Voltaire's Man in America


426 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55027-007-7
DDC 070.5'092




Translated by Arnold Bennett
Reviewed by Leonard Adams

Leonard Adams is a professor of French Studies at the University of


Originally entitled L’Epoque de Voltaire au Canada, this book is now
published under an arguably more appropriate name since the central
figure is Fleury Mesplet (1734–1794), descendent of a family of
Lyonnais printers. Lagrave paints a detailed portrait of a man who,
after having embraced the Enlightenment principle of freedom of thought
and expression, set out on an itinerary that took him to London,
England, and eventually to Philadelphia. There he became the official
printer to the American insurgents before migrating to Montreal. In New
France, Mesplet, with the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin and other
founders of the American state, devoted himself to the diffusion of
Voltairean ideas and campaigned against despotism, superstition,
obscurantism, and slavery in the pages of the bilingual press, which he
pioneered. He advocated a new constitution for Quebec and public
education to replace the existing confessionally dominated system. Not
surprisingly, his skilfully crafted articles in the pages of what later
came to be known as the Montreal Gazette drew fire from the Catholic
clergy and brought harassment, which threatened to stifle the pivotal
concept of free speech that he was determined to promote. Anglophone
historians working on the evolution of the literary and political press
in Quebec, and, particularly on the founding of the Montreal Gazette,
will find much in this work to pique their interest.

Based on a wide selection of archival sources scrupulously
investigated, Lagrave’s work represents documentary reporting of a
very high order—perhaps a little too detailed for the general reader
but a godsend for scholars specializing in French Canada’s colorful
intellectual past. At every turn, references are appropriately brought
to bear on the activities of Mesplet, his collaborators, and his

Translation is always a risky exercise, and the risk increases if the
translator is not absolutely at ease with both languages. Bennett’s
translation is very satisfactory, although a few renderings could be
improved. The chronology, the archival facsimiles and the index should
prove invaluable to scholars, who will surely appreciate having access
to the fullest biography to date of Fleury Mesplet.


Lagrave, Jean-Paul de., “Voltaire's Man in America,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 23, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/2552.