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DU CALVET, PIERRE, storekeeper, merchant, justice of the peace, and seigneur; b. 1735 at Caussade (dept of Tarn-et-Garonne), France, son of Pierre Calvet and Anne Boudet; d. March 1786 at sea.
Pierre Du Calvet was the eldest in a family of at least five children. In 1758 he sailed for Quebec, eager to try his luck in the new world. The son of a “bourgeois” father, but claiming to be of a “noble family,” he left his country for “reasons of religion.” He knew what it cost to adhere to the Protestant faith, which his father had been obliged to renounce when he had had his children baptized in the Catholic church.
He left Bordeaux intending to become a merchant, but a shipwreck on his arrival at Quebec in June 1758 cost him the merchandise he had brought. Unable to set up business on his own, he accepted a post as storekeeper at Miramichi and Restigouche (N. B.). He remained in Acadia from July 1758 till the autumn of 1759, having been made responsible by Louis XV for providing for “three or four thousand” destitute Acadians, victims of the policy of deportation initiated in 1755 [see Charles Lawrence*]. Back in Canada in the autumn of 1759, he was entrusted with the mission of returning to Acadia to make a count of the Acadian refugees and report on the state of this war-torn region. He spent the four months from January until April 1760 on the task.
At the time of the capitulation of Montreal, Lieutenant Cæsar McCormick brought Du Calvet to Amherst’s attention. Held prisoner in Acadia when Du Calvet was living there as storekeeper, McCormick had been freed in 1759 and sent to Fort Cumberland (near Sackville, N.B.) with some 30 companions. Du Calvet had been a member of the escort of Acadians accompanying them from Restigouche to Caraquet.
In 1761 Murray had no hesitation in turning to Du Calvet for help in settling the thorny problem of the Acadians, who, far from accepting capitulation, were threatening to intercept British merchant ships in the Gulf of St Lawrence. He was given the task of enumerating the last of the Acadians, in preparation for their removal to Quebec. His assignment lasted three and a half months.
In the period immediately after the conquest Du Calvet devoted his energies to setting up an export business, which within a few years became very prosperous. He dispatched entire cargoes of wheat to England and Spain, on ships chartered by the London firm of Watson and Rashleigh. From 1772 to 1776 he supplied them with nearly 35,000 bushels of wheat and 800 of pease, as well as “beavers and peltries.” The wheat exported was in itself worth more than 150,000 livres at the average price of 4s. 6d. per bushel. In exchange he procured various kinds of goods in Europe including, on occasion, lead shot and “German steel,” as well as spirits.
While attending to his commercial activities, Du Calvet did not neglect family matters. In 1763, within the space of a few months, he lost his uncle, who had immigrated to South Carolina, and his father. To obtain possession of his uncle’s property he thought it wise to protect himself with two notarial deeds: an affirmation of his rights of inheritance, and a power of attorney given to Joseph Myer, a London merchant, to oppose the “distribution . . . of the aforementioned estate” before he himself arrived in London. He quickly organized his departure for England. Since his business could not suffer any interruption, he left it in the hands of two men whom he trusted, Jean Dumas Saint-Martin and Pierre Jussaume, dit Saint-Pierre. He was absent from Canada for nearly two years. The settlement of his father’s estate also required his presence in Europe. As he was already established in America, he wanted to get rid of the property in France left him by his father. Using diplomatic channels, and the good offices of both the secretary of state for the Southern Department, Lord Halifax, and the British ambassador in Paris, he obtained the permit necessary for release of the properties. However, according to Du Calvet himself, he had “to sacrifice most [of his] inheritance” as a result of his allegiance to his new king and to the Protestant faith.
