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Malesherbes, Chrétien-Guillaume De Lamoignon De


(b. Paris, France, 6 December 1721; d. Paris, 22 April 1794)

agronomy, botany.

Member of a distinguished family of the noblesse de robe, Malesherbes was the son of Guillaume de Lamoignon, chancellor of France (1750–1768), and was related by marriage to the families of Chateaubriand, La Luzerne, Rosanbo, and Tocqueville. A magistrate by profession, he was one of the most enlightened officials of the ancien régime, holding at various times the posts of director general of the Librairie, first president of the Cour des Aides, and minister under Turgot (1774–1776) and under Loménie de Brienne (1787–1788). He was an influential spokesman for freedom of the press, religious toleration, and tax reform. A member of the Acadėmie Française and the Sociėté Royale d’Agriculture, he was also honorary member of the Acadėmie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the Acadėmie Royale des Sciences. Late in 1792 he volunteered to serve as defense counsel at the forthcoming trial of Louis XVI. Subsequently accused of having defended the king and of other “acts of treason,” he was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined.

Malesherbes studied botany with Bernard de Jussieu (1746–1749) and chemistry with G.-F. Rouelle, and maintained a lifelong interest in natural history. He wrote little for publication, and accounts of his scientific activities, ideas, and influence must be sought principally in his correspondence and in memoirs often intended for circulation among his friends. These sources show him to have had some competence in botany and especially in agronomy, and reveal his role in supplying scientists with information and patronage.

Among Malesherbes’s earliest works, although published posthumously (1798), was a critique of the first volumes of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749). Here he not only disagreed with specific details but also replied effectively to Buffon’s attack on naturalists who emphasized the accumulation of data and on botanists who believed it possible to discover a natural system of classification.

Malesherbes was concerned with the improvement of breeds of livestock, the cultivation of wastes, and the naturalization in France of such crops as wild rice. From about 1760 his estate at Malesherbes (Loiret) was essentially an experimental farm devoted largely to the cultivation and acclimatization of “exotic” trees. Rather than purely ornamental trees or botanical rarities, useful trees, and especially conifers, were of particular interest to Malesherbes. Varieties of pine, for example, were important for shipbuilding; and he tried to discover the soil and climate most suitable for naturalizing in France the pines of Corsica and the Baltic. While some agronomists advocated a national program of marsh drainage, Malesherbes pointed out that such soil was often sterile for staple crops; instead, he proposed broadening existing afforestation attempts by the introduction of the swamp cypresses of Virginia. These and other trees, he argued, would provide rot-resistant naval timber, alleviate the national fuel shortage, and turn marshes to efficient use. He was able to test some of his ideas during the exceptionally harsh winter of 1788–1789, when he made detailed observations of the survival capabilities of his own forest trees.

Maleshrbes’s interest in trees came increasingly to center on those of North America when, during the American Revolution, he shared the hope that France could establish close commercial and cultural ties with an independent United States. Although some North American plants had long been available to French naturalists, collection was not systematic and tended to be done through English intermediaries. Malesherbes’s own contacts in America were strengthened after 1779 when his nephew, the Marquis de La Luzerne, was sent there as minister plenipotentiary; his American correspondents also came to include Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and French diplomats F. Barbé de Marbois, L.-G, Otto, and H. St. Jean de Crèvecoeur. He arranged to have shipments of seeds and seedlings sent to the Paris firm of Vilmorin-Andrieux so that American plants could be widely distributed in France.

Malesherbes’s interest in the dissemination of new ideas is apparent in the two agricultural pamphlets published during his lifetime. In the first he emphasized the need for organized communication among agronomists so that experimental results could be verified and made widely known. In the second he attempted to direct the attention of the National Assembly to problems of landholding that were intimately connected with legal, social, and agricultural change.

Malesherbes often contributed to the work of other scientists and served as their patron. He transmitted the results of his own experiments to agronomists H.-L. Duhamel du Monceau and P. Varenne de Fenille for use in their publications, and he did the same for chemist P.-J. Macquer, stipulating that Macquer refrain from publicy acknowledging his aid. During his travels he gathered information useful for the geological maps of J.-E. Guettard, and he donated his collection of minerals to the École des Mines soon after its founding in 1783. It was his patronage that enabled mineralogist A.-G. Monnet to obtain a post with the Bureau du Commerce.

Recognizing the limits of his own training and ability, Malesherbes tried to recruit professional translators and scientists to work on such projects as the translation of English agricultural writings and of Pehr Kalm’ Travels in North America (first published in Swedish, 1753–1761, and soon afterward in German and English). His role, as he saw it, was that of the scientific amateur, possessed of enough training to understand the work of the professionals and enough ability, wealth, and influence to aid them. The agronomists who knew him best disagreed with part of this evaluation and looked upon Malesherbes as their colleague.


I. Original Works. Malesherbes’s publications are Mémoire sur les moyens d’accélérer les progrès de l’économie rurale en France. Lu à la Socíéroyale d’agriculture (Paris, 1790), also published in Mémoires de la Société nationale d’ agriculture de France (Spring trimester 1790); Idées d’un agriculteur patriote sur le défrichement des terres incultes (Paris, 1791), repr. in Annales de l’agriculture françoise10 (an X), 9–26; and Observations de Lamoignon-Malesherbes surl’histoire naturelle générale et particulière de Buffon et Daubenton, with intro. and notes by L.-P. Abeille, 2 vols. (Paris, 1798). There are also several works on nonscientific subjects.

Large collections of MSS are extant, some in private hands; see the first work by Grosclaude (below). Also Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, Paris, MS 997; and Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum National d’ Histoire Naturelle, Paris, MSS 238, 239, 949, 1765. Relevant documents in the possession of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, are described by Gilbert Chinard, “Recently Acquired Botanical Documents,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 101 (1957), 508–522.

II. Secondary Literature. Biographies are numerous and began to appear soon after Malesherbes’s death, but these works have in most respects been superseded. See Pierre Grosclaude, Malesherbes, témoin et interprète de son temps (Paris, 1961), and Malesherbes et son temps: Nouueauz documents inėdits (Paris, 1964); J. M. S. Allison, Lamoignon de Malesherbes, Defender and Reformer of the French Monarchy, 1721–1794 (New Haven 1938); J. Sabrazés, “Malesherbes, l’ homme de bien, le réformateur, le savant,” in Gazette hebdomadaire des sciences médicales de Bordeaux, no. 39 (25 Sept. 1932); Andrè J. Bourde, Agronomie et agronomes en France au XVIII siècle, 3 vols. (Paris, 1967); and Joseph Laissus, “Monsieur de Malesherbes et ‘la montagne qui cogne’ (1782–1783),” in Comptes rendus du quatre-vingt-douzième Congrès national des sociétés savantes, Strasbourg et Colmar, 1967: Section des sciences, I (Paris, 1969),233–254.

Rhoda Rappaport

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