Malesherbes, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de

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Malesherbes, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de (1721-1794): French Jurist.

Malesherbes was born in Paris into the upper ranks of judicial aristocracy. At a young age, he was appointed counselor at the Paris Parlement, president of the Paris tax court, and director of the national book trade. As such he befriended contributors to the Encyclopédie and tried to shield them from Jesuit attacks. When the Encyclopédie was condemned (1752) he saved it by forewarning both the publisher and the editor, Diderot, Denis, of impending confiscation of books and papers. This same farsighted and principled outlook guided his approach to judicial and governmental affairs. As a member of the Paris Parlement he defended this ancient body’s right to register royal edicts. When Louis XV abolished Parlements, he resigned(1771). After the restoration of Parlements (1775) he resumed official duties, supported reforms which the new king’s minister, Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, attempted, and continued to work for reforms in prisons and in the arbitrary system of lettres de cachet. On Turgot’s fall from power (1776) Malesherbes realized reforms were unlikely and resigned again.

He remained influential and continued to promote tolerance. He was instrumental in obtaining the abolition ( 1784) of the special poll tax imposed on Jews, and in having the king grant Protestants civil rights (1787).

He briefly held office again in 1787-88, before retiring for a third time. However, loyalty to his heritage made him re-emerge from retirement (1792) and volunteer to join the legal team which attempted to save Louis XVI’s life. As a result, he was condemned to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined with his family.

Further Reading:

John M. Allison, Lamoignon de Malesherbes, 1938

Christian Bazin, Malesherbes: la sagesse des Lumières, 1995


Natalie Sandomirsky

Southern Connecticut State University

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