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MARLING, ALEXANDER – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 12 April 1890 in Toronto, Ont.


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


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LE NORMANT DE MÉZY, SÉBASTIEN-FRANÇOIS-ANGE (he signed Lenormant Demesi), colonial official, b. 20 Nov. 1702 in Dunkerque, France, eldest son of Jacques-Ange Le Normant* de Mézy and Anne-Marie Debrier; d. 3 Feb. 1791 at Paris.

Sébastien-François-Ange Le Normant de Mézy belonged to a family of lesser royal servants that had begun to achieve recognition during the reign of Louis XIV, and his career was to reflect its traditional loyalties and associations. When his father came to Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), in 1719 as financial commissary, Le Normant accompanied him and served unofficially in Mézy’s office, mastering the rudiments of colonial administration. Late in 1721 Le Normant carried official dispatches to France and acted as his father’s emissary to the council of Marine. He returned in 1722 as a scrivener in the Marine, responsible for maintaining lists of Louisbourg land grants, keeping the rolls for naval conscription, and preparing detailed fishing and trade reports.

In 1724 Mézy appointed Le Normant to settle judicial disputes in outlying areas; at the same time he charged him with preparing a census of the fishing settlements and inspecting soldiers on detached duty. Mézy’s lax administration having been criticized by Maurepas, the secretary of state for the Marine, Le Normant sailed later that year to France to present his father’s defence. He returned to Louisbourg in 1725 as a member of the Conseil Supérieur, a mark of favour from Maurepas who regarded the son with approval in spite of his displeasure with the father. In 1728 Le Normant became chief scrivener, the second ranking civil administrative officer in the colony. To his previous responsibilities were added the maintenance of the garrison muster rolls and supervision of the general stores. By this time his father, whose career was in serious jeopardy, was chiefly occupied in reviewing and completing his financial records, and Le Normant gradually assumed control of the daily operation of colonial government. When Mézy was recalled to France in 1729 to explain his administration, Le Normant was empowered to authorize royal expenditure (ordonnancement). Mézy returned to Île Royale only briefly, and during the early 1730s Le Normant’s authority was challenged by rumours impugning his father’s rectitude, by his own youth, and by the fact that, though he exercised the powers of financial commissary, he did not have the position. His father was not retired until 1733, and even then there seems to have been some reluctance to appoint a young man who had never served in France. With no one willing to accept a post in unpopular Louisbourg, Le Normant remained in his ambiguous position until 1734 when he sailed to France. The following year he returned with his commissions as financial commissary and first councillor of the Conseil Supérieur.

Le Normant’s years at Louisbourg, like his father’s, were marked by quarrels with Governor Saint-Ovide [Monbeton*], who had never learned to share authority with civil officials. As early as 1728 the two had come into conflict over Le Normant’s newly assumed duty to keep the muster rolls. While Saint-Ovide was in France from 1729 to 1731, Le Normant also clashed with the interim governor, François Le Coutre* de Bourville, who exploited the ambiguity of Le Normant’s position to oblige the younger man to defer to him. After 1731 Saint-Ovide once again led the attacks on Le Normant’s authority and initiated attempts to have him replaced. It has been suggested that Le Normant’s difficulties were the inheritance of his father’s conflicts with the governor, but Le Normant made these conflicts his own, defending his jurisdiction with granite-like resistance, and the quarrels usually ended in his favour. Both Saint-Ovide and Bourville received ministerial rebukes for their pretensions as did Le Normant on one occasion in 1737.

