1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Argenson
ARGENSON, the name, derived from an old hamlet situated in what is now the department of Indre-et-Loire, of a French family which produced some prominent statesmen, soldiers and men of letters.
René de Voyer, seigneur d’Argenson (1596–1651), French statesman, was born on the 21st of November 1596. He was a lawyer by profession, and became successively avocat, councillor at the parlement of Paris, maître des requêtes, and councillor of state. Cardinal Richelieu entrusted him with several missions as inspector and intendant of the forces. In 1623 he was appointed intendant of justice, police and finance in Auvergne, and in 1632 held similar office in Limousin, where he remained till 1637. After the death of Louis XIII. (1643) he retained his administrative posts, was intendant of the forces at Toulon (1646), commissary of the king at the estates of Languedoc (1647), and intendant of Guienne (1648), and showed great capacity in defending the authority of the crown against the rebels of the Fronde. After his wife’s death he took orders (February 1651), but did not cease to take part in affairs of state. In 1651 he was appointed by Mazarin ambassador at Venice, where he died on the 14th of July 1651.
His son, Marc René de Voyer, comte d’Argenson (1623–1700), was born at Blois on the 13th of December 1623. He also was a lawyer, being councillor at the parlement of Rouen (1642) and maître des requêtes. He attended his father in all his duties and succeeded him at the embassy at Venice. In 1655 he returned from his embassy, ruined, and lost favour with Mazarin, who removed him from his office of councillor of state. He then gave up public affairs and retired to his estates, where he occupied himself with good works. In September 1656 he entered the Company of the Holy Sacrament, a secret society for the diffusion of the Catholic religion. Besides writing the Annals of the society, he composed many pious works, which were destroyed in the fire at the Louvre in 1871. Some of his correspondence with the once famous letter-writer, Jean Louis Guez de Balzac (1597–1654), has been published. He died in May 1700, leaving two sons, Marc René (see below), and François Élie (1656–1728), who became archbishop of Bordeaux.
Marc René de Voyer, marquis de Paulmy and marquis d’Argenson (1652–1721), son of the preceding, was born at Venice on the 4th of November 1652. He became avocat in 1669, and lieutenant-general in the sénéchaussée of Angoulême (1679). After the death of Colbert, who disliked his family, he went to Paris and married Marguerite Lefèvre de Caomartin, a kinswoman of the comptroller-general Pontchartrain. This was the beginning of his fortunes. He became successively maître des requêtes (1694), member of the conseil des prises (prize court) (1695), procureur-général of the commission of inquest into false titles of nobility (1696), and finally lieutenant-general of police (1697). This last office, which had previously been filled by N. G. de la Reynie, was very important. It not only gave him the control of the police, but also the supervision of the corporations, printing press, and provisioning of Paris. All contraventions of the police regulations came under his jurisdiction, and his authority was arbitrary and absolute. Fortunately, he had, in Saint-Simon’s phrase, “a nice discernment as to the degree of rigour or leniency required for every case that came before him, being ever inclined to the mildest measures, but possessed of the faculty of making the most innocent tremble before him; courageous, bold, audacious in quelling êmeutes, and consequently the master of the people.” During the twenty-one years that he exercised this office he was a party to every private and state secret; in fact, he had a share in every event of any importance in the history of Paris. He was the familiar friend of the king, who delighted in scandalous police reports; he was patronized by the duke of Orleans; he was supported by the Jesuits at court; and he was feared by all. He organized the supply of food in Paris during the severe winter of 1709, and endeavoured, but with little success, to run to earth the libellers of the government. He directed the destruction of the Jansenist monastery of Port Royal (1709), a proceeding which provoked many protests and pamphlets. Under the regency, the Chambre de Justice, assembled to inquire into the malpractices of the financiers, suspected d’Argenson and arrested his clerks, but dared not lay the blame on him. On the 28th of January 1718 he voluntarily resigned the office of lieutenant-general of police for those of keeper of the seals—in the place of the chancellor d’Aguesseau—and president of the council of finance. He was appointed by the regent to suppress the resistance of the parlements and to reorganize the finances, and was in great measure responsible for permitting John Law to apply his financial system, though he soon quarrelled with Law and intrigued to bring about his downfall. The regent threw the blame for the outcome of Law’s schemes on d’Argenson, who was forced to resign his position in the council of finance (January 1720). By way of compensation he was created inspector-general of the police of the whole kingdom, but had to resign his office of keeper of the seals (June 1720). He died on the 8th of May 1721, the people of Paris throwing taunts and stones at his coffin and accusing him of having ruined the kingdom. In 1716 he had been created an honorary member of the Académie des Sciences and, in 1718, a member of the French Academy.
René Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis d’Argenson (1694–1757), eldest son of the preceding, was a lawyer, and held successively the posts of councillor at the parlement (1716), maître des requêtes (1718), councillor of state (1719), and intendant of justice, police and finance in Hainaut. During his five years’ tenure of the last office he was mainly employed in provisioning the troops, who were suffering from the economic confusion resulting from Law’s system. He returned to court in 1724 to exercise his functions as councillor of state. At that time he had the reputation of being a conscientious man, but ill adapted to intrigue, and was nicknamed “la bête.” He entered into relations with the philosophers, and was won over to the ideas of reform. He was the friend of Voltaire, who had been a fellow-student of his at the Jesuit college Louis-le-grand, and frequented the Club de l’Entresol, the history of which he wrote in his memoirs. It was then that he prepared his Considérations sur le gouvernement de la France, which was published posthumously by his son. He was also the friend and counsellor of the minister G. L. de Chauvelin. In May 1744 he was appointed member of the council of finance, and in November of the same year the king chose him as secretary of state for foreign affairs, his brother, the comte d’Argenson (see below), being at the same time secretary of state for war. France was at that time engaged in the War of the Austrian Succession, and the government had been placed by Louis XV. virtually in the hands of the two brothers. The marquis d’Argenson endeavoured to reform the system of international relations. He dreamed of a “European Republic,” and wished to establish arbitration between nations in pursuance of the ideas of his friend the abbé de Saint-Pierre. But he failed to realize any part of his projects. The generals negotiated in opposition to his instructions; his colleagues laid the blame on him; the intrigues of the courtiers passed unnoticed by him; whilst the secret diplomacy of the king neutralized his initiative. He concluded the marriage of the dauphin to the daughter of Augustus III., king of Poland, but was unable to prevent the election of the grand-duke of Tuscany as emperor in 1745. On the 10th of January 1747 the king thanked him for his services. He then retired into private life, eschewed the court, associated with Voltaire, Condillac and d’Alembert, and spent his declining years in working at the Académie des Inscriptions, of which he was appointed president by the king in 1747, and revising his Mémoires. Voltaire, in one of his letters, declared him to be “the best citizen that had ever tasted the ministry.” He died on the 26th of January 1757.
He left a large number of manuscript works, of which his son, Antoine René (1722–1787), known as the marquis de Paulmy, published the Considérations sur le gouvernement de France (Amsterdam, 1764) and Essais dans le goût de ceux de Montaigne (ib. 1785). The latter, which contains many useful biographical notes and portraits of his contemporaries, was republished in 1787 as Loisirs d’un ministre d’état. Argenson’s most important work, however, is his Mémoires, covering in great detail the years 1725 to 1756, with an introductory part giving his recollections since the year 1696. They are, as they were intended to be, valuable “materials for the history of his time.” There are two important editions, the first, with some letters, not elsewhere published, by the marquis d’Argenson, his great-grand-nephew (5 vols., Paris, 1857 et seq.); the second, more correct, but less complete, published by J. B. Rathery, for the Société de l’Histoire de France (9 vols., Paris, 1859 et seq.). The other works of the marquis d’Argenson, in MS., were destroyed in the fire at the Louvre library in 1871.
