Modern history



April–July 1794


It was not himself Malesherbes was anxious for, but his family. At a dangerous moment during the King’s trial, one of the deputies of the Convention had asked, “And what makes you so bold?” to which he had retorted, “Contempt for life.” It was true. The Terror had no power to frighten an old man of seventy-two. Since the committees seemed bent on rewriting French history by exterminating those who had helped shape it, he supposed that sooner or later his turn would come. After all, the mere fact of his survival into old age was a piece of effrontery, since he carried with him the possibility of transmitting a history of the reform that had begun before the Revolution. That he was still popularly known as “the Virtuous Malesherbes” made things even worse. It meant that the Terror would see him as a challenge to the axiom that anyone whose career stretched back two reigns must necessarily be imprinted with the corruption and tyranny associated with the “Capets.”

In any event, there was nothing to be done but wait and see how events unfolded. After the execution of the King, he had returned to the château at Malesherbes, near Pithiviers in the Department of the Loiret, and gathered his family around him as if they might draw strength and reassurance from their union. His younger daughter, Françoise-Pauline, living in London with her husband Montboissier and writing frightened, concerned letters, was the only missing loved one. They were especially poignant since she was an émigré twice over, having left for Switzerland in 1789, returned to France in the spring of 1792 and then, following the September massacres, having decided to go to England in the great wave of departures of October. Malesherbes disapproved of emigration in principle but, feeling sure her life would be in danger, urged her to go. Now his feelings were torn once more. The virtual certainty that he would never see her again was made bearable only by the relief that at least one branch of the family was out of harm’s way.

His older daughter, Marguerite, had brought all of her children to the château. Now thirty-eight, she was married to a ci-devant president of the Parlement of Paris, Lepeletier de Rosanbo. This in itself made him a marked man, and his remote kinship to the Lepeletier who was now hallowed as the first martyr of the Republic was unlikely to count in his favor. Two of their three daughters, moreover, had married into the same kind of distinguished clans of the legal nobility: Aline-Thérèse to the older Chateaubriand boy, Jean-Baptiste, and Guillemette to a Lepeletier d’Aulnay. There was a last wedding at Malesherbes on March 12, 1793, when the youngest of the girls, Louise, was married to Hervé Clérel de Tocqueville, from an old Norman military family.

In early September, Malesherbes volunteered to defend Marie-Antoinette, as he had the King. The offer was declined, but the fact that it was made at all suggests how unconcerned he was for his own safety. In fact, it was Rosanbo who was in most danger. In 1790 he had served as the president of the Chambre des Vacations of the Parlement of Paris, which continued its judicial functions when the full court was suspended. In that capacity, and like his counterparts in many of the other sovereign courts, he had written a formal protest against the Constituent’s decree abolishing the Parlements. This left him vulnerable to the usual charge of “conspiring against the liberty and sovereignty of the French people.” And on December 16, 1793, a family dinner was interrupted by a group of National Guards bearing a warrant from the revolutionary committee of the section de Bondy, where Rosanbo’s town house was located. A search had been made which turned up a copy of the incriminating document. The following morning, the library was ransacked in front of Rosanbo and Marguerite, and the many letters written to her from her sister in London were found.

The next day the husband was taken away to Paris and held in the new prison of Port-Libre. On the nineteenth the family tried to decide what to do for the best. Guillemette’s husband had already departed (and would be arrested in the Nièvre in May). It was Aline’s husband, Chateaubriand, who seemed to be in most peril, as he was a returned émigré. Malesherbes advised him to flee, but after hiding himself for a short time in a local farm, he decided he could not leave his wife and two small children, just five and three, and returned to the château to be with them. Though a search through Malesherbes’ own papers had turned up nothing incriminating, it is clear that the decision had already been taken to add his name and those of his children to the original decree of Rosanbo’s arrest. Bagging entire ancien régime families was coming to be a matter of honor for the revolutionary committees and tribunals, as if the future of the Republic depended on extirpating any capacity the old ruling class had of reproducing itself. When, for example, Loménie de Brienne had been arrested, four other de Briennes of various generations had been taken with him and were duly executed; the same would be true for the du Plessis and indeed those of the Gouvernet de La Tour du Pin who could be found. On December 20, two carriages with an armed escort came to take the Malesherbes-Rosanbo family to Paris.