The frustrations of Le Normant’s position were undoubtedly exacerbated by the difficult economic climate of the 1730s, when the weakness of Louisbourg’s economic base – fishing, trade, and the artificial support of government expenditures on fortress construction – was underscored by progressively more serious food shortages. Fishing, the mainstay of the economy, had worked against the development of agriculture because the seasonal demands of both on available labour were coincidental. Though its population was small, the colony was unable to feed itself. After 1731, moreover, the expenditures on fortress construction, which provided temporary cash circulation and facilitated local commerce before profits drained back to France, were reduced by about ten per cent from the average outlay of the previous seven years. More significant was the decline in the cod fishery. The outport fisheries had peaked between 1729 and 1733, but the total value of the Île Royale fishery declined rapidly after the latter date. At the same time. local food shortages, high wages for fishermen at Île Royale, and poor European market conditions led French outfitters to reduce the number of ships sent to the colony. Île Royale came increasingly under the sway of New England merchants, who revolutionized earlier transatlantic trading patterns based on metropolitan supply. Le Normant pointed out to the minister of Marine that economic conditions made the application of French mercantilist trade restrictions unrealistic, and during his term of office Louisbourg became more of a free port than before. The contraction of the fishery was Le Normant’s most serious economic problem and, although there was little he could do about it, his concern was expressed in several perceptive analyses of the situation. Confronted in 1738 with the petition of the Louisbourg merchants accusing him of supporting the monopolistic commercial practices of François Du Pont Duvivier and his brother Michel Du Pont de Gourville, Le Normant (on leave in France) replied in a blistering report which revealed both his understanding of the fishery and his contempt for the colonists, whom he described as “ignorant, without order in their business, susceptible to an ardent desire for gain but unable to take suitable measures, and without industry but capable of artifice.” He argued that the colony’s under-capitalization and the fishery’s low profit margin could be remedied by resorting to the oligopolistic structures of the Canadian fur trade. But local merchants, he claimed, resisted attempts to supervise or regulate their customary commercial practices, which included debauching their fishermen and domestics with drink on credit and avoiding their metropolitan creditors under special protection against seizure for debt.

The merchants’ charges of favouritism combined with revelations of other irregularities led the minister to make major changes in the Louisbourg administration in the late 1730s. The case against Saint-Ovide had been building up over a number of years and it was decided to retire him. While in France in 1738 Le Normant learned that he himself would be posted elsewhere. From a personal point of view, his years at Louisbourg had been difficult, darkened by persistent rumours of his father’s malfeasance, embittered by defamatory attacks from the authoritarian and hot-tempered Recollet Zacharie Caradec, and complicated by the quarrels instigated by Saint-Ovide. Professionally, however, they provided a good foundation for a career that was just beginning. Within the limitations imposed by economic conditions beyond his control, Le Normant had served the colony well, as his successor François Bigot testified. Learning from his father’s mistakes, he had transformed the colony’s fiscal records into models of exactness, and his acute analyses of the changes in its trade and fishery later became the basis of government policy. The clarity of his reports and the accuracy of his accounts attracted the favourable attention of Maurepas. Perhaps more important, however, his years at Louisbourg had given him a familiarity with all aspects of colonial administration and constituted a unique apprenticeship for Marine service elsewhere. Le Normant had learned from his conflicts to check his own unruly temper, to maintain a glacial calm before provocation, and to moderate his own grievances when corresponding with the secretary of state for the Marine.

In April 1739 Le Normant was appointed financial commissary at Cap-Français (Cap-Haïtien) on the island of Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola), and he left for the colony that autumn. He had been chosen because Maurepas needed an administrator of sufficient ability, experience, and ruthlessness to force several of the colony’s former financial officials to disgorge over two million livres in unpaid accounts. His four years at Cap-Français were notable for the harmony between him and the district governor and for his smooth relations with the island’s intendant.

In 1744, his difficult task at Saint-Domingue near completion, Le Normant was promoted commissary general and appointed ordonnateur of Louisiana. He arrived at New Orleans in October 1744 with harsh royal instructions for the even more difficult task of liquidating the inflated paper currency that was destroying confidence in Louisiana’s economy. By now an experienced ministerial hatchet man, Le Normant ruthlessly implemented the Draconian measures with no special consideration for the difficulties Governor Vaudreuil [Rigaud] was having as a result of an inflammable Indian situation in the lower Mississippi valley and the renewal of Anglo-French hostilities. In fact, an angry Vaudreuil learned of the measures only after they had been promulgated in the Conseil Supérieur on 2 Jan. 1745. His attitude toward military governors having been shaped at Louisbourg, Le Normant probably enjoyed Vaudreuil’s discomfort and certainly ignored his ire. By March he had confiscated 850,000 livres, and six months later he reported only 5,000 livres outstanding. In spite of promises that he would succeed to the intendancy of Saint-Domingue, the minister was unable to secure a replacement for him in Louisiana during the war and he was forced to remain there until the spring of 1748. He then returned to Cap-Français for little more than a year before being appointed intendant of Rochefort. He took up his new position in May 1750.