Marc Pierre de Voyer de Paulmy, comte d’Argenson (1696-1764), younger brother of the preceding, was born on the 16th of August 1696. Following the family tradition he studied law and was councillor at the parlement of Paris. He succeeded his father as lieutenant-general of police in Paris, but held the post only five months (January 26 to June 30, 1720). He then received the office of intendant of Tours, and resumed the lieutenancy of police in 1722. On the 2nd of January 1724 he was appointed councillor of state. He gained the confidence of the regent Orleans, administering his fortune and living with his son till 1737. During this period he opened his salon to the philosophers Chaulieu, la Fare and Voltaire, and collaborated in the legislative labours of the chancellor d’Aguesseau. In March 1737 d’Argenson was appointed director of the censorship of books, in which post he showed sufficiently liberal views to gain the approval of writers—a rare thing in the reign of Louis XV. He only retained this post for a year. He became president of the grand council (November 1738), intendant of the généralité of Paris (August 1740), was admitted to the king’s council (August 1742), and in January 1743 was appointed secretary of state for war in succession to the baron de Breteuil. As minister for war he had a heavy task; the French armies engaged in the War of the Austrian Succession were disorganized, and the retreat from Prague had produced a disastrous effect. After consulting with Marshal Saxe, he began the reform of the new armies. To assist recruiting, he revived the old institution of local militias, which, however, did not come up to his expectation. In the spring of 1744 three armies were able to resume the offensive in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, and in the following year France won the battle of Fontenoy, at which d’Argenson was present. After the peace in 1748 he occupied himself with the important work of recasting the French army on the model of the Prussian. He unified the types of cannon, grouped the grenadiers into separate regiments, and founded the École Militaire for the training of officers (1751). An edict of the 1st of November 1751 granted patents of nobility to all who had the rank of general officer. In addition to his duties as minister of war he had the supervision of the printing, postal administration and general administration of Paris. He was responsible for the arrangement of the promenade of the Champs Élysées and for the plan of the present Place de la Concorde. He was exceedingly popular, and, although the court favourites hated him, he had the support of the king. Nevertheless, after the attempt of R. F. Damiens to assassinate the king, Louis abandoned d’Argenson to the machinations of the court favourites and dismissed both him and his colleague, J. B. de Machault d’Arnouville (February 1757). D’Argenson was exiled to his estates at Les Ormes near Saumur, but he had previously found posts for his brother, the marquis d’Argenson, as minister of foreign affairs, for his son Marc René as master of the horse, and for his nephew Marc Antoine René as commissary of war. From the time of his exile he lived in the society of savants and philosophers. He had been elected member of the Académie des Inscriptions in 1749. Diderot and d’Alembert dedicated the Encyclopédie to him, and Voltaire, C. J. F. Hénault, and J. F. Marmontel openly visited him in his exile. After the death of Madame de Pompadour he obtained permission to return to Paris, and died a few days after his return, on the 22nd of August 1764.
Marc Antoine René de Voyer, marquis de Paulmy d’Argenson (1722-1787), nephew of the preceding and son of René Louis, was born at Valenciennes on the 22nd of November 1722. Appointed councillor at the parlement (1744), and maître des requêtes (1747), he was associated with his father in the ministry of foreign affairs and with his uncle in the ministry of war, and, in recognition of this experience, was commissioned to inspect the troops and fortifications and sent on embassy to Switzerland (1748). In 1751 his uncle recognized him as his deputy and made over to him the reversion of the secretariate of war. He then worked on the great reform of the army, and after the dismissal of his uncle became minister of war (February 1757). But the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War made this post exceedingly difficult to hold, and he resigned on the 23rd of March 1758. He was ambassador to Poland from 1762 to 1764, but failed to procure the nomination of the French candidate to that throne. From 1766 to 1770 he was ambassador at Venice. Failing to obtain the embassy at Rome, he retired at the age of forty-eight and devoted the rest of his life to indulging his tastes for history and biography. He brought together a large library, very rich in French poetry and romance, and undertook various publications with the help of his librarian. In 1775 he began his Bibliothèque universelle des romans, of which forty volumes appeared within three years, but subsequently handed over the publication to other editors. His great work, Mélanges tirés d’une grande bibliothèque, was published in 65 volumes (Paris, 1779-1788). At his death he forbade his library to be dispersed: it was bought by the comte d’Artois (afterwards Charles X.) and formed the nucleus of the present Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal at Paris (the marquis having been governor of the arsenal). He died on the 13th of August 1787.
Marc René, marquis de Voyer de Paulmy d’Argenson (1721-1782), known as the marquis de Voyer, son of Marc Pierre de Voyer, the minister of war, was born in Paris on the 20th of September 1721. He served in the army of Italy and the army of Flanders in the War of the Austrian Succession, and was mestre de camp (proprietary colonel) of the regiment of Berry cavalry at the battle of Fontenoy (May 10, 1745), where he was promoted brigadier. He was associated with his father in his work of reorganizing the army, was made inspector of cavalry and dragoons (1749), and succeeded his father as master of the horse (1752). He introduced English horses into France. He was lieutenant-general of Upper Alsace in 1753 and governor of Vincennes in 1754, and served afterwards under Soubise in the Seven Years’ War. He was wounded at Crefeld in 1758, and was promoted lieutenant-general (1759). He followed his father into exile at Les Ormes (1763), and in the last years of the reign of Louis XV. sided with the malcontents headed by Choiseul; but on the rupture with England he rejoined the service of the king (1775). He was appointed inspector of the sea-board, and put the roadstead of the island of Aix in a state of defence during the American War of Independence. He caught marsh-fever while attempting to drain the marshes of Rochefort, and died at Les Ormes on the 18th of September 1782.
