Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/De Lolme, John Louis
DE LOLME, JOHN LOUIS (1740?–1807), writer on the English constitution, was born about 1740 at Geneva, where he practised for a short time as an advocate. Coming to England about 1769, he set himself to the study of its government, being led to the subject, as he tells us, by the peculiarity of the system, and by his experience of political troubles in his own country, which, as he considered, had given him ‘insight into the first real principles of governments.’ He began to write his book after being a year in England, and published it about nine months afterwards (advt. to 1781 ed.). It was first written in French, and brought out in Holland. The circumstances in which the work appeared in English are somewhat obscure. In 1772 was published anonymously ‘A Parallel between the English Constitution and the former Government of Sweden,’ which was in great part extracted from the essay on the English constitution, and has generally been treated as the work of De Lolme, though done into English by another hand. In seeking subscriptions for the publication of a translation of the essay, he found that one had already been begun by two booksellers. He paid them 10l., he says, in order to engage them to drop their undertaking, and published the first English edition in 1775. It has been suggested that he was assisted in the translation by Baron Maseres, whom De Lolme ‘for several months visited each morning at his chambers at the Temple’ (pref. to Macgregor's ed.); and the general excellence of the English makes it unlikely that it should have proceeded from a foreigner who had been only a few years resident in this country. We may presume, at any rate, that he availed himself of the translation which he bought from the booksellers. It is curious that the preface to the Junius letters, written as early as November 1771 (see letters to Woodfall, 5 Nov. and 5 Dec. 1771), and published in 1772, concludes with a quotation from De Lolme's work (described as ‘a performance deep, solid, and ingenious’), in which the language is verbally the same as that of the 1775 edition (see the passage, book ii. ch. xii.). This coincidence led to the conjecture that De Lolme and Junius were the same person. The theory was elaborately worked out by Dr. Busby in ‘Arguments and Facts demonstrating that the Letters of Junius were written by John Louis de Lolme, LL.D., Advocate’ (1816). It has never been regarded as a theory deserving serious consideration. As to the quotation, there is nothing to decide whether Junius saw the translation before publication, or De Lolme adopted Junius's translation of the passage. The essay, which reached a fourth edition in 1784, must have yielded considerable profits; but through improvidence, and, it is said, dissipation, gambling, and speculation, De Lolme remained in constant poverty. D'Israeli, who mentions that De Lolme received relief from the Literary Fund, and that ‘the walls of the Fleet too often enclosed the English Montesquieu,’ considers his misfortunes a national reproach (Calamities of Authors, ii. 262–3), but in fact he made it difficult for any one to befriend him. Having great conversational powers—he ‘has been compared to Burke,’ says one of his editors, ‘for the variety of his allusions, and the felicity of his illustrations’ (pref. to 1807 ed.)—he gained the acquaintance of most of the leading men of his time. But he was always in debt; he concealed his lodgings and changed them frequently; and he was slovenly in his person. It is not surprising, therefore, that his friends fell off, and that he did not advance himself. Little, however, is known of the details of his life, beyond the publication of the books and pamphlets of which a list is given below. Though none of them, save the essay on the constitution, is of any permanent value, they show him to have been a man of active and ingenious mind. In 1775, according to Dr. Busby, he projected 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, but he could not pay the stamp duty, and the project was given up. He appears to have remained in England till about the beginning of this century, making a precarious living by his pen. 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. He died in March 1807 (Gent. Mag. lxxvii. 485. In the Biog. Universelle the date of his death is given as 16 July 1806).
De Lolme's treatise on the English constitution formerly enjoyed a high reputation. It appeared at a favourable moment, when the rise of modern radicalism made constitutional questions of engrossing interest; it flattered the national pride by representing England as the only country where the government was at once strong and free; it was written in an easy style; and, until recently, it kept a secure place through the absence of any good systematic work on the English constitution. It threw little, if any, fresh light on the subject. A foreign critic has truly described it as an elaboration of a single short chapter of Montesquieu (i.e. bk. xi. ch. vi.; Mohl, Staatswissenschaften, ii. 43). Bentham, indeed, comparing him with Blackstone, says: ‘Our author has copied, but Mr. De Lolme has thought;’ and certainly, amidst much exaggeration and distorted judgments, the essay contains many shrewd observations on political affairs. As an enthusiastic statement of the theory that the freedom of the English constitution is the result of the balance of the different parts, the ‘equilibrium between the ruling powers of the state,’ it still deserves study. But as a history and exposition of the constitution it has been superseded.
