Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

15. The Political Thought of Lamoignon de Malesherbes

Malesherbes may be claimed as a serious political thinker despite his scattered and topical form of presentation, for he was a great touchstone of the monarchy's inability to reform itself. He is obviously, in the main, an exemplar of the "constitutionalist" tradition of French thought, but he is not merely a stodgy descendant of old formulas. Because of special developments in France -- notably the heritage of sacral kingship and the thirst for a strong center of political order after the Wars of Religion -- an unalloyed reverence for monarchy infected even the constitutionalist tradition and indeed helped shape it.1 However, Malesherbes also shared, with the fugitive or disinherited Protestants whose cause became so closely his own, a skeptical view of royal power; thus he became an eloquent proponent of civil toleration within a progressively stagnant and unjust political order. The character of his doctrine, though never fickle, may be called Janus-faced. On the one hand, history and tradition meant much to him, and logical abstractions had little appeal. On the other, he saw benefits in novelty and had no wish to take the world backward in time, like many advocates of the thèse nobiliaire. He is presumed to have written: "There is a great advantage when what appears to conform to reason and justice is supported by the authority of past centuries."2 But also, in a speech to the Cour des Aides of 1751, he proposed to fix the limits between respectable tradition and the prejudices that must be destroyed.3 He could face the future because he felt an anchorage in the past: in this he was more consistent and complacent than Montesquieu, who is in many ways his kindred spirit. He had affinities not only with Montesquieu, but with Rousseau and Turgot. His distances from them are also worth recording.

Montesquieu and Malesherbes shared a horror of despotism and a willingness to suggest that France might not be exempt from its ravages. Although the tone and message of both writers are quite similar -- and indeed it is certain that Malesherbes's conception derives from Montesquieu

The original version of this chapter appeared under the title, The Political Thought of Lamoignon de Malesherbes by George Armstrong Kelly, was published in Political Theory, vol. 7, no. 4 (Fall 1979), pp. 485-508, and is reprinted herewith by permission of the publisher, Sage Publications, Inc.

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