usefully employed when the accession of Lewis XVI. recalled him to a public station, and in 1774 Malesherbes received an order to resume the presidentship of the court of aids, on which occasion he pronounced a very affecting and patriotic harangue, and afterwards addressed the king in an eloquent speech of thanks. His majesty was so well pleased with him, and with the freedom of his sentiments, that he appointed him minister of state in June 1775, an office which gave Malesherbes an opportunity of extending his sphere of usefulness. One of his first concerns was to visit the prisons, and restore to liberty the innocent victims of former tyranny, and his praises were carried throughout France by persons of all descriptions returning to the bosoms of their families from the gloom of dungeons. Although he failed in his attempt to abolish the arbitrary power of issuing lettres de cachet, he procured the appointment of a commission, composed of upright and enlightened magistrates, to which every application for such letters should be submitted, and whose unanimous decision should be requisite for their validity. Malesherbes was also a great encourager of commerce and agriculture, in which he bad the cordial co-operation of the illustrious Turgot, at that period the comptroller of the revenue; but, owing to the rejection of some important measures which his zeal for the public good led him to propose, Malesberbes resigned in the month of May 1776. To obtain an accurate view of the manners and policy of other countries and foreign states, he set out on his travels, and visited Switzerland and Holland, and in the course of his journey he noted down every occurrence worthy of observation, and that might, hereafter, possibly be useful to himself, and promote the melioration of his country. On his return, at the end of a few years, he found his native country so much advanced in what he thought philosophical principles, that he was encouraged to present to the king two elaborate memoirs, one on the condition of the protestants, the other in favour of the principles of civil liberty, an4 | toleration in general. Difficulties, however, were now accumulating in the management of the government, and the king, in 1786, called Malesherbes to his councils, but without appointing him to any particular post in the administration. He soon found it impossible to act with the men already possessed of the powers of government, and expressed his opinion in two energetic memoirs “On the Calamities of France, and the means of repairing them;” but it does not appear that these ever reached his majesty, nor could Malesherbes obtain a private interview; he therefore took his final leave of the court, and retreated to his country residence, determined to consult the best means of serving his country by agricultural pursuits, in 1790 he published “An Essay on the means of accelerating the progress of Rural Economy in France,” in which he proposed an establishment to facilitate the national improvement in this important point. In this tranquil state he was passing the evening of his days when the horrors of the revolution brought him again to Paris. During the whole of its progress, he had his eyes constantly fixed on his unhappy sovereign; and, subduing his natural fondness for retirement, went regularly to court every Sunday, to give him proofs of his respect and attachment. He imposed it as a duty on himself to give the ministers regular information of the designs of the regicide faction; and when it was determined to bring the king to trial, he voluntarily offered to be the defender of his master, in his memorable letter of Dec. 11, 1792, that eternal monument of his loyalty and affection. Three counsel had already been appointed, but one having from prudential motives, declined the office, the king, who wept at this proof of attachment from his old servant, immediately nominated Malesherbes in his stead. Their interview was extremely affecting, and his majesty, during the short interval before his death, shewed every mark of affection for, and confidence in, his generous advocate. Malesherbes was the person who announced to him his cruel doom, and was one of the last who took leave of him previously to his execution. After that catastrophe he again withdrew to his retreat, and with a deeply-wounded heart, refused to hear any thing of what was acting among the blood-thirsty Parisians. As he was one morning working in his garden, he observed four savage-looking wretches directing their course to his house, and hastening home, | he found them to be officers from the revolutionary tribunal come to arrest his daughter and her husband, who had formerly been president of the parliament of Paris. The separation of these persons from his family was deeply afflicting to his heart, and it is probable that his own arrest shortly after was a relief to his feelings. He had long been esteemed as father of the village in which he lived, and the rustic inhabitants crowded round to take leave of their ancient benefactor with tears and benedictions. Four of the municipality accompanied him to Paris, that he might not be escorted by soldiers like a criminal. He was shut tip in prison with his unfortunate family and in a lew days the guillotine separated his son-in-law Lepelletier from his wife and the accusation of Malesherbes with his daughter and grand-daughter, “for a conspiracy against the liberties of the people,” was followed, as a matter of course, by a sentence of death. The real crime, as it was basely denominated, of this excellent man and worthy patriot, and which the convention never pardoned, was his defence of the king, an act in which he gloried to the latest hour of his existence. He probably thought it an honour to die by the same ruffian hands that had spilt the blood of his master. The condemnation of the females almost overcame the manly fortitude which he displayed in every personal suffering; his courage, however, returned at the prison, and they prepared for the death which was the last and only important event that they had to encounter. His daughter had exhibited the noble spirit with which she was inspired, for upon taking leave of mademoiselle Sombreuil, who had saved her father’s life on the second of September, she said to her, “You have had the happiness to preserve your father, I shall have the consolation of dying with mine” On the fatal day Malesherbes left the prison with a serene countenance, and happening to stumble against a stone, he said with much pleasantry, “a Roman would have thought this an unlucky omen, and walked back again.” Thus perished the venerable Malesherbes in April 1794, when he had attained to the age of seventy-two years four months and fifteen days. His character may be in part deduced from the preceding narrative, but is more fully displayed in his life translated by Mr. Mangin. The subsequent government has since made some reparation for the injustice done him, by ordering his bust to be placed | among those of the great men who have reflected honour upon their country. 1


Life translated by Mr. Mangin. Gleig’s Supplement to the Encyclop. Brit. —Rees’s Cyclopædia.