1Laurent Angliviel (1726-1773), born in Valleraugue in the Cévennes, died in Paris, a man of letters attached to the king’s library. A Huguenot, he prudently adopted the pseudonym of La Beaumelle upon entering the academy of Geneva in 1745. Poet, translator of Horace and Tacitus, journalist, freemason, pamphleteer, historian, philosophe, and advocate of tolerance, he lived in Languedoc, Geneva, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam. He owed his celebrity, beyond his clashes with Voltaire, marked by an annotated edition of the Siècle de Louis XIV (1752) and La Henriade (1775), to the success throughout Europe of a political work, Mes pensées ou le Qu’en dira-t-on? (1751) and a vast historical fresco rivaling Le Siècle de Louis XIV, his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Mme de Maintenon et à celle du siècle passé (1755-1756), followed by the publication of the marquise’s correspondence. He was twice incarcerated at the Bastille.
2At the age of twenty-four La Beaumelle was received by Montesquieu at his residence in Paris on 31 July 1750. He recorded this memorable encounter, which he owed to their common friend La Condamine, in a notebook (CM 3, p. 91-94). While living in Copenhagen, he went to Paris to obtain the authorization to enter the service of the king of Denmark. He had just published five enthusiastic letters on L’Esprit des lois in volume III of a periodical he was publishing, La Spectatrice danoise (CM 3, p. 9-89). Several other visits are attested through the end of November, the date of his return to Denmark. Montesquieu helped La Beaumelle obtain his authorization. The correspondence of this period attests that Montesquieu furnished La Beaumelle the needed materials for the writing of the Suite de la Défense de L’Esprit des lois, published in Amsterdam under the rubric Berlin, 1751. Back in Copenhagen, La Beaumelle bore letters from Montesquieu to several Danish ministers, and could make use at court of Montesquieu’s esteem of him and the approbation he granted to plans for editions of his works in Denmark. When La Beaumelle returned to Paris in November 1752, his encounters with Montesquieu were frequent when the president was not away in La Brède. Montesquieu helped to obtain the liberation of La Beaumelle when he was held at the Bastille from April to October 1753 as punishment for the boldness of Mes Pensées. After his liberation, he supported him in his various solicitations of Malesherbes and went to his rescue when an illness almost took him in March 1754. Following a misunderstanding, Montesquieu asked La Beaumelle to abandon the publication which he had begun of his Lysimaque. The number of letters already published attests that La Beaumelle counted among Montesquieu’s principal correspondents during the last five years of his life. La Beaumelle, wary of the police and preparing to leave France to go publish his Mémoires de Maintenon in Amsterdam, was not a party to Montesquieu’s funeral convoy.
3Montesquieu was struck by the knowledge of L’Esprit des lois manifested by this young admirer, at a time when the real readers of the work were still rare. He notes his objections to the presentation of the political regime in Denmark as a form of despotism (Lauriol, 1995). He was engaged by his vivacity and intelligence and the quality of his style. We can gauge by the esteem and even affection that Montesquieu showed him what a loss his death was to him. Their common friend La Condamine judged that La Beaumelle, because of his frequentation of Montesquieu and the documentation he possessed, was the best placed to write, alongside the academic elegy written by Maupertuis, a life of Montesquieu in which the private man could be described. This project was never realized.
4La Beaumelle counts among the very first to express their admiration for L’Esprit des lois. The letters in La Spectatrice danoise exalt “the finest book from the hands of man”. His political work, Mes pensées ou Le Qu’en dira-t-on? owes much to Montesquieu, saluted as the finest genius of his time, infinitely superior to Voltaire. La Beaumelle uses the neologism of “Montesquieusism” to designate the guild that unifies a few privileged members of the communion with the true and audacious thought of Montesquieu, which the author of L’Esprit des lois himself sometimes softened out of prudence, lassitude or weakness of character. In the Suite, he underscores the boldness of the assertions which the ecclesiastical censors were attacking, and which Montesquieu attenuated in his Défense. He even extended them: thus he gave the term “Spinozism”, wielded by the ecclesiastical gazetteer as an insult and rejected by Montesquieu, in a positive sense. Up to the Calas affair, which he was to defend as well as Voltaire, along with Court de Gébelin, he read L’Esprit des lois as a coded but explicit plea for civil toleration of the Protestants (Lauriol, 1993 and 1995).
5Some points remain to be clarified in the relations between the two men. Did their common membership in the freemasonry play a role in their relations? Should we see only a coincidence in the choice of each of the title Mes Pensées? What became of the hundred or so letters of Montesquieu which have not been found, and which La Beaumelle asserts he possessed when Guasco published the Lettres familières in 1767 (Lauriol, 1996, p. 42)? We must abandon a critical tradition based on an erroneous interpretation of a letter of Montesquieu by J. Brethe de La Gressaye which makes La Beaumelle an awkward and cumbersome ally of the author of L’Esprit des lois. When he composed the Suite, he had frequent meetings with Montesquieu and his son Secondat who knew all about his project, the audacity of his thought and the vigor or his writing. In fact, the Suite, sometimes attributed to Montesquieu himself by contemporaries and neglected until Robert Shackleton pointed out its merits, still engages the reader. Faced with the attacks of ecclesiastical censors in Paris or Rome, Montesquieu envisaged, at least by way of an intermediary, a more offensive attitude than what is usually attributed to him.
La Beaumelle, “Lettres sur L’Esprit des lois”, La Spectatrice danoise, Copenhagen, 1750, t. III, p. 170-197.
La Beaumelle, Suite de la “Défense de L’Esprit des lois”, Berlin [Amsterdam], 1751 (texts presented and annotated by Claude Lauriol et Gilles Susong in CM 3).
La Beaumelle, Mes pensées ou le Qu’en dira-t-on? , ed. Claude Lauriol, Geneva: Droz, 1997.
Claude Lauriol, La beaumelle: un protestant cévenol entre Montesquieu et Voltaire, Geneva: Droz, 1978
Claude Lauriol, “Un correspondant de Montesquieu: La Beaumelle”, Recherches nouvelles sur quelques écrivains des Lumières, II, Montpellier, 1979, p. 5-18
Claude Lauriol, “Le pasteur Court de Gébelin lecteur de Montesquieu”, Lectures de Montesquieu, Edgar Mass and Alberto Postigliola ed., Cahiers Montesquieu 1, 1993, p. 125 (25)-135.
Claude Lauriol, “Le Danemark et la réception de L’Esprit des lois”, L’Europe de Montesquieu, Maria Grazia Bottaro Palumbo and Alberto Postigliola ed.,Cahiers Montesquieu 2, 1995, p. 113-127.
Claude Lauriol, “De l’autorité de Montesquieu dans le débat sur la tolérance civile des protestants”, La Fortune de Montesquieu: Montesquieu écrivain, Bordeaux: Bibliothèque municipale, 1995, p. 225-237.
Claude Lauriol, La Beaumelle et le “montesquieusisme”: contribution à l’étude de la réception de “L’Esprit des lois”, Cahiers Montesquieu 3, 1996.
Louis Desgraves, Chronologie critique de la vie et des œuvres de Montesquieu, Paris: Champion, 1998.
Claude Lauriol, “La condamnation de L’Esprit des lois dans les archives de la Congrégation de l’Index”, Montesquieu: œuvre ouverte? (1748-1755), Catherine Larrère ed.,Cahiers Montesquieu 9, p. 91-102.
Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle, éd. Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol and Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2007- (8 volumes published).