Philippe-Antoine Merlin was a French politician and lawyer.
He was born at Arleux (Nord), and was called to the Flemish bar in 1775. A diligent student, he collaborated in the Repertoire de jurisprudence published by JN Guyot, the later editions of which appeared under Merlin's superintendence, and contributed to other important legal compilations. Elected to the states-general as deputy for Douai, he was one of the chief of those who applied the principles of liberty and equality embodied in the decree of August 4, 1789 to actual conditions. On behalf of the committee appointed to deal with feudal rights, he presented to the Convention reports on the seignorial rights which were subject to compensation, on hunting and fishing rights, forestry, and kindred subjects. He carried legislation for the abolition of primogeniture, secured equality of inheritance between relations of the same degree, and between men and women.
His numerous reports to the Constituent Assembly were supplemented by popular exposition of current legislation in the Journal de legislation. On the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly he became judge of the criminal court at Douai. He was no advocate of violent measures; but, as deputy to the Convention, he voted for the death of Louis XVI, and as a member of the council of legislation he presented to the Convention on September 17, 1793 the infamous law permitting the detention of suspects.
He was closely allied with his namesake Merlin "of Thionville and, after the counter-revolution which brought about the fall of Robespierre, he became president of the Convention and a member of the Committee of Public Safety. His efforts were primarily directed to the prevention of any recrudescence of the tyranny exercised by the Jacobin Club, the commune of Paris, and the revolutionary tribunal. He persuaded the Committee of Safety to take upon itself the closing of the Jacobin Club, on the ground that it was an administrative rather than a legislative measure. He recommended the readmission of the survivors of the Girondin party to the Convention, and drew up a law limiting the right of insurrection; he had also a considerable share in the foreign policy of the victorious republic.
With Cambacrs he had been commissioned in April 1794 to report on the civil and criminal legislation of France, with the result that after eighteen months work he produced his Rapport et projet de code des délits et des peines (10 Vendémiaire, an. IV). Merlin's code abolished confiscation, branding and imprisonment for life, and was based chiefly on the penal code drawn up in September 1791. He was made minister of justice (October 30, 1795) under the Directory, and showed excessive rigour against the emigrants. After the coup d'état of the 18th Fructidor he became (September 5, 1797) one of the five directors, and was accused of the various failures of the government.
He retired into private life (June 18, 1799), and had no share in the revolution of the 18th Brumaire. Under the consulate he accepted a modest place in the court of cassation, where he soon became procureur-gnral. Although he had no share in drawing up the Napoleonic code, he did more than any other lawyer to fix its interpretation. He became a member of the council of state, count of the empire, and grand officer of the Legion of Honor; but having resumed his functions during the Hundred Days, he was one of those banished on the second restoration.
The years of his exile were devoted to his Repertoire de jurisprudence (5th ed., 18 vols., Paris, 1827-1828) and to his Recueil alphabtique des questions de droit (4th ed., 8 vols., Paris, 1827-1828). At the revolution of 1830 he was able to return to France, when he re-entered the Institute of France, of which he had been an original member, being admitted to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. He died in Paris on the 26th of December 1838.