Vernet, Jacob

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger


1The pastor Jacob Vernet (Geneva 1698 – Geneva 1789) could be defined as a figure of Genevan calvinism, professor of literature and theology, as enemy of Voltaire or even as adversary of the theses of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts or admirer of the Lettre to D’Alembert on the theatre. But it is obviously the man we consider as the editor of L’Esprit des lois and correspondent of Montesquieu that interests us here. Vernet might have met him briefly during his trip to Rome (1729) without Montesquieu’s leaving any trace of it (he seemed not to know that Vernet was the author of a mocking epitaph of Father Hardouin recorded in the Spicilège, no. 589); but it was in fact Mussard, secretary of state in Geneva, who indicated his name to Montesquieu when he asked him to find a man of confidence to oversee the printing (8 July 1747): “believing he has guessed the identity of the author, and that it is someone very well known whom he had the honor of knowing a few years back in Italy, [he] lent himself zealously” to this task. Vernet was to have a difficult mission for over a year: to assure continuity in the printing by Barrillot and Son of two quarto volumes, during a period that included the death of Jacques Barrillon senior, he had to correspond with Montesquieu (whose identity the printers did not know) to transmit as they went his corrections and final additions (until summer 1748 for the last books) and reread the proofs which at no time did Montesquieu himself verify. The correspondence between the two men is rich in information as much on the final phase of L’Esprit des lois as on the reactions of a first both admiring and critical reader, who did not hesitate to give opinions that were perhaps awkward, but frank.

2This correspondence began in August 1747 (to Mussard, 24 August 1747), but problems quickly arose: in October, Montesquieu complained angrily that the “Invocation to the Muses” had been omitted; it was in fact suppressed by Vernet, who had found it inappropriate (Vernet to Montesquieu, 13 November 1747). Nevertheless, Montesquieu finally yielded to Vernet’s reasons (see a letter from Montesquieu to Vernet omitted by all editions of the correspondence, and cited by Gargett in Jacob Vernet, p. 81, note 99), but did not take up the suggestion made to him that he insert it at the beginning of volume II, which begins at book XX. The disappearance of the division in six parts was much more serious: in the course of the summer of 1748, when the sixth part, carefully marked, was being printed, it was noticed that the five previous ones had not been designated and that it was too late to redo them (Vernet to Montesquieu, July-August 1748). This omission certainly contributed to the idea that L’Esprit des lois was an obscure, even disorderly book… If we add that Vernet refused to draw up a table of contents in order to facilitate use of the work, which the author expected of him, we gauge better what L’Esprit des lois owes to him.

3It was long believed that Vernet, as the man “editorially responsible”, saw fit to advise Montesquieu. But that was in fact a power he arrogated to himself, and Montesquieu constantly ignores him: for him, Vernet had been recruted as a proof reader (a meager task filled for Romans by father Castel) and to draw up the table. He generally takes no account of his advice or recommendations. We can only give him credit for suggesting the addition to the title, besides an “explanatory addition” that he seems to have negotiated with Montesquieu (“or on the relation that laws must have […]” [“ou du rapport que les loix doivent avoir […]”]), a special mention to draw attention to the last books. He also has the merit of having properly pointed out to Montesquieu an interpretation (the rate of usury among the Romans) that would have drawn him severe criticisms, both erudite and religious, to the point that Montesquieu had to devote many pages to it, from the Défense de L’Esprit des lois to the notebooks of corrections (OC, t. VII, p. 271-325 and 352-376). But if he was right on this factual point, he seems above all not to have understood the chapter’s logic.

4Moreover, Graham Gargett shows, he doubtless showed himself to be rather indelicate, and had a tendency to boast subsequently about his relations with Montesquieu (in June 1750 Vernet was to ask him his opinion on the use of tu or vous to translate the Bible), whereas Montesquieu was indeed dissatisfied with the printing of the work, in which appeared the most blatant errors or typos. But above all, he appears to have “corrected” on his own expressions that seemed to him faulty or awkward (Volpilhac-Auger, 2011). Montesquieu was to spend the next two years redoubling the corrections, important or purely stylistic, the lists of which he sent to all the printer-publishers who reprinted L’Esprit des lois, while still insisting that the Parisian booksellers who had his confidence and preference, Huart and Moreau, work from the start on the famous table of contents. The editions of 1749-1753 thus appear as a “reparation” of Jacob Vernet’s activity, even if Montesquieu never revised certain of his decisions.


Graham Gargett, Jacob Vernet, Geneva and the “Philosophes”, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 321, 1994, notably p. 73-87.

— “Jacob Vernet, éditeur et admirateur de Montesquieu”, in Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Genèva: Droz, 2002, p. 107-126.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La genèse de L’Esprit des lois”, in Montesquieu en 2005, C. Volpilhac-Auger dir., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 2005:05, p. 152-183, and OC, t. III, p. lxxix-cxxiv.

— “Que faire des Muses?”, in OC, t. III, p. cxlvi-clvi.

— “De vous à toi… Tutoiement et vouvoiement dans les traductions au XVIII e siècle”, Dix-huitième siècle 41 (2009), p. 553-566.

Un auteur en quête d’éditeurs? Histoire éditoriale de l’œuvre de Montesquieu (1748-1964), Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2011, with the collaboration of Gabriel Sabbagh and Françoise Weil (chap. v, p. 125-146: “Jacob Vernet, auteur ou éditeur de L’Esprit des lois?”).