GOSSELIN, LÉON (baptized Antoine-Léon), lawyer, journalist, newspaper proprietor, and office holder; b. 24 Dec. 1801 in L’Assomption, Lower Canada, son of Joseph Gosselin, a miller, and Thérèse Viger; m. Mary Graddon, and they had at least two children; d. 1 June 1842 in Montreal.
Through his mother Léon Gosselin was related to the powerful network of Viger, Papineau, and Cherrier families. He was the nephew of Louis-Michel Viger* and Joseph Papineau, and the cousin of Louis-Joseph Papineau* and Denis-Benjamin Viger*. Having studied at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal from 1811 to 1819, he chose to go into law. He was called to the bar on 6 Dec. 1828, but it is not known if he practised at this time. In 1830 he was one of the group gathered around Ludger Duvernay*, the proprietor of La Minerve. He was probably already involved in editorial work for the paper, a task in which he is thought to have replaced Augustin-Norbert Morin*, who from 1830 was burdened with responsibilities as a member of the House of Assembly.
Early in 1832 Gosselin succeeded Morin as editor. Duvernay was in prison for libelling the Legislative Council. In February Gosselin believed that he too was at risk and went into hiding for a time. La Minerve was then the radical organ of the Patriote party in Montreal, but since the journalists did not sign their articles, it is difficult to identify what Gosselin himself wrote. In 1837 one of his critics declared in La Quotidienne that from his short stay at La Minerve Gosselin was remembered as a “confirmed revolutionary.” “It was he who published the famous article signed S and thereby almost provoked an uprising among the population. Mr gosselin is known to have let the author state in this article that only an immediate revolution could save the country by wresting it from the domination of the British party.”
In 1832 Gosselin envisaged publishing “a gazette of the Canadian and American courts.” This project, which would have allowed him to combine his legal training with his interest in journalism, was not carried out, however. In December 1832 his wife, Mary Graddon, succeeded in launching the Montreal Museum, or Journal of Literature and Arts, the first periodical in Lower Canada addressed to women and founded by a woman. Gosselin’s role in this venture was probably minimal. At most he acted as intermediary between his wife and Duvernay, in whose shop the printing was done.
On 4 Sept. 1834 Gosselin suddenly resigned from La Minerve and was immediately replaced by Hyacinthe-Poirier Leblanc* de Marconnay. It is thought that he then began practising law. Late in 1835 he applied for the post of French translator to the assembly. He had the support of Louis-Joseph Papineau but ran up against the hostility of the members from Quebec city who were of more moderate political leanings. In the end he was passed over. In consequence he is believed to have begun distancing himself from the Patriotes in the course of 1836. The break, however, was apparently not final at the time Gosselin founded Le Populaire, which was first issued on 10 April 1837 with Leblanc de Marconnay as editor.
This bi-weekly newspaper had no distinctive character. Its four pages contained material commonly published in the newspapers of the period. Nevertheless provincial matters had the largest share of space, such a stress reflecting the many controversies of the day. The editor claimed that Le Populaire had reached a run of 1,400 in its second month, despite instructions from Papineau in the late spring to boycott it. The combined effects of the boycott, delivery problems connected with the uprising of November–December 1837, and the hostility of some postmasters, may, however, explain the financial difficulties that Le Populaire experienced in March 1838. Printers John Lovell* and Ronald Macdonald* had not been paid for some time, and on 16 March they refused to print the paper. Le Populaire ceased publication for nearly a month, and then came out again on 12 April, declaring that it had been the victim of a political plot. Gosselin’s name was no longer on the paper, although it is not known if he had given up his ownership. On 3 Nov. 1838 the newspaper disappeared suddenly, with no explanation.
Le Populaire had suffered the repercussions of a difficult situation. Its first issue came out on the very day that news of Lord John Russell’s resolutions reached Lower Canada, and its disappearance coincided with the departure for England of Lord Durham [Lambton]. The intervening period saw the events that culminated in the first rebellion, in November 1837. Le Populaire endeavoured to hold to a middle course. It favoured respect for the established authorities, but considered it had a duty to criticize and enlighten them. Consequently it supported Governor Lord Gosford [Acheson], and then, with greater reservations, Sir John Colborne*. Lord Durham enjoyed its backing and trust. According to Le Populaire, all the troubles were the fault of extremists; its sympathies, therefore, did not follow ethnic lines. Having once stood up for Papineau’s activity, the paper then opposed it and condemned the rebellion; under Colborne it moved closer to the Patriotes. In fact Le Populaire sought to defend a moderate position, but as it reacted to one situation after another, it was at times carried to the left or right.
In the Manichean context of the period such a position was not easy to maintain. Public opinion sometimes seemed bewildered by Le Populaire’s stance. An editorial of 12 April 1838 recognized this confusion: “Distressing circumstances and the desire to avoid calamities may for a while have misled some people about the true course of a newspaper whose title indicates its purpose clearly enough.” A reiteration of principles was therefore necessary. “Le Populaire is liberal in its essence, and loyal in its actions; it offers good government all the support it is entitled to expect from subjects who are thinking solely of the country’s prosperity.” When accused of harbouring anti-Canadian sentiments, the paper proclaimed that “patriotism is not the property of a handful of individuals who could be mistaken, but resides with the mass of the people.”
Its uneasy position made the paper vulnerable to hostile attack. For the Montreal Herald and the Montreal Gazette, the publishers of Le Populaire were “rabid enemies of all Britons.” Le Libéral (Québec) called the paper “obscene,” and La Quotidienne saw it as hostile to Canadian interests. With the Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser (Montreal) there was open warfare. Even with L’Ami du peuple, de l’ordre et des lois, which was of about the same tendency as Le Populaire, the arguments were vehement. The paper found favour only in the eyes of Le Canadien.
The hostility of the die-hard Patriotes may explain these generally unfavourable assessments. Le Populaire was also one of the few French-language newspapers never bothered by the authorities, a fact that laid it open to deep suspicion. But, above all, it seems clear that the personalities of its prime movers weighed heavily in how the paper was regarded. Gosselin and Leblanc de Marconnay were labelled traitors and turncoats for a long time. Behind them stood the figures of Clément-Charles Sabrevois* de Bleury and Pierre-Dominique Debartzch, former Patriotes who had compromised themselves deeply with the government. Debartzch was often mentioned as one of the founders of Le Populaire, indeed as one of the secret proprietors.
In August 1840 Gosselin asked for the post of sheriff in a district court. At the time Upper and Lower Canada were united one of his articles was published in Le Fantasque (Québec) of 16 Nov. 1840. It attacked the views that Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* had earlier set out in his address to the voters of Terrebonne, published in L’Aurore des Canadas on 28 August. The ideas then defended by Gosselin were close to those of the young radicals who circulated this issue of Le Fantasque widely. In this period Gosselin reputedly refused a proposal from Governor Lord Sydenham [Thomson] to found a newspaper defending government interests.
After a lengthy illness Gosselin died on 1 June 1842. None of the Lower Canadian newspapers carried an obituary. At the time of his death he was deputy registrar of the district of Montreal, hardly a prestigious office for a man who had taken part in the most violent controversies of his time.
Léon Gosselin, it is true, does not appear to have been a leading figure. His career as a journalist and newspaper proprietor was rather short. But although his political progress was not unusual, it is not without interest. A Patriote, then a moderate reformer during the 1837–38 rebellions, he seems to have returned to a more radical reformism. All his life he remained removed from the seat of power and seems never to have been tempted by a political career. Perhaps he died too young to show his true abilities.
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