Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Jérémie Witel, 21 October 1778

From Jérémie Witel3

ALS: American Philosophical Society

This letter provides the only contemporary evidence of an incident which would come back to haunt Franklin in 1782 and 1783: his subscription to, and subsequent reluctance to pay for, a pirated Swiss edition of the Encyclopédie. On February 11, he had received a visit from Jean-Pierre Duplan, co-director of the Société Typographique de Lausanne, whose firm was embroiled in a bitter and complex publishing war with rivals in France and Switzerland.4 What Duplan offered was a new edition of the Encyclopédie in octavo, 36 vols. of text and 3 of plates, less expensive than the quarto and folio editions available in Paris. Franklin, apparently delighted with the idea, agreed in conversation to a subscription, and may have even promised to help publicize the volumes. What Duplan had no doubt neglected to tell the Doctor was that importation of his unauthorized edition into France was illegal.

Whether or not Franklin ever learned of his unwitting indiscretion is unclear;5 all we do know is that by November, 1782, the Society had sent him the first ten volumes of text but had not received a penny. The total price of the subscription was £225 payable to Ferdinand Grand, as they reminded him again on August 30, 1783.6 There the one-sided correspondence ends, with the Society’s final plea for help in marketing the remainders in America falling on unresponsive ears.

Paris le 21e. 8bre 1778


Connoissant votre gout pour les Lettres et les rélations que vous avés avec la Societé Typographique de Lausanne, j’ose prendre la liberté de m’annoncer auprès de vous comme un de ses associés. Je désirerais en conséquence avoir l’honneur de vous entretenir sur quelques sujets rélatifs à ce commerce.7 Etranger à Paris j’ignore absolument ce qu’il faut faire, pour avoir accès chez une Personne chargée d’un Ministère aussi important que le votre. Mais sur la seule réputation de votre caractére, j’ai cru qu’une lettre simple (accompagnée de l’incluse de la part de Monsieur de Haller)8 pourrait ne vous pas déplaire, et me procurer l’honneur de savoir directement votre heure la plus commode. J’ay l’honneur d’ête avec le plus profond respect Monsieur Votre tres humble et tres obéissant serviteur

J Witel pour S. Fauche9

Hotel de thou Rue des Poitevins, maison Pancouke.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3Son-in-law and business associate of Samuel Fauche, imprimeur du roi in Neuchâtel, who had formerly been a partner in the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel but was now working for the rival publishing consortium of Lausanne-Berne.

4Duplan to BF, Nov. 10, 1782. APS. Duplan’s full name was kindly supplied by Prof. Robert Darnton of Princeton University. For a detailed account of the publishing wars see his The Business of Enlightenment: a Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775–1800 (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1979).

5He did, however, pay 852 l.t. for what was probably a folio edition, at some point before March, 1778: see XXVI, 235 and its note referring to Deane’s accounts of that date.

7Witel had been selling octavo subscriptions in the French provinces, and had gone to Paris in mid-September. Constantin Lair to the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, Nov. 11, 1778 (STN archives, MS 1172), communicated by R. Darnton.

8The enclosure was a letter dated Oct. 19 from Girardot, Haller & Cie. to BF recommending the bearer, “Mr. Foache, bookseller of Naifchatel.” BF endorsed the letter, “Girardot & Haller recommending Witel or Foache.” APS.

9This letter evidently produced an interview. In 1784 Witel engaged BF in a correspondence, recalling their conversation in Paris, about the feasibility of his establishing a French publishing and bookselling house in America along with his two brothers-in-law. The Doctor’s answer was kind but scarcely encouraging: there were not enough French readers in America to support three families in trade. Witel stayed in Switzerland, therefore; one of the Fauche sons went on to America and the other, later known as Louis Fauche-Borel, became one of the most celebrated secret agents under Louis XVIII. For Samuel Fauche see the Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse. See also Witel and Fauche to BF, Oct. 24, 1784, and BF’s reply of Nov. 15 (APS); and Louis Fauche-Borel, Mémoires de Fauche-Borel (4 vols., Paris, 1829), I, 24, 34.

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