BREWSTER, Sir David, letters, autographs, documents, manuscripts

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BREWSTER, Sir David (1781-1868). Natural philosopher.
Autograph Letter Signed to the Editor of The Scotsman, 3 pages 8vo, Allerly, Melrose [on writing paper of Edinburgh University], 5 November 1867. Condemning the forgeries [by Denis Vrain-Lucas] of letters of Newton and Pascal. The letter is either an autograph draft or an edited version prepared for publication, with excisions and interlineations perhaps in another hand.
Denis Vrain-Lucas (1818-1880) was one of the most notorious forgers of the nineteenth century, although he could perhaps be better categorised as a fraudster since the many thousands of letters that he produced and which he sold to gullible contemporaries, especially the unfortunate, or perhaps absurdly gullible, Michel Chasles, were largely written in contemporary French and on watermarked paper. These included letters of many historical and biblical figures including Mary Magdalen, Judas Iscariot and Lazarus (after his resurrection of course). The letters of Newton and Pascal were sold to Chasles in 1861 and included one in which Pascal claimed to have discovered the laws of gravity before Newton. This audacious fabrication would perhaps have remained unknown were it not for the the fact that in 1867 Chasles approcahed the French Academy of Science with his 'proof' of Pascal's discovery.

'I am glad to see in the Scotsman of today the opinions of Profr Kelland [perhaps the mathematician, Philip Kelland (1808-1879)] & Profr Tait [probably Peter Guthrie Tait, physicist and mathematician (1831-1901), who had at one time been a pupil of Kelland] on the Letters of Pascal and Newton which all have been recently published by the French Academy of Sciences and which so deeply affect the moral and scientific character ('of our distinguished countryman', in another hand) and which, on that account, are exciting the most ('intense') interest in every part of the world, where his name and discoveries are known.
 That these letters, are forged is proved by every variety of evidence internal, and external, direct and circumstantial, and not a single fact or argument has been produced to prove that they are authentic.'

Brewster adds that he had just seen in the Comtes Rendus [of the Académie des sciences] seven letters supposedly from Louis XIV supporting the argument that Newton had propagated 'infamous calumnies' against Pascal. He is confident, however, that the committee of that body will vindicate Newton's character. He then speculates as to the identity of the forger:

'I trust I shall be able to prove that the forger of the "thousand and one" Letters, was Monsieur Pierre Desmaizeaux F.R.S. a French man resident in London between 1727 and 1745 and preeminently qualified, intellectually and immorally for the infamous work which he so skilfully, yet blunderingly achieved.'

It is ironic that Brewster, in an effort to defend Newton's reputation here calumnifies the memory of Pierre des Maizeaux (or Desmaizeaux), a French Huguenot writer exiled in London where he spent most of his working life. Des Maizeaux (1666 or 1673 to 1745) was the editor of the writings of John Locke, and wrote the biography of Pierre Bayle. He had, however, fallen foul of Newton when in 1720, the year of his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society, he had published Newton's correspondence with Leibniz. Newton had seen proofs of the work in 1718 and had tried in vain to suppress its publication. He had not been happy with the order in which the letters appeared, believing that it distorted their message, and he had paid the Dutch bookseller who was printing the work twelve guineas to delay its publication.

The British Library holds several 'draft letters' from Newton to Des Maizeaux.
[No: 25738]


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