Once in the capital they were sent to different prisons: Mme de Rosanbo to the Couvent des Anglaises; her two sons-in-law, de Tocque-ville and Chateaubriand, to La Force; Malesherbes and his sixteen-year-old grandson Louis to the Madelonettes; and the three girls to another convent, not yet converted into a prison, in the Marais. After a few days, the Committee of General Security responded favorably to the sons-in-law’s request that the family be reunited, and they were brought together in Port-Libre.

For prisoners of the Terror, there were far worse places to be. Though the Jansenists had been famous for their austerity, there was at least light and air in quantities that seemed luxurious to anyone coming from Sainte-Pélagie or La Force. Conspicuous among the six hundred inmates were groups of ancien régime officials and financiers, scooped up in batches by the revolutionary committees and kept together as if they were exhibits in a short-term museum of the corporate society. Immured in Port-Libre then were twenty-seven Farmers-General, including Lavoisier, another large group of Receivers-General, former ministers and intendants – among them Saint-Priest – and several Parlementaires who, in common with Rosanbo, were soon transferred to the Madelonettes to await trial. With so many luminaries of the old world of Paris culture gathered together, it was inevitable that they should fashion a kind of prison salon; in the evenings, they listened to Vigée (the painter’s brother) recite his latest poems or to such actors as Fleury and Devienne declaim lines they knew by heart, or heard Witterbach’s viola d’amore drift sad, deep tones through the vaulted cells.

In this kind of company a strong sense of honor was bound to prevail. They were horrified to learn that it was an elegant young man, apparently of a good family named Duviviers, who had stolen a watch from Mme Debar. He had smuggled it out in a pile of dirty laundry carried by his mistress, an actress at the Opéra with orders to sell it for as much as she could get. But a prospective buyer would only part with five hundred livres on receipt of a written declaration of ownership. The girl then admitted that the piece was not hers and wrote a letter to her boyfriend complaining about the difficulty of the assignment. It was intercepted by one of the jailors and the thief confessed to the crime. Before his transfer to a different and less comfortable prison, he was ostracized by the rest of the prisoners as though he were a source of infection.

In March, they were joined by a number of those who had been their most relentless persecutors: the Hébertistes. Few of the ci-devants bothered to hide their pleasure at seeing their archenemies brought low and especially enjoyed Hébert’s obvious terror at his impending fate. The wife of the printer Momoro, who was said to have played “Reason” in the dechristianizing fête in Notre Dame, was given a particularly hard time. Another officer from the Parisian armée révolutionnaire, Bertaux the engraver, though sporting the obligatory moustaches and looking fierce, was despised for “crying like a baby.” (In fact, he seems to have been imprisoned for a lack of militancy, and a record of supporting Lafayette.) His commander Ronsin, on the other hand, got high marks for affecting at least the appearance of insouciance in the best aristocratic manner.

Universally treated with respect and deference, Malesherbes liked holding forth occasionally on his own political history and that of the monarchy. To Hué, the ex-valet of the Dauphin, he confessed that he had learned that “to make good ministers, knowledge and probity are not enough. Turgot and I were proof of that; all our science was in books and we had no understanding of men.” He constantly reverted, though, to the pathetic tragedy of the King himself and his trial: a man bewildered by the position he found himself in and who, in Malesherbes’ view, paid with his own blood for being unwilling to shed that of others.

On the eighteenth of April there was suddenly an acceleration of their case. Rosanbo was taken to the Conciergerie to await his trial, and while he was there, Malesherbes decided to try reasoned argument one last time. He dictated a memorandum about his son-in-law for Fouquier-Tinville, and appended a letter imploring him to read it, so that the case would have proper consideration. With considerable cunning Malesherbes actually invoked Saint-Just to the effect that, as he had said in the proceedings against Danton, there had been in 1790 an Orléanist conspiracy against the constitutional monarchy. By supporting the throne so vigorously, he said, Rosanbo was actually being a good patriot. Moreover, in those days it was customary for such petitions and protests to be drafted without any sense of conspiracy. He concluded by depicting Rosanbo (much as he himself had been certified by his local municipality at Malesherbes) as a true and virtuous citizen avant la lettre.