Du Calvet returned to Canada in June 1766, and that month obtained a commission as justice of the peace. Leaving again five months later, he was absent until April 1767, when his business and his commission as justice of the peace brought him back to Montreal. The appointment, a final proof of Murray’s esteem, allowed him to play a role that suited him in the administration of justice in the colony. He was, in fact, a born dispenser of justice, attentive to abuses and ever ready to denounce them. A man of passionate temperament and inexhaustible enthusiasm, he used his pen like a stiletto, not hesitating to censure both the vices of the judicial system and the dishonesty of certain of his colleagues. He proved equally apt at conceiving constructive reforms. In 1769 he submitted to Governor Guy Carleton* a plan to standardize the administration of justice throughout the province. On 28 Oct. 1770 he sent Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the American Colonies, a “Mémoire sur la forme judiciaire actuelle de la Province de Quebec.” Examining the establishment of civil government, he enumerated for Hillsborough the dangers of giving too many powers to justices of the peace. Since September 1764 they had been authorized to judge without appeal “all Causes or Matters of Property, not exceeding the Sum of Five Pounds, current Money of Quebec,” and were taking advantage of this power to get rich without even “inquiring into the heart of the matter” under dispute. They were helped by the bailiffs who, armed with blank warrants, were drumming up an extensive clientele for them. By contrast Du Calvet praised the rigorous but honest way in which justice had been dispensed under the military regime.
Convinced of the need to eliminate the most flagrant abuses, Carleton on 1 Feb. 1770 issued an ordinance to take away from justices of the peace “all Jurisdiction, Power, and Authority in Matters of private Property.” It is probable that Du Calvet’s representations were not unconnected with this reform, since some of his ideas were embodied in it. He was not, however, completely satisfied. The preamble to the ordinance made no exception for the justices of the peace “whose conduct has been prudent and correct,” and he considered it “insulting” to be associated with those whom he had just denounced.
Du Calvet’s zeal and vigilance were praised by Governor Carleton, Chief Justice William Hey, and Francis Maseres*, the former attorney general; Maseres even deemed him worthy of appointment to the Legislative Council. But not everyone had such sentiments about this reformer. Through his virulent denunciations Du Calvet had made implacable enemies among his colleagues on the bench. His quarrels, including those with judge John Fraser of the Court of Common Pleas for the District of Montreal, became so notorious that he had to appeal to the speaker and members of the Legislative Council. He also had a dispute with the military forces. Like his bourgeois fellow citizens who in the name of English liberty were asserting the rights of private property, he chafed at being obliged to billet troops in his residence. The soldiers’ presence caused mutual resentment, and on several occasions he complained of having been harassed by them and other assailants who attacked his property in Montreal and the animals on his seigneury of Rivière-David, near Sorel.
A tenacious, punctilious, and captious habitué of the courts, Du Calvet knew how to use, even misuse, them. His causes célèbres with two London firms, Watson and Rashleigh and François Ribot, kept the court reports filled for many years. He even alerted public opinion by having his own arguments published.
Du Calvet had no place on the bench after the Quebec Act came into effect in 1775. However, the administration of justice did not hold any the less interest for him. His quarrels in the courts gave him the opportunity to renew his censure of the judges’ conduct and their decisions. The Gazette littéraire pour la ville et district de Montreal, founded by Fleury Mesplet, proved a suitable medium for his attacks on the judicial system. Its editor, the lawyer Valentin Jautard, entered the fray and exchanged open letters with Du Calvet. From April till June 1779 denunciations of the administration of justice filled the columns of the weekly. On 26 May Du Calvet triggered a sequence of events when he called to account two judges of the Court of Common Pleas, Edward Southouse and René-Ovide Hertel de Rouville, in an indictment aimed particularly at the latter. The next day Hertel de Rouville lodged a complaint with Governor Haldimand on behalf of himself and his colleague. The Gazette littéraire was suspended; its editor and printer were imprisoned.
The attorney general, James Monk*, brought libel proceedings against Du Calvet. The gravity of the accusation and the importance of the persons involved made association with this case compromising. No member of the bar felt ready to defend the accused. William Dummer Powell*, a young lawyer newly arrived in Montreal, agreed to plead the case, against Monk’s advice. Du Calvet was acquitted by a jury composed of English merchants from Montreal.
