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BROWN, WILLIAM, journalist and printer; b. c. 1737 at Nunton (Dumfries and Galloway), Scotland, son of John Brown and Mary Clark; d. unmarried 22 March 1789 at Quebec.

When he was about 15 years of age William Brown was sent to live with relatives of his mother in America, and from 1751 to 1753 he studied mathematics and classics at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1754 he went into an office as clerk, and then began to learn his future trade in a printer’s shop in Philadelphia. There in 1758 he went to work for William Dunlop, who two years later entrusted him with the management of two bookshops. Dunlop, who was related to Benjamin Franklin, may have been Brown’s uncle. At the end of 1760 Brown is supposed to have entered into partnership for a short time with James Rivington in New York and to have opened a bookshop with him. But he soon went back to working for Dunlop, who decided to send him to Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, to set up a printing shop. Brown found the climate there trying; after something over two years he returned to Philadelphia. He became interested in the city of Quebec, and is said to have obtained information through William Laing, a Quebec tailor and merchant. He then wrote Governor Murray for the necessary authorizations for the founding of a newspaper and for promises of moral and financial support. What Murray replied is not known; in any case, Brown got in touch with a former co-worker in Philadelphia, Thomas Gilmore, and the two decided to go to Quebec to start a newspaper. They prepared for their business venture with the help of Dunlop, who advanced them money.

On 5 Aug. 1763 Brown and Gilmore signed a partnership agreement, each putting up capital of £72. Travelling by way of Springfield (Mass.), Albany, Lake Champlain, and Montreal, Brown reached Quebec on 30 September after many adventures. Meanwhile Gilmore was off to England to purchase various materials, in particular from the London firm of William Caslon Sr, the supplier that Brown would continue to prefer.

Brown collected 143 subscriptions in response to a brochure, probably printed in Philadelphia, which announced the forthcoming publication of a weekly gazette. There were as many Canadian subscribers as there were British, most of the former being members of the clergy. On 21 June 1764 the first number of the Quebec Gazette/La Gazette de Québec came out. In addition to printing jobs, the two partners in 1765 extended their activities to publishing [see Thomas Gilmore], and they also received an annual allocation of £50 from the colonial authorities for official announcements. The enterprise met with fair success: on 29 April 1768 Brown and Gilmore wrote to William Dunlop to obtain the services of an apprentice and a translator; their former employer was repaid that year, and Brown purchased a new press for which he paid £26.

After his partner’s death in 1773 Brown, who became sole owner of the business at the beginning of 1774, continued to issue many publications. The text of the Quebec Act came out in 1774, and the following year four legal works by François-Joseph Cugnet appeared. Brown later published the Ordinances made and passed by the governor and Legislative Council of the Province of Quebec (1777), The order for morning and evening prayer . . . , a collection in Iroquois edited by Christian Daniel Claus (1780), a Pseautier de David . . . (1785), and a new collection of ordinances (1786). The Quebec almanacs, now an extremely rare and valuable source of information, had begun to appear in 1780. Then in 1789 the Gazette announced the opening of subscriptions at 2s. for the publishing of Abrams Plains . . . , a collection of poems by Thomas Cary*, who later founded the Quebec Mercury. This work was of interest both for its method of publication by subscription and for its contents, poetry seldom being a source of profit. The collection was published in March 1789 and sold quite well at the price of 2s. 6d. In all, Brown published about 250 or 260 works, mainly pamphlets, catechisms, and a variety of printed materials; only eight of them ran to more than 100 pages. Among these may be noted two pieces that had an interesting fate: a Kalendrier perpétuel à lusage des Sauvages . . . , announced in the Gazette on 20 Oct. 1766, the whole edition of a thousand copies being bought by Father Jean-Baptiste de La Brosse for distribution in his missions; and Direction pour la guérison du mal de la baie St-Paul (1785), the first medical treatise, written by Philippe-Louis-François Badelard*, surgeon-major of the garrison of Quebec, paid for by the government, and distributed free of charge to fight a suspected outbreak of venereal disease [see James Bowman].

However the Quebec Gazette obviously remains William Brown’s major work. This first periodical in the province of Quebec was published on the American model: Brown’s printing shop relied for basic income on the publication of a newspaper in which advertisements, forming the content of the last two pages, and the numerous official government announcements were the essential matter. Brown’s Gazette, bilingual from the first issues, consisted of four two-column pages, with English on the left and the French translation on the right. The translation was bad throughout the 25 years of Brown’s administration. At the time of the founding of the Quebec Gazette, Brown had thought of making it a vehicle for information, entertainment, and service to the public. He explained his goals in the prospectus announcing that he and his associate Gilmore were establishing a printing-office in Quebec and launching a bilingual weekly: “we consider it as the most effectual Means of bringing about a thorough Knowledge of the English and French Language to those of the two Nations now happily united in one in this Part of the World . . . ; by which Means they will be enabled to . . . communicate their Sentiments to each other as Brethren. . . . Or, as the Means only of bringing to their Knowledge the Transactions of the different and most distant Nations of the World. . . .” Obviously eager to provide his readers with as much foreign news as possible, Brown indicated in the first issue in June 1764 the three main guidelines he would follow: the Quebec Gazette would offer “a view of foreign affairs, and political transactions,” would take “particular care” in giving “the transactions, and occurrences of our mother-country,” and would with “impartiality” lay out the real facts with regard to the Thirteen Colonies and the Caribbean islands. In the absence of foreign news during the harsh winter, the paper would publish “such Originals, both in Prose and Verse, as will please the Fancy and instruct the Judgment.” Brown noted that in any case “we shall have nothing so much at heart, as the support of Virtue and Morality, and the noble cause of Liberty.” But this fine, principled stand would prove difficult to sustain in face of the turn of events that plunged America into a situation of revolutionary crisis.

