BERTHELOT, AMABLE, lawyer, militia officer, politician, author, and bibliophile; b. 10 Feb. 1777 at Quebec, son of Michel-Amable Berthelot* Dartigny and Marie-Angélique Bazin; d. there unmarried 24 Nov. 1847
The Berthelots were descended from Charles Berthelot, the son of a merchant grocer in Paris, who came to New France in 1726. At Quebec he married Thérèse Roussel, daughter of Timothée Roussel*, a surgeon there. Having a great talent for business, he became prosperous within a few years and built up a substantial fortune. In 1748 he bought the fief of Villeray, outside the Porte Saint-Louis where the Grande Allée now runs. His son, Michel-Amable Berthelot Dartigny, who inherited his land and fortune, turned to the professions of lawyer and notary. In 1792 he was elected for the riding of Quebec to the first house of assembly of Lower Canada.
Amable Berthelot was the third of seven children, four of whom died in infancy. From 1785 till 1793 he did his classical studies at the Petit Séminaire de Québec. Following in his father’s footsteps he then went into law, articling in the office of Jean-Antoine Panet*, a prominent Quebec lawyer. On 17 Jan. 1799, at the age of 21, he was called to the bar. His entire training had been the customary one given to the son of a bourgeois family in the late 18th century. In his formative years he acquired a pronounced and lasting taste for research and study and began to build up an excellent private library.
As a young lawyer Berthelot settled in Trois-Rivières, where he opened an office. He soon succeeded in acquiring a good many clients and he became one of the leading citizens of his adopted town. During the War of 1812 he served as a captain in the 1st Battalion of the Trois-Rivières militia, which was under the command of Louis-Charles Foucher. He was rewarded with land grants for his services to the crown. In 1814, towards the end of the war, he too was tempted by political life; he ran for the town of Trois-Rivières and was elected to the House of Assembly along with Charles Richard Ogden*. At Quebec Berthelot, like his father before him, joined the Canadian party. He did not, however, give his support immediately to the young Louis-Joseph Papineau*, who had been an assemblyman since 1808 In the 1815 session he supported Jean-Thomas Taschereau* for the office of speaker rather than Papineau. Berthelot retained his seat until 1816.
By 1820 he had amassed a personal fortune enabling him to retire from the practice of law to concentrate on travel and study. He closed his office in Trois-Rivières and left Lower Canada for France Europe must certainly have long held a fascination for an intellectual such as Berthelot. He lived in France for four years, from 1820 till 1824, during which he discovered the Paris of Louis XVIII and, through his fortune, had entrée to the salons of the capital. His love of books was abundantly satisfied, and it was no doubt during this stay that he in large measure built up the rich library of historical works for which he would later become known.
Shortly after returning to Lower Canada in 1824 Berthelot was again elected for Trois-Rivières, which he represented until 1827. Defeated that year when he stood for Upper Town Quebec, he retired from public life for some time. In 1831 he made plans for another trip to France. Just before sailing, he decided to put his library up for sale. The transaction was conducted by the usual auction, held on 23 Aug. 1831 in the Hôtel Malhiot at Quebec. The advertisement for this event, which appeared in the Montreal newspaper La Minerve, mentioned that the sale involved “a collection of nearly fifteen hundred volumes of rare and valuable books on religion, law, government, literature, and history.” It is known that a catalogue of this imposing collection was published at the time, but unfortunately there is no copy of it extant. Part of the library’s contents are nevertheless known through an article that Michel Bibaud* published in the Montreal Magasin du Bas-Canada in 1832 and a report by the House of Assembly’s librarian, who bought several of the historical works. Not knowing how long he would stay in Europe, Berthelot may have preferred selling his collection to taking it with him or storing it at Quebec for several years.
Whatever the case, having returned to Lower Canada in 1834, Berthelot decided to take up permanent residence in his home town. That year he returned to politics and was elected to the assembly for Upper Town Quebec. He kept his seat until the constitution was suspended in 1838. During those critical years Berthelot, who was timid by nature and disinclined to engage in polemics, broke from the Patriote party to join the ranks of the Quebec party, in which Elzéar Bédard, Étienne Parent*, John Neilson, and other moderate nationalists from the Quebec region were prominent. In February 1835, during a debate in the house, he summed up his position with the maxim: Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re (“Be steadfast in principle, conciliatory in action”). The aphorism does, in fact, describe Berthelot’s own political activity. As an assemblyman he was especially interested in questions concerning education. Following the union of Upper and Lower Canada he concluded his political career by sitting for Kamouraska from 1841 till 1847.
