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

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

16. Vanished Supremacies

The peacefulness of his estate and the occasional company of the gens de lettres would have been the desired fulfillment of Malesherbes's old age. Yet he reluctantly took his place in the Royal Council in the spring of 1787, urged by his cousin Lamoignon and largely motivated by the wish to secure the edict of civil and religious toleration for the Protestants. He would depart on 25 August 1788. In the meantime, the storm clouds of revolution gathered with astonishing speed, the city of Paris endured constant agitation, and the révolte nobiliaire spent itself in the far greater tempest of political change that would produce the National Assembly.

After his vain effort to enlighten the monarch, Malesherbes took leave from the affairs of state. The great opening moments of the Revolution found him a spectator, rusticating on his lands. To be sure, he kept in contact with events through his wide circle of friendships -- Rabaut SaintEtienne, Lafayette, Boissy d'Anglas, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, and others. And he was not one to underestimate the epochal quality of the times: he knew that the French crisis was unique in his country's history.1 For a brief time, he was hopeful that this unparalleled surge of political energy would root out abuses and restore stability.2 Soon he became greatly worried. He could not have been reassured by the journées of October 1789, when the crowds included in their chants: "A bas les Parlements!"3 He had a certain disdain for the pretensions of the deputies: early sources record him telling his intimates: "Ils nous perdront, ces petits messieurs...."4

From long years of experience Malesherbes was a connoisseur of the deficiencies of the sovereign courts, but he regarded them as a fundamental part of the realm. Moreover, his son-in-law Louis de Rosanbo was Président of the Chambre des Vacations of the Parlement of Paris. However, the abolition of the parlements was much on the mind of the advanced leadership of the Tiers, many of whom had pleaded as lawyers before these courts. In the vision of the Progressives of the robe (some of them nobles, like Hérault de Séchelles, Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, and Adrien Duport), the sovereign courts were a part of that féodalité condemned by the national revolution. The courts were offensive to their doctrines of natural right: the unpopular registration of the edict summoning the Estates-General "in the forms of 1614" by the Parlement of Paris on 25 September 1788 had claimed antecedent and particular rights

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