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  John Louis  de Lolme (1741–1806), by Heath, pubd 1784 (after Stoddart) John Louis de Lolme (1741–1806), by Heath, pubd 1784 (after Stoddart)
Lolme, John Louis de (1741–1806), political writer, was born in Geneva on 28 October 1741, the son of John de Lolme. Little is known of de Lolme's early life, aside from his education in law at the Collège de Genève and his qualification as a notary and soon after as an advocate in the 1760s. In Geneva he came to prominence as a member of the représentant movement, which believed that France increasingly treated Geneva as a protectorate, and that the city's magistrates had become agents of French government policy. By the mid-1760s the représentants were demanding constitutional and legal reform and on 15 December 1767 de Lolme published Purification des trois points de droit souillés, a combative attack on the city's ruling magistracy, followed in January 1767 by an account of Genevan sovereignty again critical of the magistrates. The Purification was condemned by the authorities and de Lolme was expelled from the city, whereupon he moved to Britain, allegedly with the help of funds from a fellow représentant, Etienne Clavière.

De Lolme now began a lifetime's study of the British government. His interest in this subject was stimulated, he later claimed, by the peculiarity of the system and by his earlier political experiences, which had given him ‘insight into the first real principles of governments’. His views were heavily influenced by Montesquieu, whose writing he had encountered in Geneva. In 1769 he began work on a major study of the British constitution that aimed to show the benefits of a balanced constitution, and claimed to have identified in British government the practical means by which freedom could be reconciled with political stability. He praised the jury system in particular, and admired the way in which monarchical authority had been effectively and beneficially limited by the settlement of 1688.

De Lolme's book was first written in French, and published in the Netherlands in 1771 as the Constitution d'Angleterre, ou, État du gouvernement anglais comparé avec la forme républicair et avec les autres monarchies de l'Europe. The study, which was published in numerous French editions in continental Europe (and in England in 1785), was widely praised as a superior account of the British constitution, comparable with the eleventh book of Montesquieu's L'esprit des lois and William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. The circumstances in which the work appeared in English are somewhat obscure. Parts of the study first appeared in English as an anonymous pamphlet, A Parallel between the English Constitution and the Former Government of Sweden (1772). Generally treated as de Lolme's work, though translated by another hand, the pamphlet attracted considerable attention in London political circles. An anonymous response attacked its factual inaccuracies while respecting its ‘acuteness of comprehension’. At the same time, de Lolme was seeking subscriptions for the publication of a translation of his book, only to find that one had already been begun by two booksellers. He paid £10 for them to drop their undertaking, and the first full and credited English edition was published as The Constitution of England, or, An Account of the English Government in 1775. It has been suggested that he was assisted in the translation by Baron Maseres, and the quality of the translation would appear to support this assertion. It is striking that a passage from the 1775 edition of The Constitution of England appeared previously in the preface to the Junius letters written as early as November 1771 and published in 1772. This coincidence led to the conjecture that de Lolme and Junius were the same person. The theory was elaborately worked out by Thomas Busby in Arguments and facts demonstrating that the letters of Junius were written by John Louis de Lolme (1816). It is impossible to determine whether Junius saw the translation before publication or whether de Lolme adopted Junius's translation of the passage.

The Constitution of England, which reached a fourth (revised) edition in 1784, proved a great success. For a time de Lolme was fêted by the London political establishment. Proceeds from the sale of the book should have given de Lolme a comfortable income, but through improvidence and, it was rumoured, dissipation, gambling, and speculation, he remained in almost constant poverty. Isaac Disraeli, who mentions that de Lolme received relief from the Royal Literary Fund, and that ‘the walls of the Fleet too often enclosed the English Montesquieu’, considered his misfortunes a national reproach (D'Israeli, 2.262–3). Thomas Busby recalled that de Lolme was ‘exalted and neglected, lauded with commendation and consigned to poverty’ (Machelon, 30). De Lolme's penury regularly led him to take on hack work and in 1777 he revised Jacques Boileau's Historia flagellantium as History of the Flagellants, or, The Advantages of Discipline; four editions of this work were followed by its revision and republication as Memorials of Human Superstition (1784). Having great conversational powers—de Lolme ‘has been compared to Burke’, noted one of his editors, ‘for the variety of his allusions, and the felicity of his illustrations’ (‘Preface’ to The Constitution of England, new edn, 1807)—he gained the acquaintance of most of the leading men of his time and participated in the community of exiled Genevans—including Etienne Dumont and François D'Ivernois—resident in London from the mid-1780s. On occasions he appeared in fashionable clothes and moved in the highest circles, but he was always in debt. He concealed his lodgings and changed them frequently; indeed he appears to have been homeless for long periods. A later admirer and editor of his works, the politician John MacGregor, described him as exhibiting ‘the miserable and degraded appearance of a tattered and slovenly vagabond’ (MacGregor, 3).

Beyond this, only the barest details are known of de Lolme's life. In 1775, according to Busby, he attempted to start a publication called the News Examiner, the object of which was to expose the party animosity and the inconsistency of the London journals by republishing their leading articles. However, he could not pay the stamp duty, and the project was abandoned. There followed a series of pamphlets, some more successful than others, which brought him his occasional bouts of prosperity. He wrote on a wide range of political issues. In 1788 he made a notable contribution to the debate on the window tax (the abolition of which he supported). He produced a tract on hawkers and peddlers and one which suggested the ‘removal of Smithfield market to a more convenient location’. He wrote a history, The British Empire in Europe (1787), which was a rather impressionistic account of the English colonization of Ireland and the union of England and Scotland. In 1789 he used his authority as a constitutional expert to write a commentary on the regency question (The Present National Embarrassment Considered). This embroiled him in a bitter pamphlet war with the pseudonymous Neptune, who scorned de Lolme's contribution to the debate on the basis of his nationality and his disreputable private life. He appears to have remained in England until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when, having inherited property from a relative, he paid his debts and returned to Geneva. He was elected a member of the Council of Two Hundred, and shortly before his death is said to have been made a sous-prefet under Napoleon, although there is no evidence that he ever took up the post. He died in Seewen-sur-le-Ruffiberg in the canton of Schwitz on 16 July 1806. There is no evidence of a marriage or of any children.

De Lolme had an active and ingenious mind, and Jeremy Bentham was one of those who compared him with Blackstone. His work on the English constitution was for several decades the principal authority on the subject. It was influential in the United States, where, for example, it was cited by both supporters and opponents of the 1787 federal constitution. The book indeed contains many shrewd observations, but de Lolme had a cavalier attitude to research and the historical aspects of his analysis are full of errors. His principal legacy is to have helped disseminate the ideas of Montesquieu to the British reading public in a popular style.

G. P. Macdonell, rev. Adam I. P. Smith

Sources  

J. P. Machelon, Les idées politiques de J. L. de Lolme, 1741–1806 (1969) · E. Rutt, Jean Louis de Lolme und sein Werk über die Verfassung Englands (1934) · J. MacGregor, ‘Introduction’, in J. L. De Lolme, The constitution of England, ed. J. MacGregor (1853) · M. Moekli-Cellier, La révolution française et les écrivains Suisses-romands, 1789–1815 (1931) · T. Busby, Arguments and facts demonstrating that the letters of Junius were written by John Louis de Lolme, L.L.D. (1816) · Monthly Review, 53 (1775), 281–92, 457–66 · [I. D'Israeli], Calamities of authors, 2 vols. (1812) · private information (2009) [R. Whatmore]

Likenesses  

Heath, line engraving, pubd 1784 (after Stoddart), NPG [see illus.]