Berthelot seems to have been most at ease when immersed in intellectual activity. He took an interest in history for many years and published essays on various aspects of historical archaeology. His interest in research was shared by a number of well-known Canadians in the early 19th century who were investigating the origins of New France, among them Michel Bibaud, Joseph-François Perrault, and Georges-Barthélemi Faribault*, and with whom Berthelot often had occasion to exchange ideas. While putting his father’s papers in order, he discovered documents concerning the American invasion of 1775, including an account of the siege of Fort St John’s (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu) by the Americans. Thanks to his efforts they have been preserved. During his second stay in France Berthelot formed a friendship with François-Xavier Garneau*, whom he met in Paris. Garneau benefited from Berthelot’s experience in Europe and greatly esteemed him. Berthelot, who by then was growing old, bestowed his affection upon Garneau and later encouraged him by lending financial support to the publication of the first volume of his Histoire du Canada depuis sa découverte jusqu’à nos jours. Berthelot also gained recognition for his research on French grammar, and in 1843 he published an essay on grammatical analysis that attracted some attention.
Berthelot’s public life is well known but his private life is much less so. He never married and in Paris he would sometimes confide to Garneau the deep loneliness of his single state. He did, however, adopt two children: Adèle, born in 1813, who married Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* in 1831, and Amable, born in 1815, who practised medicine at Saint-Eustache. The birth of the two children is shrouded in obscurity, and their mother’s name is not given in the record of their baptism, marriage, or burial.
Nothing is known of Berthelot’s relations with his family towards the end of his life. He died at Quebec on 24 Nov. 1847, at the age of 70, when he was still the sitting member for Kamouraska. The newspapers took note of his passing, and the Quebec bar formally went into mourning in his honour. In an article written at the time of Berthelot’s death Garneau called him “a studious man, rather than a man of action and change.” These words aptly describe Berthelot in his public career and in his personal inclinations and gifts.
In addition to two speeches, on education and on a legislative bill dealing with mortgages, Berthelot published several treatises on historical archaeology, including Dissertation sur le canon de bronze que l’on voit dans le musée de M. Chasseur, à Québec (Québec, 1830) and Discours fait devant la Société de discussion de Québec, le 15 juillet 1844, sur le vaisseau trouvé à l’embouchure du ruisseau St-Michel, et que l’on prétend être la ‘Petite-Hermine’ de Jacques Cartier (Québec, 1844). His research into French grammar resulted in two works: Essai de grammaire française suivant les principes de l’abbé Girard (Québec, 1840) and Essai d’analyses grammaticales suivant les principes de l’abbé Girard (Québec, 1843; nouv. éd., 1847).
The Division de la reconstitution des débats of the library of the Assemblée nationale du Québec holds files of newspaper reports on the proceedings of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada, and Berthelot’s contributions in the house in 1835–37 can be found there. His speeches in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada after 1841 can be followed in Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada (Abbott Gibbs et al.).
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 10 févr. 1777, 27 nov. 1847; P1000-1 1-184. ASQ, Fichier des anciens. PAC, MG 23, B35; MG 30, D1., 4: 498–518; RG 4, B8: 6384–87; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. F.-X. Garneau, Voyage en Angleterre et en France dans les années 1831, 1832 et 1833, Paul Wyczynski, édit. (Ottawa, 1968), 282–83. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1815; 1831–32, app.B; 1835. Le Canadien, 2 mars 1835; 24, 29 nov. 1847. La Minerve, 4 août 1831, 30 déc. 1847. F.-J. Audet, Les députés des Trois-Rivières (1808–1838) (Trois-Rivières, Qué., 1934); “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” F.-J. Audet et Fabre Surveyer, Les députés au premier Parl. du Bas-Canada. F.-M. Bibaud, Le panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891). Desjardins, Guide parl. Réginald Hamel et al., Dictionnaire pratique des auteurs québécois (Montréal, 1976). Le Jeune, Dictionnaire, 1: 165. H. J. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving). P.-G. Roy, Les avocats de la région de Québec; Fils de Québec, 2: 186–87. Wallace, Macmillan dict. Serge Gagnon, Le Québec et ses historiens de 1840 à 1920: la Nouvelle-France de Garneau à Groulx (Québec, 1978). Labarrère-Paulé, Les instituteurs laïques. Edmond Lareau, Histoire de la littérature canadienne (Montréal, 1874). Mason Wade, Les Canadiens français, de 1760 à nos jours, Adrien Venne et Francis Dufau-Labeyrie, trad. (2e éd., 2v., Ottawa, 1966). “Bibliophile,” Magasin du Bas-Canada (Montréal), 1 (1832): 63–65. [Hervé Biron], “Ceux qui firent notre pays: Amable Berthelot,” Le Nouvelliste (Trois-Rivières), 10 déc. 1946: 2. “La famille Berthelot d’Artigny,” BRH, 41 (1935): 3–38. Antoine Roy, “Sur quelques ventes aux enchères et bibliothèques privées,” Cahiers des Dix, 26 (1961): 219–33.