Sixteen months later, on 27 Sept. 1780, Du Calvet was arrested, not on account of his recent quarrels with the law but because of suspicions of treason which had hung over him since the American invasion. His arrest had been ordered by the commandant of Montreal, Brigadier Allan Maclean, on the basis of allegations by Major Thomas Carleton*, who was head of a counterespionage service at Saint-Jean. Three letters dated 7 and 8 Sept. 1780 and addressed to General George Washington, the Marquis de La Fayette, and the members of the Philadelphia Congress had been intercepted, and they provided the evidence brought against him. In a deposition on 20 October Boyer Pillon, a doctor, acknowledged that he was their author; one, however, the letter addressed to the Congress, implicated Du Calvet since Pillon admitted that he had signed both their names to it – weak evidence, all things considered. Without taking time to consult the governor and obtain a written order Maclean had Du Calvet arrested. When confronted with the fait accompli of the arrest, Haldimand did not question his subordinate’s action. His letters to Maclean, however, show that he considered the evidence of the correspondence unconvincing. The assertions of certain others facing charges of complicity with the rebels seemed to the governor to warrant more credence, and it was on their testimony that Haldimand upheld Du Calvet’s and Pillon’s arrests. Some of the witnesses for the prosecution reported that Du Calvet had incited them to join the rebels and had offered to furnish them with supplies. When an investigation was made, there was almost no clear proof. Haldimand admitted, moreover, that he had only presumptive evidence against Du Calvet. Somewhat embarrassed, he gave Major Carleton the task of seeing if there were grounds for a trial.
On 6 Dec. 1780 Haldimand agreed to the request of a member of the Legislative Council, Francois Lévesque, that Du Calvet be freed. It was only a matter of being patient for another 24 hours, the time required for Hector Theophilus Cramahé, the lieutenant governor, to prepare the certificate for his release. But a badly timed letter from the prisoner, written in a vindictive style, offended Haldimand so deeply that he would make no further concessions to Du Calvet. His imprisonment stretched out to two years and seven months, with no right to any trial whatever. The precarious situation of the colony, which was threatened with a second invasion by the Americans, in fact enabled the governor to suspend habeas corpus.
What were the charges against Du Calvet? The matter had dragged on for five years. On 7 and 9 Oct. 1775 he had already appeared before a jury of nine commissioners on the accusation of siding with the rebels. For want of sufficient evidence he had been set free. The following month he had been among those to whom Richard Montgomery sent his message urging the inhabitants of Montreal to surrender without resistance, in order to avoid useless bloodshed. In April 1776 he received a member of the delegation sent by the American Congress to persuade the Canadians to join the Thirteen Colonies. Even more disturbing, a certain Pierre Du Calvet was said to have been in the Canadian regiment recruited by Colonel Moses Hazen* to assist the Americans. A compromising document attested that this Pierre Du Calvet had received an advance on his ensign’s pay. In August 1776, after the invaders had retreated, the American Congress authorized his appointment as lieutenant and the payment of eight months’ service as an ensign. How could our Du Calvet have abandoned his business interests in this manner? An alternative hypothesis seems reasonable. Du Calvet was accommodating in his home a nephew who bore his name, and for whom he had sought a lieutenancy in 1770. By the time of the American invasion this second Pierre Du Calvet would have had the training required by a soldier. It was probably he who joined the Canadian volunteers under Hazen.
The most serious charge, but one for which there was “little . . . legal evidence” according to judge William Renwick Riddell*, would seem to be Du Calvet’s more or less forced collaboration with the invading American army which occupied Montreal for six months. There is nothing surprising in the fact that this rich merchant had been requisitioned to provide the invaders with essential supplies. Subsequently Du Calvet was to seek reimbursement for the promissory notes made out to him in exchange for his merchandise, claiming the sum of 56,394 livres. On a couple of occasions he asked the Marquis de La Fayette for his support. Twice, in October 1783 and June 1785, he had meetings in Paris with Benjamin Franklin, who was then the ambassador of the United States to France. More important still, he went to New York to present both a detailed account of costs and petitions to the Continental Congress on 3, 15, and 26 Sept. 1785. His vouchers enabled him to obtain an amount equivalent to 5,352.50 Spanish dollars, about half the sum he had requested.
Believing that he was the victim of the worst persecutions, Du Calvet had found his years in prison a nightmare. Discovering an outlet in writing, he never stopped proclaiming his innocence and demanding his release. He had to wait until 2 May 1783 to obtain freedom and to seek justice in England, that “empire of liberty.” Anxious to bring an action against Haldimand, for a year he vainly petitioned the king and the ministers in London. Tired of these futile endeavours, Du Calvet turned to the printed word to set out his grievances. In March 1784 appeared in London The case of Peter Du Calvet . . . , which was described as a factum intended for the lawyers who were attempting to clear his name. In it the facts are presented in chronological order with occasional explanations for readers unfamiliar with the colonial context, and they are supported by the plaintiff’s extensive correspondence. Properly speaking, Du Calvet was not the author of this text, which was written in English in a balanced manner that contrasts with his other writings. It is in fact said to be the work of the former attorney general, Francis Maseres, and the chief justice, Peter Livius. Livius had already taken a stand against the legality of incarcerating political prisoners without trial, and hence was all the more in sympathy with Du Calvet’s case.
