1785: Fleury Mesplet & Other Quebec Curios
Part of “A Colony in Transition, 1763-1791”
You won’t find much in the Montreal Gazette, much less (or should we say “at least”) as far their history goes. You might not even know his name, but Fleury Mesplet, a printer from France, helped create this very paper, one of the most lasting newspapers that is still in print today. The Montreal Gazette is one of the oldest newspapers in Quebec, beat only by the Chronicle-Telegraph (formerly the Quebec Gazette) in Quebec, which was founded in 1764. Published simultaneously as La Gazette de Montréal, it was originally a bilingual newspaper that brought Mesplet fame and a modest fortune enabling him to open a new print shop on Notre-Dame street.
Mesplet’s Gazette was modern for the times, including advertisements and even international news. It often “borrowed” news content from its fellow colleague, the Quebec Gazette. The back room of his printing establishment was the place to discuss Enlightenment philosophy and anticlerical politics. Despite Mesplet’s eventual success in the Province of Quebec, he had quite an interesting previous life as a pawn in the Revolutionary War.
Born in a parish in Lyon, France, Mesplet immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1774 to seek his fortune as a printer. As the tides of a Revolution started in the Thirteen Colonies, Mesplet convinced the Continental Congress that they needed his services, and he printed for them three Letters to the inhabitants of Canada. These letters included the argument that the French-Canadian people did not benefit from certain British traditions, such as representative government, that other British colonies such as New England had. (Never mind that the Revolutionaries were arguing that there was no taxation without representation.) The pamphlet was written by the politicians in Congress and was translated into French. It helped gain enough supporters to form the Canadian Regiment for the American side during the war.
Mesplet and his small company moved to Montreal in 1776, around the time as the Battle of Quebec that resulted in the unfortunate demise of one of the Revolutionaries’ leaders in the expedition, Richard Montgomery. Mesplet, ever the charmer, convinced the Revolutionaries once more that he was needed in Montreal as a printer in order to win the Revolution. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps due to the fact they might have been fed up with him, the Revolution left Mesplet behind in June of 1776, after they realised that the expedition to Quebec would not work. Mesplet was left to the mercy of his fellow colleagues, who decided to imprison him twice, in 1776 for less than thirty days, then again for sedition, this time for three years, from 1779 to 1782. Both imprisonments were held without a trial.
Fleury Mesplet’s Gazette was first published in 1785. This was his second attempt at creating a periodical, the first one being strictly philosophical and appealing to a more targeted population. This first attempt, however, marks the first solely francophone newspaper in Quebec, though it folded almost as quickly as it had been created. He would run the Gazette for just shy of ten years before his death at sixty in 1794.