Information and Ideology in Henri-Antoine Mézière’s Canadian Age of Revolutions

This post is a part of a series entitled “(In)forming Revolution: Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions.”

By Jordan Taylor

In early 1792, a young French Canadian named Henri-Antoine Mézière published a short polemic in the Montreal Gazette, a newspaper whose printer he worked for. In it, he raised the question of how revolutions happen. It was not simply the spread of ideas, he contended, that provoked people to challenge despotism. “It would be ridiculous to mention the writings of Voltaire as the sources of freedom,” he wrote. “Even those of Locke will not adequately account for the wonderful revolution in the opinions of men with respect to government. Those authors were but little read, and still less understood.” Instead of these Enlightenment philosophes, Mézière argued that it was the “genius of information” that activated revolution across national borders.[1]

A year or so later, Mézière set his thoughts out more fully in a pamphlet entitled, Observations sur l’état actuel du Canada et sur les dispositions Politiques de ses habitants (Observations on the actual state of Canada and on the political dispositions of its inhabitants). He observed that over the years in Canada, “the townspeople had all the philosophical works; and that they read them, the French gazettes, the Declaration of the Rights of Man with passionate attention.” But all of these ideas circulating through the villages of Canada were not enough to provoke revolutionary change. Recently, though, something had changed:

I dare say that the French Revolution has electrified the Canadians and enlightened them more about their natural rights in a year than a century of reading would have been able to do… Every day, they assemble in the towns in small groups, tell each other about the latest news received, rejoice with each other when the news is favorable to the French and grieve (but not desperately) when it is unfavorable.[2]

For Mézière, it was news rather than ideas that played the decisive role in spreading revolution around the world. This was the “genius of information.” Yet ideas still hold a privileged place in the historiography of the Age of Revolutions. Scholars have done little to challenge the long-established link between the notion of a diffusive Enlightenment and a global Age of Revolutions. Taking Mézière’s point seriously has the potential to reconfigure how we think about the Age of Revolutions. Rather than imagining that observers viewed the revolutions, rebellions, and wars sweeping across the Atlantic world through abstract lenses such as republicanism, liberalism, or radicalism, we might ask how information networks mediated and shaped observers’ responses to revolutionary events.

Consider the position in which Mézière found himself during the 1790s. When the French Revolution broke out, he was a mere printer’s assistant in Montreal. His employer, Fleury Mesplet, shared his sympathy for the Revolution and immediately aligned the Montreal Gazette with the revolutionary cause. They frequently reprinted debates from the French National Assembly and early accounts of Girondist reforms. Yet the outbreak of war between the French and British empires constrained their access to news about the Revolution. Despite the fact that many Lower Canadians living during the 1790s had been born within the French Empire, they found themselves within British borders since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. As a result, they were at the mercy of the British Empire’s information networks. Because they primarily traded with Britain, ships arriving in Canadian ports mostly brought British newspapers, which grew increasingly hostile and skewed in their reporting on the French Revolution over time—particular after the onset of war between the two powers in early 1793. Indeed, even information that did arrive in Canada—sometimes through American papers—was subject to scrutiny and censorship by authorities and government-funded printers.

Canadians were quite aware of the way that collecting news from London skewed their perception of events in France. Mesplet printed one satirical piece early on that detailed a violent massacre in France, before revealing that its victims were animals prepared for a feast. He left his point unstated: an unfriendly newspaper in London could easily twist an occasion for celebration into an unholy slaughter.[3]

Convinced that British authorities were spreading lies and hiding truth from Canadians, Mézière moved to action. He believed that if he could bring such information into Canada he could provoke a revolution. After travelling to Philadelphia, he convinced French ambassador to the U.S., Edmond Charles Genet, to help him. He hired a courier to smuggle a number of items into Canada including several letters, copies of American newspapers “mentioning the repeated Successes of the Great Nation over its enemies,” and “several leaves” of a Girondist French newspaper. He also included a dozen copies of a Fourth of July sermon by Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller that not only justified the French Revolution but also claimed that negative accounts of France were “totally groundless.”[4] In effect, Mézière was attempting to build a counter-archive of information to discredit anti-French revolutionary news from Britain and buoy the revolution’s Canadian supporters.

Of course, Mézière’s idealistic efforts failed to ignite a revolution. Genet dismissed him and he eventually fled to France. Yet when we compare the relatively staid popular politics in Canada during the mid-1790s with the pro-revolutionary ferment that swept through and divided the United States during the same era, it’s hard not to wonder if Mézière’s diagnosis was ultimately correct. Changing commercial patterns meant that Americans read letters from Paris, heard from sailors, travelers, and ship captains who had docked in Havre and Bordeaux, and read news reprinted from Girondin and Jacobin presses at a much higher rate than their Canadian neighbors. Neither Canadians nor Americans had access to anything like the full reality of what was occurring in revolutionary France. Atlantic information networks were far too cumbersome and inefficient to do justice to the multi-faceted and tangled series of events unfolding in France. Rather, North American observers’ vantage onto revolutionary France was inescapably mediated through unstable and contingent information networks. In a real way, the Age of Revolutions looked very different to observers in Canada than it did to observers in the U.S.

This raises an important issue for historians of revolution. We frequently study the transmission of revolutionary ideas across space, but only rarely appreciate the extent to which the particularities of Atlantic information networks shaped observers’ understanding of what revolution looked like. In our present moment, social media echo chambers and media fragmentation have forced us to reconsider the link between politics and information networks. As it was in the eighteenth century, it is sometimes difficult for observers to know if the information networks they are plugged into are pernicious echo chambers or vital antidotes to falsehoods. But if a lesson can be drawn from these errors, it might be that if the news that we read does not—at least occasionally—challenge our assumptions about the world around us, there’s a good chance that we’re closer to the former than the latter.

Jordan E. Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Indiana University–Bloomington, finishing a dissertation on North America and information networks in the Age of Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @PubliusorPerish.

Further readings:

F. Murray Greenwood, Legacies of Fear: Law and Politics in Quebec in the Era of the French Revolution (Toronto, 1993).

Kenneth J. Banks, Chasing Empire Across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 1713–1763 (Montreal, 2002).

Michael Eamon, Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America (Montreal, 2015).

Ian K. Steele, The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community (New York, 1986).

James Alexander Dun, Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (Philadelphia, 2016).

Endnotes:

[1] Montreal Gazette, March 1, 1792. This piece is anonymously authored, but reads very much like Mézière’s subsequent writing.

[2] Quoted in Mason Wade, “Quebec and the French Revolution of 1789: The Missions of Henri Mézière,” Canadian Historical Review 31 (1950), 351.

[3] Montreal Gazette, Oct. 28, 1790.

[4] Wade, 355. Samuel Miller, A Sermon, Preached in New-York, July 4th 1793 (New York, 1793), 34 (quotation).

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