From the archives: A freethinking adventurer founded The Gazette in 1778

The Gazette was founded on June 3, 1778, by Fleury Mesplet. It started as a French-language publication called Gazette du Commerce et Litteraire. PHOTO MONTAGE / FROM GAZETTE FILES

This story was first published on May 30, 1992, in the Montreal Gazette

There was nothing easy about the birth of The Gazette. Had the enterprise been managed by someone of less tenacity than Fleury Mesplet, the paper might have died while still in its bassinet. Yet somehow it survived, and today proudly stands as the city’s oldest newspaper – by far.

Mesplet was born in France in 1734. The son of a printer, he entered the trade himself in Lyon. He was something of a freethinker and admired Voltaire. In time, his contrarian nature put him at odds with the royalist authorities and sometime before 1773 he found it prudent to move his business to the more congenial atmosphere of London.

There he was discovered by Benjamin Franklin, who was a sort of ambassador for several of the American colonies. Mesplet became convinced his future lay on the other side of the Atlantic and in 1773 he emigrated once again, this time to Philadelphia.

The American revolution broke out two years later and by late 1775 an American army under General Richard Montgomery had captured Montreal. Mesplet’s hour was at hand.

The Americans were casting about for ways to persaude the people of Quebec, overwhelmingly French, to spurn their British conquerors and join the revolution. Franklin, ever the skilled diplomat but by now in his 71st year, set out from Philadelphia for Montreal with two other “commissioners” to win the hearts of the suspicious inhabitants. Once a printer himself, Franklin knew the value of the printed word and persuaded his protégé, Mesplet, to follow.

It was not a happy trip for Mesplet. Having to bring his heavy press with him made his passage a slow one. In the rapids of the Richelieu River near Chambly, Mesplet’s boat nearly capsized, ruining most of his books and paper. And, when he finally arrived in Montreal on May 6, 1776, he found his patron, Franklin, within a few days of Franklin’s scuttling back to Philadelphia. Montrealers had remained dubious about Franklin’s message – and besides, the British navy would soon be able to return in force up the ice-free St. Lawrence.

Encumbered by his press, Mesplet could not leave. Furthermore, he was broke: before leaving Philadelphia, he had unwisely put all his money into U.S. currency, which became worthless when the Americans could not hold Montreal.

Yet in the end, it proved no great tragedy. Mesplet was jailed for 26 days when the British retook the city in June but was released when it was decided he was harmless enough. Furthermore, Montreal needed his skills. No printer had ever worked in the city before. Within the next several years, Mesplet had printed almost two dozen books, in French, Latin and Mohawk. He also produced contracts, fliers and Montreal’s first street guide.

Opportunities seemed to lie everywhere. The most stunning was realized two years after his arrival when, on June 3, 1778, Mesplet published Montreal’s first newspaper, the French-language Gazette du Commerce et Litteraire, the ancestor of today’s Gazette.

Mesplet was anything but the harmless drudge the British thought him. As a good newspaperman, he increasingly jangled the powers that be. Soon he hired as his editor a radical Montreal notary, Valentin Jautard, and published Jautard’s mocking attacks on the established bastions of church and state.

By June 1779, Mesplet and Jautard had gone too far. The governor, Sir Frederick Haldimand, had them locked up in Quebec City, and the Gazette ceased publication. Three long years later, Mesplet was released. He returned to Montreal and to his press – but only as a commercial printer, not as a newspaper publisher.

It wasn’t until three years later, in August 1785, that Mesplet judged it safe enough to revive the Gazette. This time, clearly, he wanted to stay in business and out of jail. If he was going to be critical of the passing parade, it would be in sly tones more likely to amuse than outrage. The paper now appeared in French and English (it would become English-only in 1822), and soon was being read by the prominent not only in Montreal but in outlying districts as well.

Despite this growth, Mesplet continued to be dogged by debts. He was unsuccessful in claiming a considerable sum he felt the U.S. government owed him for his aborted efforts in the American cause.

He died in January 1794 and briefly it seemed the paper might die with him. Then, within days of each other in July 1795, not one but two Gazettes appeared, published by rivals named Louis Roy and Edward Edwards, each seeking to capitalize on Mesplet’s legacy. Within a couple of years, however, only Edwards’s was still in business. His victory was somehow fitting, for his Gazette was produced with Mesplet’s press and type, which Edwards had bought at auction soon after Mesplet’s death.

While we know a fair amount about Mesplet’s life, Mesplet the man remains shadowy. He wrote prolifically, but not about himself; and others seem not to have written about him at all. The Musee du Quebec has a portrait said to be of him, but its bland features reveal little in the way of character. We can’t even be sure how Mesplet pronounced his name.

Yet clearly Fleury Mesplet was adventurous and brave. He sought his fortune in four different countries. He was suspicious of authority, and went to jail for his defiance of it. He had an eye for what the public wanted, if not the authorities, and had the skill to fill that demand.

He was, in short, a founder any newspaper could be proud of.

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