Le Normant’s major effort at Rochefort was the reorganization of the arsenal. During his four years there, he increased its personnel, rebuilt long neglected facilities, and vastly expanded its shipbuilding and armament capability. In Paris between August and December 1751, and for most of 1753, he acted as a confidential adviser to Rouillé, the minister of Marine, who recognized his administrative talents. Promoted intendant of naval forces in 1754, he took up the post in October under the new minister, Machault. For years this position had been honorary, but the coming of war and changes within the ministry probably led to the appointment of someone with Le Normant’s administrative abilities. His new post, which he continued to hold under Machault’s successor, Peirenc, was largely advisory and few records of his duties or activities exist.

His own ability was probably as important a consideration as the influence of Mme de Pompadour, to whom he was distantly related by marriage, when in June 1758 he was made intendant general of the Marine (the equivalent of deputy minister). The office was designed for Le Normant because the new secretary of state and titular head of the Marine, Massiac, was the first member of the nobility of the sword to hold the charge and was unwilling to act as an administrator. During the next five months Le Normant attended to the daily administration of the ministry. He had little to do with the conduct of military and naval operations, but the fall of Louisbourg, the loss of the island of Gorée (off the coast of Senegal), British attacks along the Brittany coast, and France’s deteriorating performance in the naval war, as well as internecine struggles within the Marine, all demanded a scapegoat. At the end of October both Le Normant and Massiac were removed from their posts. Le Normant departed with the honorary office of state councillor, the crowning achievement of an intendant’s career. He was allowed to keep his rank for life and was granted an annual pension of 20,000 livres.

Le Normant was married twice. His first marriage, in January 1744 to Élisabeth Letellier, née Lescoffier, a wealthy widow at Cap-Français, provided the basis for his wealth. She owned, in whole or in part, two plantations. In 1745 the intendant of Saint-Domingue remarked to Maurepas that the marriage of Le Normant’s cousin was “one of the most advantageous marriages there has [ever] been in this colony and which matched that of M. Le Normant.” Le Normant may have acquired another plantation during his stay in Saint-Domingue in 1748–49.

Élisabeth Le Normant died in 1754 and on 5 May 1760 Le Normant married Marie-Louise-Augustine de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon, great-niece of the famous archbishop of Cambrai, François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon. This marriage was the reverse of his first; he used his wealth to buy his way into an old, eminent, but poor, noble family. In 1760 Le Normant owned property and assets worth half a million livres in France and three plantations, with 500 slaves, worth an estimated two million livres in Saint-Domingue. He built his subsequent fortune in the usual way of an absentee planter by milking his plantations and putting the income into French lands and other investments. 1n retirement he lived the life of a wealthy Parisian rentier, accumulating nearly one million livres’ worth of land in the Soissonnais and placing at least another million in perpetual annuities with the royal house of Orléans. At his death in the midst of the French revolution he still owned his plantations, and his French assets had grown to more than three million livres.

Zealous, ambitious, and intelligent, Sébastien-François-Ange Le Normant de Mézy was a ruthless defender of his class, his service, and his conception of his role under the monarch. Though a Marine rather than a royal provincial intendant, he was thoroughly imbued with the attributes and prejudices of his counterparts, who saw themselves as the king’s most loyal servants. His scrupulous implementation of royal instructions and his vigorous defence of the prerogatives of his office illustrate his own dictum that the “intendant . . . is the king’s man and reliable agent.”

James S. Pritchard

[Ministerial correspondence sent to Le Normant is found chiefly in AN, Col., B, and AN, Marine, B2. His personal dossier is contained in AN, Marine, C7, 180. His official correspondence is in three colonial series: AN, Col., C11B (Louisbourg), 4–21 (his response to the 1738 petition is in vol.21, ff.297–304v); C9A (Saint-Domingue), 49–65; and C13A (Louisiana), 28–32. Notice of his marriages is given in AN, Minutier central, LXVIII, no.474, and CXIX, no.509. The originals of some of his dispatches are in AN, Marine, B3, but the most complete collection is in Archives maritimes, Port de Rochefort (France), 1E, 379–82. Among several important documents in the BN, two deserve mention: mss, Coll. Joly de Fleury, 1726, and mss, NAF 126. For his later life, evidence is widely scattered through several registers in AN, Minutier central.  j.s.p.]

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_normant_de_mezy_sebastien_francois_ange_4E.html
Author of Article:   James S. Pritchard
Publication Name:   EN:UNDEF:public_citation_publication, vol. 4
Publication Details:   EN:UNDEF:public_citation_publisher, 1979
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   April 12, 2021