Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CACHET, Lettres de, were letters proceeding from and signed by the kings of France, and countersigned by a secretary of state. They were called also lettres closes, or "sealed letters," to distinguish them from the lettres patentes, which were in the nature of public documents and sealed with the great seal. Lettres de cachet were rarely employed to deprive men of their personal liberty before the seventeenth century. It is said that they were devised by Père Joseph under the administration of Richelieu. They were at first made use of occasionally as a means of delaying the course of justice; but during the reign of Louis XIV. they were obtained by any person who had sufficient influence with the king or his ministers, and persons were thus imprisoned for life, or for a long period, on the most frivolous pretexts, for the gratification of private pique or revenge, and without any reason being assigned for such punishment. The terms of a lettre de cachet were as follows: M. le Marquis de Launay, je vous fais cette lettre pour vous dire de recevoir dans mon cháteau de la Bastille le Sieur—, et de l'y retenir jusqu' á nourel ordre de ma part. Sur ce, je prie Dieu qu'il vous ait, M. le Marquis de Launay, en sa saints garde. These letters, which gave power over personal liberty, were openly sold in the reign of Louis XV. by the mistress of one of the ministers. "They were often given to the ministers, the mistresses and favorites as cartes blanches, or only with the king's signature, so that the persons to whom they were given could insert such names and terms as they pleased." (Welcker.) The lettres de cachet were also granted by the king for the purpose of shielding his favorites or their friends from the consequences of their crimes; and thus were as pernicious in their operations as the protection afforded by the church to criminals in a former age. Their necessity was strongly maintained by the great families, as they were thus enabled to remove such of their connexions as had acted in a derogatory manner. During the contentions of the Mirabeau family 59 lettres de cachet were issued on the demand of one or other of its members. The independent members of the parliaments and of the magistracy were proscribed and punished by means of these warrants. This monstrous evil was swept away at the revolution, after Louis XVI. had in vain endeavored to remedy it.


—Mirabeau, Des Lettres de Cachet, etc., 1782; Translation, published at London, in two volumes, in 1787; Rotteck and Welcker, Staats-Lexicon, art. "Cachet, Lettres de," by Welcker.


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