For a few years the publishers enjoyed a degree of freedom to inform the Gazette’s readers about British policy and the reactions of the colonial assemblies, especially in connection with the crucial question of taxation. Having themselves been directly affected by the notorious Stamp Act, which forced them to suspend the paper’s publication for nearly seven months (from 31 Oct. 1765 to 29 May 1766), when publication resumed they immediately reprinted the speech William Pitt had made in the House of Commons against this legislative measure, now at last repealed. At the same time they asserted that there had been false rumours that their paper was being placed “under the Inspection” of the colonial government, and they took the opportunity to reaffirm their determination to defend freedom of the press. But with the increasing gravity of the revolutionary crisis the two publishers could not long maintain their British press “free from the Inspection or Restrictions.” They were forced, whether they liked it or not, to submit to the restrictions of a colonial régime that put narrow constitutional limits on the exercise of Anglo-Saxon liberties. Now officially governor, Guy Carleton* made a show of much stricter and more severe vigilance than his predecessor James Murray had been able to carry out, especially after the harsh warning that George III had deemed necessary to give the Sons of Liberty in his speech from the throne on 8 Sept. 1768. In order to remove from Canadian sight the bad example of subjects rebelling against the authority of the British parliament it was better to silence the echoes of American newspapers in the Quebec Gazette. Thus from 1770 on, the province of Quebec was almost totally ignorant of what was happening in the colonies to the south. Carleton’s guidelines and orders were so closely followed that in his absence from August 1770 to September 1774 Lieutenant-Governor Hector-Théophilus Cramahé, through the use of censorship, compelled the publishers to confine themselves to true foreign news, to such European affairs as the Russo-Turkish war and the first partition of Poland, and, for want of other news, to fill the paper’s pages with assorted elementary facts, more or less amusing anecdotes, innocuous short tales, and edifying epistles.

The American invasion of Canada [see Richard Montgomery] forced William Brown, now sole editor, to suspend the publication of his newspaper again, from 30 Nov. 1775 to 14 March 1776 and from 21 March to 8 Aug. 1776. He had to wait for the complete expulsion of the rebel forces to pick up his subscribers again and to operate without too much financial difficulty. The Gazette reappeared a month after the Declaration of Independence, and Brown thought it wise to reassure his subscribers by notifying them clearly of his intentions: “It has so far justly merited the Title of the most innocent gazette in the british dominions; and . . . there is little likelihood of its loosing Claim to so laudible an Attribute.” And Brown was to retain this reputation for it until his death on 22 March 1789.

Circumstances had thus prevented Brown from proceeding with his initial plan. Of the three elements (information, entertainment, and usefulness) which the founder had hoped to give his newspaper and of the role he had wanted it to play, there remained only the function of official gazette. It was left to his nephew, Samuel Neilson, who had joined him some years earlier, to give the newspaper new life by reopening it to the outside world, where attention was focused on the unfolding of the revolution in France. The new awareness of local public opinion would find its outlet in the columns of the Quebec Gazette through controversial letters to the editor and writings by its readers, and from 1789 to 1793 the paper went through a joyous and glorious period of ideological effervescence unique in its history.

A group of Brown’s friends had chosen Peter Stuart, Malcolm Fraser*, and James Fisher* as trustees of his estate. The absence of certain pieces of evidence makes it hard to draw conclusions about the data given in surviving estate records. Far from indicating a financial surplus as substantial as the £10,000 to £12,000 Ægidius Fauteux* claims, these records suggest instead a deficit. It is difficult therefore to give a final judgement on the estate.

Brown remains one of the outstanding figures in our history, as much for his enterprising spirit and pioneering qualities as for his success and his output. He was to be the source of inspiration for Fleury Mesplet in Montreal and then for the great names in printing and journalism, the Neilsons, Pierre-Édouard Desbarats*, Thomas Cary, William Moore; he holds a place of primary importance, as his monument, the Gazette, illustrates.

in collaboration with Jean-Francis Gervais

ANQ-Q, Greffe de Charles Stewart, 14 janv. 1791. ASQ, Polygraphie, XXX, 6d, 6e, 6f; Séminaire, 120, nos.259, 268; 152, no.227. PAC, MG 24, B1, 47–156. Quebec Gazette, 1764–89. Beaulieu et Hamelin, La presse québécoise, I, 1–12. Wallace, Macmillan dictionary. Æ. Fauteux, Introduction of printing into Canada. Galarneau, La France devant lopinion canadienne. Elzéar Gérin, La Gazette de Québec (Québec, 1864). Gundy, Early printers. Eugène Rouillard, Les premiers almanachs canadiens (Lévis, Qué., 1898). F.-J. Audet, “William Brown (1737–1789), premier imprimeur, journaliste et libraire de Québec; sa vie et ses œuvres,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., XXVI (1932), sect.i, 97–112.

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Cite This Article

in collaboration with Jean-Francis Gervais, “BROWN, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brown_william_4E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brown_william_4E.html
Author of Article:   in collaboration with Jean-Francis Gervais
Title of Article:   BROWN, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   November 28, 2023