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MESPLET, FLEURY, printer, publisher, and bookseller; b. 10 Jan. 1734 in Marseilles, France, son of Jean-Baptiste Mesplet and Antoinette Capeau; d. 24 Jan. 1794 in Montreal (Que.).
It has always been assumed that Fleury Mesplet was born in Lyons rather than in Marseilles, and he did in fact spend his youth in Lyons, where his family had settled. His father, a native of Agen, was a printer, but it is not known whether he was a master printer or a journeyman; it is uncertain, therefore, whether Fleury apprenticed with his father, who died in 1760, or in a master printer’s shop in Lyons. Nothing in Fleury’s career up to this point explains his departure in 1773 for England, where he set up a printing business near Covent Garden in London, but the economic situation in France and the difficulties facing the printing trade in Lyons perhaps led him to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Mesplet may have met Benjamin Franklin in London; he was certainly well aware of the conflict between Great Britain and her colonies on the American continent. In any case, a wish to try his luck overseas is sufficient explanation for his departure for America. Taking his printing equipment with him, he settled in Philadelphia in 1774 with his wife, Marie Mirabeau, whom he had married around 1765 at Lyons, and went into partnership with another printer. Except for the Lettre adressée aux habitans de la province de Québec, ci-devant le Canada, which the first Continental Congress had him print, Mesplet received almost no orders. But he did meet Charles Berger, a compatriot in better circumstances, who was to become his financial backer. Mesplet was attracted by the province of Quebec, where, as he had no doubt learned, there was only one printing firm, and he set out for the capital early in 1775. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Charles Berger had to redeem Mesplet’s personal belongings and printing equipment, which had been seized by his partner; he also had to pay the rent and other debts. Mesplet’s visit led to a decision to move to the province, and he returned to Philadelphia, visiting Montreal on the way. All he lacked was capital, but political events were going to work in his favour.
After Richard Montgomery had captured Montreal in November 1775, Mesplet succeeded in convincing the second Continental Congress that a French printing firm was necessary for the success of the revolution in that city. The modest sum of $200 was granted him for moving his family and shop to Montreal. Having dissolved his partnership, Mesplet formed another with Berger, from whom he borrowed $2,666 to buy new type, paper, and other supplies. He hired Alexandre Pochard as editor for the newspaper he intended to found, Jacques-Clément Herse and John Gray as journeymen printers, and a manservant. Bearing a printer’s commission from the Congress, Mesplet left Philadelphia on 18 March 1776 and arrived in Montreal on 6 May. The American venture into the province was already at an end: the army left Montreal on 15 June, abandoning Mesplet and his company to the vengeance of those who had remained loyal to the crown. Mesplet was arrested and imprisoned along with his employees, but he was soon released and set up a shop on Rue Capitale; although Alexandre Pochard returned to France, Mesplet was able to publish five works in 1776.
Despite the war Mesplet soon felt it possible to publish a weekly paper, of which lawyer Valentin Jautard became editor. The first issue of La Gazette du commerce et littéraire, pour la ville et district de Montréal came out on 3 June 1778; from September on the paper was called La Gazette littéraire, pour la ville et district de Montréal. The first entirely French newspaper in Canada, it lasted only a year. Because of the war Mesplet had promised the government not to criticize the civil and religious authorities, and Jautard, although himself a fervent Voltairian, gave a great deal of space to anti-Voltairian writings. The superior of the Sulpicians, Étienne Montgolfier, intensely disliked these men who were engaged in a contest with him for intellectual influence. When Jautard founded his Académie, and then asked Governor Haldimand to recognize it at the end of December 1778, Montgolfier hastened to write to the governor to denounce both the academy and the Gazette littéraire. In the spring of 1779 Jautard criticized some of Judge René-Ovide Hertel de Rouville’s judgements, which concerned him as a lawyer. In turn the judge complained to Haldimand, who gave way to the pressure and had Jautard and Mesplet arrested on 2 June. The two men remained in custody until September 1782; even then they were not officially set free but, with the connivance of the authorities, simply allowed to leave the prison.