In June-July 1784 Du Calvet once more stirred up public opinion by publishing, again in London, Appel à la justice de l’État; this was a veritable indictment of the system of justice, with vehement remonstrances and sharp recriminations, written in an inflammatory style. In it he appealed to the king, the Prince of Wales, and the Home secretary, Lord Sydney. He adroitly linked his fate with that of his fellow citizens harassed by Governor Haldimand’s despotism. He drew on John Locke and on legal authorities Samuel von Pufendorf and Grotius for material to support and defend their national rights. Earlier, in November 1783, when denouncing the abuses of power in the colonial administration, he had bluntly told Lord North: “You will not allow our oppression to justify in the eyes of all Europe the detaching of the thirteen provinces.” Only immediate changes and return to a constitutional régime could make it possible for hope to be held of retaining “the province for his majesty.”
Du Calvet devoted most of his “Lettre à messieurs les Canadiens,” a key piece in his indictment which took up more than half the book, to the exposition of a “detailed plan of government” designed to bring about a “salutary revolution.” He attacked the Quebec Act fiercely, seeing in it “the real, though unpremeditated, establishment of the enslavement of the province.” He denounced the régime of guardianship imposed upon the Canadians since the conquest and emphasized the vices and gaps in the parliamentary legislation of 1774. Being anxious to reinstate the Canadians in their rights and privileges as British subjects, he proposed a series of constitutional and judicial reforms. The maintenance of French civil law being assured, he demanded “the restoration of the law of habeas corpus [and] trial by jury.” Determined to limit the governor’s powers, he suggested making him subject to the laws of the province and depriving him of the right to throw a subject into prison or to dismiss from office, on his own authority, members of the Legislative Council or the legal profession. Despite the prejudices and preconceptions of his fellow citizens, who were afraid of seeing the province overwhelmed with taxes, Du Calvet sought to convince them of the value of a legislative assembly, which would give them not only “the pleasure and glory of being [their] own taxing officials,” but also the means of complete control of public expenditures. He was thus anticipating what was to be the great subject of debate in the House of Assembly of Lower Canada 30 years later: the control of funds granted. He also suggested a reform of the Legislative Council by doubling the number of members and making it in part elective, so that it would cease to be simply a “reserve body,” submissive to the governor’s will. No bigot, this Protestant recommended “the free entry of Roman priests into Canada.” The six other articles of his plan bore particularly on the appointment of six representatives of the colony to the “British senate,” naturalization of Canadians, the restoration of the Conseil Supérieur as a judicial court, the formation of a regiment of native-born Canadians, freedom of the press, and “the founding of colleges for educating the young.” In this connection Du Calvet recommended that the Jesuit estates be appropriated to support “public schools, suited to all types of education.” The Appel à la justice de l’Etat had a great impact on his contemporaries. He was one of the men who contributed the most to making them aware of the necessity and urgency of constitutional reforms and to prompting them to ally themselves with the British residents in the colony to win their case. He polarized public opinion so effectively and to such an extent that the Canadian reformers found him an inspiration, as is clear from the tributes accorded him by the committees of reform leaders in Quebec and Montreal. Unfortunately Du Calvet too often gave free rein in his writings to his resentment, and according to Captain John Schank* and Father Félix Berey Des Essarts, he had imagined rather than experienced the bad treatment he complained he had undergone on board the Canceaux and at the Capuchin monastery in Quebec, where political prisoners had been held. Objective testimony should not, then, be sought in Du Calvet’s two works. They should be considered rather as the cry of a man driven to despair because he was unable to obtain “prompt justice from the state.”
In working out his plan for reform Du Calvet had the assistance of his friend Maseres who gave him the benefit of his legal knowledge. The collaboration of Pierre-Joseph-Antoine Roubaud was a much less happy experience; Du Calvet probably regretted bitterly having been caught in the designs of so perfidious a man as his secretary. Roubaud did not hesitate to betray Du Calvet’s trust and played the role of spy and informer on behalf of Evan Nepean, the under-secretary of state for the Home Department, and Haldimand himself.
