(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,