1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aguesseau, Henri François d'
AGUESSEAU, HENRI FRANÇOIS D’ (1668–1751), chancellor of France, illustrious for his virtues, learning and talents, was born at Limoges, of a family of the magistrature. His father, Henri d’ Aguesseau, a hereditary councillor of the parlement of Metz, was a man of singular ability and breadth of view who, after holding successively the posts of intendant of Limousin, Guyenne and Languedoc, was in 1685 called to Paris as councillor of state, appointed director-general of commerce and manufactures in 1695, president of the council of commerce in 1700 and a member of the council of the regency for finance. By him Francois d’Aguesseau was early initiated into affairs and brought up in religious principles deeply tinged with Jansenism. He studied law under Jean Domat, whose influence is apparent in both the legal writings and legislative work of the chancellor. When little more than twenty-one years of age he was, through his father’s influence with the king, appointed one of the three advocates-general to the parlement of Paris; and the eloquence and learning which he displayed in his first speech gained him a very high reputation. D’Aguesseau was in fact the first great master of forensic eloquence in France.
In 1700 he was appointed procurator-general; and in this office, which he filled for seventeen years, he gained the greatest popularity by his defence of the rights of the Gallican Church in the Quietist troubles and in those connected with the bull Unigenitus (see Jansenism.) In February 1717 he was made chancellor by the regent Orleans; but was deprived of the seals in January of the following year and exiled to his estate of Fresnes in Brie, on account of his steady opposition to the projects of the famous John Law, which had been adopted by the regent and his ministers. In June 1720 he was recalled to satisfy public opinion; and he contributed not a little by the firmness and sagacity of his counsels to calm the public disturbance and repair the mischief which had been done. Law himself had acted as the messenger of his recall; and it is said that d’Aguesseau’s consent to accept the seals from his hand greatly diminished his popularity. The parlement continuing its opposition to the registering of the bull Unigentus, d’Aguesseau, fearing a schism and a religious war in France, assisted Guillaume Dubois, the favourite of the regent, in his endeavour to force the parlement to register the bull, acquiesced in the exile of the magistrates and allowed the Great Council to assume the power of registration, which legally belonged to the parlement alone. The people unjustly attributed his conduct to a base compliance with the favourite. He certainly opposed Dubois in other matters; and when Dubois became chief minister d’Aguesseau was deprived of his office (March 1, 1722).
He retired to his estate, where he passed five years of which he always spoke with delight. The Scriptures, which he read and compared in various languages, and the jurisprudence of his own and other countries, formed the subjects of his more serious studies; the rest of his time was devoted to philosophy, literature and gardening. From these occupations he was recalled to court by the advice of Cardinal Fleury in 1727, and on the 15th of August was named chancellor for the third time, but the seals were not restored to him till ten years later. During these years he endeavoured to mediate in the disputes between the court and the parlement. When he was at last reinstated in office, he completely withdrew from all political affairs, and devoted himself entirely to his duties as chancellor and to the achievement of those reforms which had long occupied his thoughts. He aimed, as others had tried before him, to draw up in a single code all the laws of France, but was unable to accomplish his task. Besides some important enactments regarding donations, testaments and successions, he introduced various regulations for improving the forms of procedure, for ascertaining the limits of jurisdictions and for effecting a greater uniformity in the execution of the laws throughout the several provinces. These reforms constitute an epoch in the history of French jurisprudence, and have placed the name of d’Aguesseau in the same rank with those of L’Hôpital and Lamoignon. As a magistrate also he was so conscientious that the duc de Saint-Simon in his Memoirs complained that he spent too much time over the cases that came before him.
In 1750, when upwards of eighty-two years of age, d’Aguesseau retired from the duties without giving up the rank of chancellor. He died on the 9th of February of the following year.
His grandson, Henri Cardin Jean Baptiste, Marquis d’Aguesseau (1746–1826), was advocate-general in the parlement of Paris and deputy in the Estates-General. Under the Consulate he became president of the court of appeal and later minister at Copenhagen. He was elected to the French Academy in 1787.
Of d’Aguesseau’s works the most complete edition is that of the eminent lawyer Jean Marie Pardessus, published in 16 vols. (1818–1820); his letters were edited separately by Rives (1823); a selection of his works, Œuvres choisies, was issued, with a biographical notice, by E. Falconnet in 2 vols. (Paris, 1865). The far greater part of his works relate to matters connected with his profession, but they also contain an elaborate treatise on money; several theological essays; a life of his father, which is interesting from the account which it gives of his own early education; and Metaphysical Meditations, written to prove that, independently of all revelation and all positive law, there is that in the constitution of the human mind which renders man a law to himself.
See Boullée, Histoire de la vie et les ouvrages de chancelier d’Aguesseau (Paris, 1835); Fr. Monnier, Le Chancelier d’Aguesseau (Paris, 1860; 2nd ed., 1863); Charles Butler, Mem. of Life of H. F. d’Aguesseau, &c. (1830).