No one, according to all those who have known him, could have been more scrupulous or more disinterested in the administration of justice; more solicitous in his manners or more of an honnête homme in his proceedings. From well before the revolution he already practised those private virtues, the love of humanity, the regard for his fellow-men, that rare and precious fraternity with his co-citizens which is one of the greatest benefits of our regeneration.

A copy of the memorandum (which, needless to say, cut no ice at all with the prosecutor) was sent to Rosanbo. To it were attached a few lines from his sixteen-year-old son, who after a brave beginning had started to weep a lot at night, and a last letter from his wife. It was typical of such parting messages, colored by all the domestic tenderness which, according to the official Jacobin canon, aristocrats were incapable of feeling.

You know that to live beside you, to care for your health and to surround ourselves with our children and to care for the old age of my father has always been my only preoccupation… we will soon be together, oui mon bon ami, I hope so. Adieu good and tender friend, think of a being who lives only for you and who loves you with all her heart. My father, aunt and children who are here about me share these sentiments…

On the first of Floréal, the day of the oak, according to Fabre’s new calendar, Rosanbo was guillotined. The next evening Malesherbes was himself brought for his interrogation. He denied both charges of “conspiring against the liberty of the French people” and saying that “he would use every means to bring down the Republic.” His daughter was accused of having entered into treasonable correspondence with “the internal and external enemies of the Republic.” The only evidence against Malesherbes was from someone who had reported to a revolutionary committee that when Malesherbes’ sister the Comtesse de Senozan had told him the vines on her estate were frozen, he had replied it was a good thing, as that would deny wine to the peasants, and had it not been for their being drunk there would have been no revolution. The self-evidently ludicrous nature of the evidence did not for a moment prevent Fouquier-Tinville from claiming that “Lamoignon-Malesherbes presents all the characteristics of a counter-revolutionary.” His writings dwelt constantly on the old order of things; he was the center of an entire group of conspirators, many of whom had already been judged by “the blade of the law.” His offer to defend the King had to be read in the light of his continuing connection to a notorious émigré son-in-law, making it obvious that Pitt had put him up to it. As for his daughter, she, like her husband, had always been an enemy of the Revolution… and so on.

That night, Louis and his three sisters dissolved into tears. Their mother, who had kept up her fortitude, seemed distracted and lost. The next morning, she seemed to have collected herself and remarked to Mlle de Sombreuil (the daughter of the old commandant of the Invalides, reputed to have drunk the notorious cup of blood to spare her father during the September massacres) that “you had the honor of saving your father; at least I will be able to die with mine.” Sharing their tumbril were the Princesse de Lubomirski, the Duchesses de Châtelet and de Grammont as well as three ex-deputies of the Constituent: Huel; Thouret, the mastermind with Mirabeau of the new map of the departments; and Jean-Jacques d’Eprémesnil. That last and most famous figure had, of course, been the greatest thorn in Brienne’s side when Malesherbes had been one of his ministers. But in the spring of 1794 it was entirely commonplace for veterans of wholly different and even hostile politics to share the same scaffold. The bureaucratic economy of the guillotine was quite indifferent to such niceties.

Last of his family to be beheaded, the old man had to watch as his daughter, a granddaughter and her husband Chateaubriand were executed before him. The other grandchildren were imprisoned and were released after Thermidor, but Fouquier-Tinville was not satisfied until he had guillotined Malesherbes’ seventy-six-year-old sister and his two secretaries, one of whom was damned by the fact that a bust of Henri IV (the idol of 1789) was found among his belongings.

Of all the cruelties visited on the old man, the most painful was the likely reflection that by not heeding his younger daughter’s advice to emigrate he had somehow attracted the attention of the Tribunal and destroyed his family. And did he ponder whether, if Louis had listened to his counsel and had abandoned the Estates-General altogether in favor of an entirely new constitution that might have avoided the polarization of the orders, the worst calamities of the Revolution might have been averted? He knew, at any rate, that his penchant for reason would not have gotten him very far once blood had started to flow and heads were spinning with patriotic rhetoric. Writing to another old Parlementaire, Rolland, in 1790, he had remarked that “in times of violent passions, one must surely keep from speaking reason. [Otherwise] one may even harm reason, for enthusiasts will excite people against the same truths that, in another time, would be received with general approbation.”

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