On 3 Oct. 1771, in Christ Church, Montreal, Du Calvet had married Marie-Louise, the daughter of Pierre Jussaume, dit Saint-Pierre; she was 15 years younger than he. Their married life was brief. Three years later the young woman passed away, having borne three sons; only one of them, John, soon called Jean-Pierre and finally, like his father, Pierre, survived. The last of Du Calvet’s sons, born in October 1774, two months before his mother’s death, had been named Guy, after his godfather Guy Carleton.
Du Calvet thought of himself as belonging to “the class of the leading citizens of Montreal.” He possessed not only the land that the Jussaumes had owned on Rue Saint-Jean and Rue Saint-Paul but other properties, orchards, and gardens on Rue Saint-Paul and the Place du Marché, as well as the seigneury of Rivière-David and two other arriere-fiefs. However he had had to put his landed property up for sale or permit others to do so in order to pay for his lawsuits and numerous trips to France, England, and the United States. The impressive inventory drawn up after his death shows that his liabilities (94,000 livres) exceeded his assets. The estate was by no means negligible. Unfortunately it was encumbered with too many unpaid accounts (he was owed 82,000 livres) and unsold goods.
Death prevented Du Calvet from bringing his lawsuit against Haldimand to a conclusion and seeing his Appel à la justice de l’État bear fruit. After a brief stay in Canada, where he again gave full power of attorney to Jean Dumas Saint-Martin, Du Calvet hastened to return to England in March 1786. Leaving New York on 3 March in a Spanish ship, Du Calvet and the other passengers were driven into port by unfavourable winds a few days later. The ship set sail again on 15 March but was lost with all hands during a violent gale. Thus Du Calvet perished.
Apparently it was Maseres who after Du Calvet’s sudden disappearance took responsibility for his friend’s only son, a lad barely 12 years of age who had been living in England since August 1783.
Pierre Du Calvet, Appel à la justice de l’État; ou recueil de lettres au roi, au prince de Galles, et aux ministres; avec une lettre à messieurs les Canadiens, . . . une lettre au général Haldimand lui-même; enfin une dernière lettre à milord Sidney . . . (Londres, 1784); The case of Peter Du Calvet, esq., of Montreal in the province of Quebeck, containing, amongst other things worth notice, an account of the long and severe imprisonment he suffered in the said province . . . (London, 1784) [This work was drawn up not by Du Calvet but by two of his friends, Francis Maseres and Peter Livius.]; Mémoire en réponse à l’écrit public, de Me Panet, fondé de procuration de Watson & Rasleigh de Londres, demandeurs, contre Pierre Ducalvet de Montréal, écuyer, défendeur . . . (Montréal, 1779).
[The analysis and inventory of the Haldimand collection for the PAC Report, 1888, led archivist Douglas Brymner* to judge Du Calvet harshly. Some members of the Royal Society of Canada, such as Benjamin Sulte* (Mélanges historiques (Malchelosse), VII, 76–98), Francis-Joseph Audet* (“Sir Frédéric Haldimand,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., XVII (1923), sect.i, 127–49), and Gustave Lanctot* (Le Canada et la Révolution américaine), followed his lead and attempted to exonerate Haldimand by refuting the accusations brought against him. They even claimed he was “one of the best governors that Downing Street sent out.” Unable to understand the direction and significance of Du Calvet’s political action, they saw in this liberal and reforming spirit only a “cynical traitor,” whose reputation they took pleasure in sullying. Disregarding as too categorical the judgements of Du Calvet’s detractors, the historian Lionel Groulx* (Hist. du Canada français (1950–52), III, 94–95), like François-Xavier Garneau* (Hist. du Canada (1859), III, 51–54), recognized the originality of the contribution made by Du Calvet, who showed “a boldness of thought well in advance of his time.” p.t. and m.d.—t.]
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Cite This Article
Pierre Tousignant and Madeleine Dionne-Tousignant, “DU CALVET, PIERRE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/du_calvet_pierre_4E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Pierre Tousignant and Madeleine Dionne-Tousignant|
|Title of Article:||DU CALVET, PIERRE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1979|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||March 31, 2023|