Undaunted, Mesplet returned to his shop. But his situation was precarious. Heavily in debt, he was being dunned by his creditors, including Charles Berger; their partnership had been dissolved in September 1778 but Mesplet still owed him $4,800. Berger came to Montreal in September 1784 to collect his money. The matter was so complicated that four referees had to be appointed, and these sought the advice of Benjamin Frobisher, one of the most important merchant-traders in Montreal. Berger agreed to settle for $1,200, but received only $460. For his part Mesplet, who had claimed an indemnity of $9,450 from the American Congress in June 1784, received only $426.50 from it. Another large creditor, tailor Joseph-Marie Desautels, to whom Mesplet owed $4,000, had Mesplet’s property seized in November 1785, but the sale brought in only $600. Ironically, Edward William Gray*, who acquired the printing equipment, had to rent it to Mesplet, since he was the only person able to use it.
Having got rid of his creditors, and been freed from owning his shop, so to speak, Mesplet again turned to the idea of a paper, and on 25 Aug. 1785 the first edition of the Montreal Gazette/La Gazette de Montréal came out. His business seems to have been doing well, and two years later he set up a new shop on Rue Notre-Dame. On 1 Sept. 1789 his wife Marie, a faithful companion for almost 25 years, died at about 43 years of age. Six months later Mesplet took as his second wife a 23-year-old Montreal woman, Marie-Anne, daughter of his friend Jean-Baptiste Tison, a wig-maker. After he had founded his bilingual news-sheet, Mesplet had published a few books and pamphlets, but it is safe to assume that his paper accounted for the bulk of his income. The fact that in 1793 he ordered new type from France, with financial help from merchant Jean-Baptiste-Amable Durocher, is a sure sign that the business was prospering. And yet at his death a year later Mesplet left his young widow in financial difficulties.
Printing had been initiated in the maritime provinces by British settlers from the south [see Bartholomew Green*; John Bushell*]. A similar pattern occurred in Quebec: printers William Brown and Thomas Gilmore had come from Philadelphia, and Fleury Mesplet, though a native of Lyons, had also set out for Montreal from that city. The first printer west of Quebec, Mesplet did not equal William Brown, who issued more than 250 titles, eight of them over 100 pages in length, and who was prosperous at his death. Mesplet encountered enormous difficulties in the course of 20 years’ work in London, Philadelphia, and Montreal. About 80 titles are attributed to him, including the two periodicals. A quarter were religious works, as might be expected in a small town whose population, mainly Catholic, was guided by the Sulpicians. Besides being seigneurs of the territory, the Sulpicians had a classical college and provided Montreal’s parish priest and vicar general. Orders for religious and educational works consequently bulked largest among those that came to Mesplet’s shop, as was true for printers in French towns in the 18th century. Ten of his books ran to more than 100 pages; these included Cantiques de l’âme dévote . . . by Laurent Durand, known as Cantiques de Marseille (610 pages), Formulaire de prières à l’usage des pensionnaires des religieuses ursulines (467 pages), and a Pseautier de David, avec les cantiques à l’usage des écoles (304 pages), all works previously published in Europe and printed by Mesplet without authorization, a common practice at the time. The remainder of his output consisted of works concerning justice and pamphlets such as one on the Baie Saint-Paul malady [see James Bowman]. His shop printed in four languages – French, English, Latin, and Iroquois – and his varied output is proof of Mesplet’s excellence as a printer.
If his output resembled that of French printers, it was also North American, particularly in its almanacs and calendars. Between 1777 and 1784 he published seven almanacs, from 48 to 62 pages each, with a variety of information such as a register of the priests and religious in Canada, a list of post offices, a table of weights and measures, nomenclature for contemporary currencies, and an index of known kingdoms and republics, the whole interspersed with stories and anecdotes. Mesplet fits the American model in having been primarily a printer and journalist, in contrast to his European counterpart, who was a printer and bookseller. The newspaper medium was well suited to the needs of North Americans, who lived in small centres far from their native lands and out of contact with the world beyond. The newspaper became the source of information from far and near, as well as the medium for the offering of services. The latter role guaranteed a basic income for a printing shop. Such a security Mesplet had wanted before coming to Montreal and had unsuccessfully sought once before. Yet his Gazette littéraire was an exclusively literary publication, with virtually no advertisements save those for the books he published and the paper he sold. His editor, Valentin Jautard, may have urged the publisher to this policy. In its year of existence the Gazette published philosophical, literary, and anecdotal articles, poems and letters, all material which lent itself to discussion but did not bring money to the printer. Mesplet seems to have respected this fact with his second weekly, begun in 1785. His Montreal Gazette (today the Gazette), adopting the model of the Quebec Gazette/La Gazette de Québec with French in the left-hand column and English in the right, had four pages half filled with advertisements and announcements of all sorts; these reveal the rapid development of Montreal’s economic, social, and cultural life. The other half of the paper offered foreign and local news, often reprinted from the Quebec Gazette because of the Montreal Gazette’s limited means; it had articles on education, religion, literature, and after 1788, politics, for the paper was then resolutely demanding that a legislative assembly be established in Quebec. Mesplet’s Gazette became Voltairian and anticlerical, condemning the ignorance of clerics engaged in teaching; it called Bishop Hubert of Quebec a Christian despot in articles criticizing the excessive number of public holidays and denounced his obscurantism for opposing as premature a proposal for a mixed Catholic and Protestant university.
