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Etienne-Francois Duc de Choiseul

French statesman (1719-1785)

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Choiseul, ETIENNE-FRANCOIS, DUC DE, French statesman, b. June 28, 1719; d. in Paris May 8, 1785. Until his thirty-seventh year he pursued a military career and was known as the Comta de Stainville, his social standing being such as to permit him to marry the daughter of Crozat, the wealthy financier, in 1750. So caustic was his speech that he was often declared to be the original of Gresset’s “Mechant” and, despite his clever manoeuvring, he was in no special favor at court until he rendered Madame de Pompadour a service by informing her of d’Argenson’s scheming to make his kinswoman, Madame de Choiseul-Romanet, the mistress of King Louis XV. He even went so far as to transmit to the favorite a letter from Madame de Choiseul-Romanet which proved the conspiracy. Madame de Pompadour recompensed Choiseul by having him appointed ambassador to Rome in 1754. He occupied this post from November 5, 1754, to January 23, 1757, at which time religious France was disturbed by the contest between parliament and the clergy in regard to the Bull “Unigenitus“. In 1752 the Parliament of Paris had condemned the practice of certain priests who exacted a certificate of confession from all sick people requesting the sacraments and deprived of the same those whom they called appelants, that is to say, who refused to acknowledge the Bull “Unigenitus“. Louis XV took issue with the clergy, dissolved the parliament at Pontoise in 1753 and summoned it to Paris again in 1754, ordering silence on all religious controversies. At the Assembly of the Clergy of France in 1755, it was manifest that on this question of confession-tickets the episcopate was divided, and the pope had to intervene. Choiseul negotiated with Benedict XIV, and the Bull “Ex Omnibus”, solicited by Louis XV, was the occasion of numerous conferences between Rome and Versailles, being finally published, October 16, 1756. This reestablished religious peace in France. “By following the course it prescribes”, said de Pressy, Bishop of Boulogne, “one will be in no danger of exposing the sacrament to scandalous profanation by administering it to the refractory or of subjecting to unjust defamation those to whom it should not be publicly refused.” Thanks to this peaceful adjustment of affairs, the Jansenists lost all political prestige in France. A few days after issuing the Bull Benedict XIV fell ill and Choiseul wrote several letters and memoirs concerning the expected conclave. These were recently published and they enlighten us as to how the ambassadors of that time watched the pontifical court and planned how they should use the right of veto in the conclave. However, Choiseul left the Roman embassy in 1757 for that of Vienna without having seen a conclave.

Reaching Vienna, August 20, 1757, he gave his attention to the confirmation of the Franco-Austrian alliance, a decisive episode in the French politics of the day. France renounced its secular struggle against the House of Austria and joined forces with the latter against Prussia. This policy of the Renversement des Alliances, regarding which historians have held very conflicting views, received but poor support from the courts of Paris and Vienna where political anarchy then reigned supreme; it was with great regret that Choiseul declared that “both courts lacked the good order indispensable to the furtherance of great projects”. In November, 1758, Choiseul replaced the Abbe de Bernis as Minister of Foreign Affairs; in 1761 he became Minister of War, and in 1762 Minister of the Navy. “I am like the miser’s coachman”, said he, “sometimes in stable-coat, sometimes in apron; at the command of all.” For twelve years he governed France, his great capacity for work and unusual gift of assimilation being of decided value to him. At first he was said to be “a dandy utterly lacking in ability but in whose mind gleamed a bit of phosphorus”; a few years later, according to Catherine of Russia, this dandy had become “the coachman of Europe“. Nothing was beyond the scope of his activity. He reduced the expenses of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from fifty-eight to seven millions, reorganized the artillery and military engineering corps, and, although confronted with perpetual threats of war, sought to avenge the insults that France had received from England during the Seven Years’ War. “The navy”, he said, “will achieve either the salvation or the downfall of France“; and thanks to the combined efforts of Choiseul and his cousin Praslin to reestablish the navy, France was enabled in 1768 to annex Corsica without any opposition whatever on the part of England. Moreover, in 1778, it aided the United States in shaking off the yoke of England and in 1783 recovered its place as a colonial power.

“Choiseul”, said Talleyrand, was “the man who had the clearest insight into the future”. He dreamed of a greater France and contemplated negotiations for the cession of Egypt to France. However, owing to lack of persistency his attempts at colonization were not very successful; the venture in Guiana ended disastrously, and that in Madagascar, due to the private initiative of the Comte de Mandave, did not receive sufficient encouragement from the Government. Nevertheless, Choiseul, by his colonial plans at least, initiated a policy which was consistent and productive of results. In 1768 and 1769 when Bougainville and Surville discovered the archipelago to the southeast of New Guinea, it was very appropriate that two harbors in the Louisiade group of islands should have been called respectively Port Choiseul and Port Praslin. Choiseul’s great political achievement in Europe, known as the “Family Compact” or alliance of all the Bourbons, has been widely discussed and he has been censured for not having understood the Polish question. It was under Choiseul’s government that the Jesuits were expelled. In the letters and memoirs that date from his embassy at Rome the Jesuits are not mentioned. But, according to Besanval’s “Memoires”, Choiseul was thenceforth in disfavor with the Society because, at a court supper, he remarked that Pere Laugier, a Jesuit who had preached vehemently against the Jansenists, ought to be banished from Versailles. When in Rome, Choiseul excluded the Jesuits from his negotiations but always received them courteously, and there is no proof that from this period he planned the abolition of the order. However, when one day in 1760 the Dauphin spoke with great earnestness about the Jesuits, Choiseul, who was present, replied: “Monsieur, how can a Dauphin become so enamored of monks!” Some days later the Dauphin, having called the king’s attention to a memoir in which Choiseul was accused of pursuing, with the parliament, the destruction of the Jesuits, the duke, addressing the Dauphin said: “Perhaps some day I shall be so unfortunate as to become your subject but I shall never be at your service.”

Hence, in 1762, Choiseul was quite ready to have parliament close the Jesuit colleges and, in 1764, decree the suppression of the Society in France. In his “Memoires” he denies having inspired the intrigues of parliament. It seems proved, however, that, far from deploring these schemes, he took advantage of his influence over Louis XV in order to further them; in the conflict between the Duke of Aiguillon and the magistrate La Chalotais, the Jesuits enemy, Choiseul’s sympathies were with La Chalotais. “It is difficult”, he wrote to the king, “to attack me directly on religion because I never speak of it. Formally I am a strict observer of decorum and in public affairs it is my principle to uphold religion.” Apparently, like his friend Voltaire, whose property at Ferney he exempted from taxation, Choiseul deemed religion good for the people, but the spirit of his religious policy was what was called at that time “an enlightened despotism”, ever ready to suspect and paralyze the Church; the expulsion of the Jesuits, agreed to by all the Bourbons, was the greatest effort of lay absolutism against ecclesiastical autonomy and vitality. In 1770 a conspiracy formed by the Duke of Aiguillon, the Chancellor Maupeou, and Madame du Barry, caused Choiseul’s downfall and a lettre de cachet, dated December 24, 1770, sentenced him to exile at Chanteloup, his estate in Touraine. His departure from Paris was a veritable triumph and the last fourteen years of his life were spent at Chanteloup, where he was surrounded by a regular court and sustained by the affection of his wife and his friend the Abbe Barthelemy, a celebrated archaeologist. He died in Paris, being well nigh financially ruined owing to his extravagant manner of life. His brother, Leopold-Charles (1724-1781), was Bishop of Evreux and Archbishop of Albi and Cambrai.


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