Barbé-Marbois had an extremely long (sixty-six years) and chequered (he was sacked by Napoleon twice) career. Born in Metz the son of grocer he soon became director of the Metz mint. After serving briefly as a diplomat in Europe (Ratisbon, Dresden, Munich) he accompanied his boss to America where he became freindly with George Washington and married the daughter of a colleague, Moore, businessman, banker and president of the executive court of Pennsylvania. In 1785 he became intendant of the French colony of Saint-Domingue during the Ancien Régime. At the close of 1789, he was driven by an uprising to return to France. At this point his two patrons, the Marquis de La Luzerne and the Maréchal de Castries both emigrated and Barbé Marbois was forced to place his services at the disposal of the French Revolutionary government, In 1791 he was sent to Regensburg and later Vienna. But when war was declared he ‘left the service’ and retired to estate at Metz to write book on botany.
In 1795 he was elected to the Council of the Ancients (his sister had married Kellermann père), where his reactionary attitude brought him criticism from hardline revoultionaries. He was deported to Guyana on a trumped charge after the coup d’état of the 18th Fructidor (4 September 1797). His experience of the tropics enabled him to survive. During his time as an Ancien, Barbé Marbois had become friendly with Lebrun, who after the Coup d’état of 18 Brumaire was to become Third Consul. Barbé-Marbois was thus to be recalled and in 1801 made director of the treasury after the death of the incumbent, Dufresne. Seven month later Barbé-Marbois was to become minister of the treasury since, as Gaudin put it, “one man alone was required to deal with the extraorinary multiplicity of reports requested by the First Consul on the smallest of details”.
Two early successes were his administration of the application of the Germinal france and (in 1803) his negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase, treaty by which Louisiana was ceded to the United States – Barbé was to receive from the First Consul a gift of 152,000 francs.
However, the years 1803-1806 were to be disasterous for Barbé-Marbois. The increase in financial demands (notably the Boulogne camp and the fleet combined with many bankruptcies and the United Merchants scandal) lead to his being brutally removed from office on 27 January 1806. He was however to find favour a year later (after Lebrun and Mollien had lobbied Napoleon) being made the first president of the Cour des Comptes in September 1807. He is thought to have performed this job scrupulously, although the archives were all destroyed during the comune (1870). Despite being made a senator in 1813 and comte d’Empire later the same year, he was nevertheless one of the four commissioners selected by the Senate to to draw up the act of impeachment for the emperor.
During the First Restoration, Barbé-Marbois was made Peer of France by King Louis XVIII, and confirmed in his office as president of the Cour des Comptes. Deprived of his positions by Napoleon during the Hundred Days, he was appointed Minister of Justice under the Duc de Richelieu (August 1815), tried unsuccessfully to gain the confidence of the Ultra-Royalists, and withdrew at the end of nine months (May 10, 1816).
In 1830, when the July Revolution brought Louis Philippe and the Orléans Monarchy, Barbé-Marbois went, as president of the Cour des Comptes, to compliment the new king, and was confirmed in his position. He held his office until April 1834.
In 1829 he wrote the book Histoire de la Louisiane et la cession de cette colonie par la France aux Etats-Unis de l’Amérique septentrionale ; précédée d’un discours sur la constitution et le gouvernement des Etats-Unis (“History of Louisiana and of Its Cession to the United States of Northern America; Preceded by a Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States”).
He also published other texts, including:
Reflexions sur la colonie de Saint-Domingue (“Thoughts on the Colony of Santo Domingo”, 1794)
De la Guyane, etc. (“On [French] Guiana”, 1822)
Journal d’un deporté non jugé (“Diary of a Non-Tried Deportee” , 2 vols., 1834)
Source: Dictionnaire Napoléon (ed. J. Tulard), Fayard 1999, s.v., ‘Barbé-Marbois’, pp. 166-168