De Lolme's works are: 1. ‘The Constitution of England; or, an Account of the English Government; in which it is compared both with the republican form of government and the other monarchies in Europe.’ First published in French, Amsterdam, 1771. English editions, 1775, 1781, 1784, 1807 (with biographical preface by Dr. Coote), 1820, 1822, 1834 (notes by Hughes), 1838 (forming vol. ii. of Stephens's ‘Rise and Progress of the English Constitution’), 1838 (with notes by Western), 1853 (Bohn's Standard Library; notes by J. Macgregor, M.P.). There have been, also, several French and German editions. 2. ‘A Parallel between the English Constitution and the former Government of Sweden: containing some observations on the late revolution in that kingdom, and an examination of the causes that secure us against both aristocracy and absolute monarchy,’ 1772. 3. ‘The History of the Flagellants; otherwise of Religious Flagellations among different Nations, and especially among Christians. Being a paraphrase and commentary on the “Historia Flagellantium” of the Abbé Boileau, Doctor of the Sorbonne, &c. By one who is not a Doctor of the Sorbonne,’ 2nd edit. 1783, illustrated (Watt mentions editions of 1777, 1778 (?), and 1784, the last under the title, ‘Memorials of Human Superstition,’ &c.). 4. ‘The British Empire in Europe; part the first containing an account of the connection between the Kingdoms of England and Ireland previous to the year 1780; to which is prefixed an Historical Sketch of the State of Rivalry between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland in former times’ (the second and third parts, containing ‘An Account of the Changes which have since the year 1780 been effected in the Constitution of Ireland,’ &c., are by another hand), 1787. Under the title ‘An Essay containing a few Strictures on the Union of Scotland with England, and on the present Situation of Ireland,’ it was used, with slight changes, as an introduction to the edition of Defoe's ‘History of the Union,’ published in 1787. 5. ‘Observations relative to the Taxes upon Windows or Lights, a Commutation of these Taxes being also suggested, and a Tax assessed from the internal Capaciousness or Tonnage of Houses, pointed out as a more eligible mode of Taxation. To which are added, Observations on the Shop-tax, and the discontent caused by it, short Observations on the late Act relative to Hawkers and Pedlars, a hint for the improvement of the metropolis,’ 1788. The metropolitan improvement is the removal of Smithfield Market to a more convenient situation. 6. ‘The present National Embarrassment considered; containing a Sketch of the Political Situation of the Heir-apparent, and of the Legal Claims of the Parliament now assembled at Westminster,’ &c., 1789 (anon.). A tract on the regency question. An answer by ‘Neptune’ followed in the same year. ‘Among the novelties,’ said ‘Neptune,’ ‘which appear destined to mark the close of the eighteenth century, may be reckoned that of a foreigner, not very respectable in private life, nor of rank and estimation in his own country, pretending to instruct the natives of this in a knowledge of their laws and political institutions.’ 7. ‘General Observations on the Power of Individuals to prescribe by Testamentary Dispositions the particular future Use to be made of their Property; occasioned by the last will of the late Mr. Peter Thellusson of London,’ 1798, 2nd edit. 1800. A man may dispose of his own property, but such a trust as Mr. Thellusson's is an attempt on the rights and properties of other men. Macgregor mentions also an ‘Essay on the Union of Church and State’ (1796); and in Dr. Busby's list appears ‘Examen philosophique et politique des Lois relatives aux Mariage, Répudiation, Divorce et Séparation; par un Citoyen du Monde’ (no date). Macgregor says that the writing of a book called ‘Examen de trois points de Droit’ was the cause of his having to quit Switzerland; but whether this was the book in Dr. Busby's list does not appear. De Lolme probably wrote many other pamphlets, which cannot now be traced to him.
[Gent. Mag. lxxvii. 484; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. viii. 150 n.; Dr. Coote's Pref. to Essay on English Constitution, ed. 1807; Dr. Busby's Arguments and Facts, &c.; Biographie Universelle; Life by Macgregor, ed. 1853.]