Marc René Marie de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis d’Argenson (1771-1842), son of the preceding, was born in Paris in September 1771. He was brought up by his father’s cousin, the marquis de Paulmy, governor of the arsenal, and was made lieutenant of dragoons in 1789. Although, at the age of eighteen, he had succeeded to several estates and a large fortune, he embraced the revolutionary cause, joining the army of the North as Lafayette’s aide-de-camp and remaining with it even after Lafayette’s defection. Leaving France to take one of his sisters to England, he was denounced on his return as a royalist conspirator, on the charge of having in his possession portraits of the royal family. He then went to live in Touraine, married the widow of Prince Victor de Broglie, and saved her and her children from proscription. He introduced new agricultural instruments and processes on his estates, and installed machinery imported from England in his ironworks in Alsace. He was an enthusiastic adherent of Napoleon, by whom he was appointed in May 1809 prefect of Deux-Nèthes. He helped to repel the English invasion of the islands of South Beveland and Walcheren (August 1809), and afterwards directed the defence works of Antwerp, but resigned this post (March 1813) in consequence of the complaints of the inhabitants and the exacting demands of the emperor. In May 1814 he refused the prefecture of Marseilles offered to him by the Bourbons, but was elected deputy from Belfort in 1815 during the Hundred Days. On the 5th of July 1815 he took part in the declaration protesting against any tampering with the immutable rights of the nation. He was a member of the Chambre introuvable, where he became one of the orators of the democratic party. He was one of the founders of the journal Le censeur européen and of the Club de la liberté de la presse, and was an uncompromising opponent of reaction. Not re-elected in 1824 on account of his liberal ideas, he returned to the chamber under the Martignac ministry (1828), and resolutely persisted in his championship of the liberty of the press and of public worship. On the death of his wife he voluntarily renounced his mandate (July 1829), and hailed the revolution of 1830 with great satisfaction. On the 3rd of November 1830 he was elected to the chamber as deputy from Châtellerault, and took the oath, adding, however, the reservation “subject to the progress of the public reason.” His independent attitude resulted in his defeat in the following year at the Châtellerault election, but he was returned for Strassburg. He wished the incidence of the taxes to be arranged according to social condition, and advocated a single tax proportionate to income like the English income tax. He harped incessantly on this idea in his speeches and articles (see his letters in La Tribune of June 20, 1832). Although he was a proprietor of ironworks he opposed the protectionist laws, which he considered injurious to the workmen. He became the mouthpiece of the advanced ideas; subsidized the opposition newspapers, especially the National; received into his house F. M. Buonarroti, who in 1796 had been implicated in the conspiracy of “Gracchus” Babeuf (q.v.); and became a member of the committee of the Society of the Rights of Man. He was even sued in the courts for a pamphlet called Boutade d’un homme riche à sentiments populaires, and delivered a speech to the jury in which he displayed very daring social theories. But he gradually grew discouraged and retired from public affairs, refusing even municipal office, and living in seclusion at La Grange in the forest of Guerche, where he devoted his inventive faculty to devising agricultural improvements. He subsequently returned to Paris, where he died on the 1st of August 1842.
Charles Marc René de Voyer, marquis d’Argenson (1796-1862), son of the preceding, was born at Boulogne-sur-Seine on the 20th of April 1796. He concerned himself little with politics. He was, however, a member of the council-general of Vienne for six years, but was expelled from it in 1840 in consequence of his advanced ideas and his relations with the Opposition. In 1848 he was elected deputy from Vienne to the Constituent Assembly by 12,000 votes. He was an active member of the Archaeological Society of Touraine and the Society of Antiquaries of the West, and wrote learned works for these bodies. He collaborated in preparing the archives of the scientific congress at Tours in 1847; brought out two editions of the MSS. of his great-grand-uncle, the minister of foreign affairs under Louis XV., under the title Mémoires du marquis d’Argenson, one in 1825, and the other, in 5 vols., in 1857-1858; and published Discours et opinions de mon père, M. Voyer d’Argenson (2 vols., 1845). He died on the 31st of July 1862.