Confronting the Parlement
of Paris, 1718
The menacing appearance of d’Argenson, the new keeper of the seals and president of the Council of Finances, so frightened contemporaries that they called him Rhadamanthus, a judge of the underworld in Greek mythology known for his stern sense of justice. But d’Argenson’s efficiency as chief of police for Paris, his talent for making rapid decisions and his ability, even at the age of sixty-five, to work through the day and into the night, or vice versa, also won their respect. Experienced in government and an early supporter of John Law, he seemed fully capable of overcoming the Parlement of Paris, as though born for the moment. He had clashed with the tribunal over jurisdiction and assembled embarrassing personal files on some of its magistrates, as they had reason to know. In 1716 the Parlement, seeking its revenge, attempted to try him for embezzlement and fraud, a fate from which the regent providentially rescued him; but the experience naturally made him more hostile than ever towards the judges.
In the summer of 1718, d’Argenson assumed the key role in the regency’s decisive confrontation with the Parlement and worked hard to achieve the final victory. Perhaps most important, he defined the central issue of the dispute as the question of legislative sovereignty, adding to it an important ideological dimension. His son René-Louis, who watched d’Argenson at work, likened him to Richelieu, although he might have adopted Pussort and Colbert as the better comparison.1
The magistrates took d’Argenson’s new appointment as an affront and did not even consider registering the letters patent appointing him keeper of the seals, an unfavourable augury for their relationship. When, on 21 February 1718, d’Argenson responded formally to the Parlement’s recent remonstrance, he added to its discontent. It was not that their old enemy, on his first encounter with the tribunal, displayed Rhadamanthine severity. On the contrary, as he stood in the Tuileries palace before a deputation from the Parlement and in view of the royal court, anxiety and clumsiness overcame him. He fumbled with his notes, dropped them twice and stammered as he read aloud. Bring the keeper of the seals a bit of candle, someone quipped from the rear; he cannot see what