In contrast to William Brown’s paper, Mesplet’s second Gazette was first written in French and then translated into English by Valentin Jautard, who seems to have been the editor until his death in 1787. The back room of the Montreal Gazette, like that of the Gazette littéraire, served as a meeting place for the French speaking intelligentsia of Montreal, with Jautard at its head. It was there that young Henry-Antoine Mézière* found his calling on leaving college. The Montreal Gazette led the philosophes’ combat against intolerance, the abuses of the clergy, and the feudal system. The paper burst forth in exultation when the French revolution dawned, still borrowing news from its rival in Quebec but also from French newspapers. It went even further in wanting to apply the principles of the revolution to the province of Quebec. France’s declaration of war against Great Britain in 1793 obviously put a stop to this current. For the second time in 15 years war had prevented a group of young and middle-aged intellectuals from developing. Mesplet’s two papers had been the centre of the Enlightenment in Montreal. Historians and scholars have referred particularly to the first, condemning its “Voltairianism,” and have ignored the second, which for eight years constituted the point of convergence for Montreal’s intelligentsia and was an important source of information for the public. Eight months after the paper was forced to change its tone, Mesplet was dead.
Following the practice in France, Fleury Mesplet had actually called himself a printer and bookseller, although he apparently did not sell many books other than those he printed. The inventories made when his property was seized in 1785 and after his death show few books other than those from his own press. The second inventory lists, however, a great quantity of high quality paper, ink, and pens. Thus, like his counterparts in the 18th century, Mesplet was printer-bookseller, publisher, and printer-journalist. But he was not the editor of his newspapers as was often the case in America, because he was not well enough educated. The few letters available show that he had difficulty expressing himself: hence his hiring of Alexandre Pochard in Philadelphia and Jautard in Montreal. Mesplet was, nevertheless, a first-class printer. His books may have been typeset rather quickly, but they show that he knew all the secrets of his trade and that he worked with a master’s hand. We know only a few of his workers. He had brought John Gray and Jacques-Clément Herse from Philadelphia; the latter is supposed to have left him in 1785 to become a merchant. Mesplet took only one apprentice, Alexander, the young son of a Montreal schoolmaster, William Gunn, who joined his shop in December 1789. The available information suggests that until her death in September of that year his first wife, Marie Mirabeau, had almost certainly acted as a journeyman for her husband, as was the custom in France.
Impecunious always, a victim of seizures and imprisonment, a bad administrator but a good printer, Mesplet showed constancy and an extraordinary aptitude for convincing his friends and financial backers of his imminent success. Though his estate was in some confusion any claim that he died destitute is exaggerated: the inventory taken after his death proves that he owned furniture and a wardrobe that many Montrealers of quality might have envied. Prominent on the Rue Notre-Dame because of his backroom office and his newspaper, Mesplet had built up a circle of friends which included intellectuals such as Valentin Jautard, Pierre Du Calvet, and Henry-Antoine Mézière, small businessmen such as Jacques-Clément Herse, Jean-Baptiste-Amable Durocher, Joseph-Marie Desautels, and Charles Lusignan, and men from the liberal professions such as notaries Antoine Foucher, François Leguay Sr, Pierre-François Mézière, Henry-Antoine’s father, and Jean-Guillaume De Lisle*. Making him out to have been a “republican” and a “revolutionary” was exaggerated and anachronistic. Mesplet was a craftsman who was also an enlightened thinker in the 18th-century sense.
AD, Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille), État civil, Marseille, 13 janv. 1734. ANQ-M, AP-199. Fabre, dit Laterrière, Mémoires (A. Garneau), 117–18. “Some unpublished documents relating to Fleury Mesplet,” ed. R. W. McLachlan, RSC Trans., 3rd ser., XIV (1920),