BUTLER (Dight), JOHN BUTLER, office holder, merchant, militia officer, jp, politician, and landowner; b. c. 1760 in England, son of Joshua Dight and Elizabeth Butler; d. 2 July 1834 in Windsor, N.S.
John Butler Dight was a protégé of Joshua Mauger*, the London-based entrepreneur who dominated Nova Scotian public affairs in the later 18th century. Nephew to John Butler*, Mauger’s chief Halifax associate during the 1760s and 1770s, young Dight came to Nova Scotia in 1773 and later obtained, through the influence of his uncle, a position in the commissariat at Fort Cumberland (near Sackville, N.B.). At the end of the 1770s, just before John Butler returned to England, Dight moved to Halifax, setting up as a general merchant and succeeding his uncle as agent victualler to the troops in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He also took over the administration of both his uncle’s and Joshua Mauger’s real-estate holdings in Nova Scotia. Over the next decade Dight consolidated his position in Halifax society, serving as a captain in the local militia, a vestryman of St Paul’s Church, and a town magistrate. On 21 June 1788 he married Melinda Burgess Morden, daughter of the Board of Ordnance storekeeper in Halifax; the couple was to have two boys and five daughters. Furthermore, following an 18th-century tradition of absentee representation for outlying constituencies, Dight held a House of Assembly seat for Cumberland County from 1785 to 1793. As a legislator, his only controversial action came when he defended office holders in the existing oligarchy against attacks from the emerging loyalist caucus in the assembly during the “judges’ affair” of the late 1780s [see Thomas Henry Barclay; James Brenton*].
The death of John Butler in 1791 fundamentally altered Dight’s career. Named chief beneficiary of his uncle’s estate, on condition that he adopt the surname Butler, Dight acquired land in England, along with additional Halifax waterfront property and a Hants County holding of almost a thousand acres. Moreover, he received an invitation to enter Nova Scotia’s Council. Acceptance of the appointment had to be deferred, however, since complications connected with his uncle’s estate obliged him to go to England, probably in 1791 or 1792. At the time he gave every indication of intending an early return. Letters were written boasting that Martock, his estate near Windsor, would become a model agricultural site, teaching colonials “to grow Wheat and Pease, make Butter, raise Pigs and Black Cattle, more ever than will be required for all the wants of His Majesty’s Troops.” He also joined James Glenie* in lobbying against recruiting for provincial regiments in British North America lest an already limited labour supply be further depleted. As it happened, over a decade passed before Dight, now Butler, again saw Nova Scotia. Delays in part were caused by the need to organize his Somerset estate and manœuvre for additional government patronage. In July 1799 the latter activity resulted in his appointment as deputy commissary general for all of eastern British North America. The post probably had been secured through the assistance of Brook Watson*, Joshua Mauger’s business associate and a leading figure in London politics. Butler, it might be noted, had earlier named his eldest son after Watson.
Butler probably would have returned to Nova Scotia about 1800 had not a controversy arisen over whether he would be allowed to take up his seat on the colony’s Council. Although Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth* had earlier recommended him for this position, he now challenged Butler’s commission, arguing that he could not simultaneously serve under civil and military superiors. This allegation of a conflict of interest concealed Wentworth’s more basic fear that Butler would jeopardize the loyalist dominated placemanship system that had emerged during the 1790s. After protracted delay, the struggle was resolved in favour of Butler, thanks mainly to the intervention of Edward* Augustus, Duke of Kent, who had a high regard for his talents in the commissariat. Accordingly, Butler returned to Halifax and to a seat in the Council early in 1804.
The second phase of Butler’s Nova Scotian career was highlighted by a close association with Alexander Croke*, who had become judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court in 1801. The two men, both English born, shared the view that colonials, such as Wentworth, should never be trusted with high office in the imperial establishment. They also cooperated in seeking to minimize the influence of the assembly in public affairs. Their pursuit of ultra-tory, high Anglican ideals had little impact, other than to cripple the fledgling King’s College [see William Cochran], an institution that Butler served as treasurer to the board of governors, by their insistence that prospective students subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.
Apart from his association with Croke, Butler played only a marginal role in community affairs. Eschewing a return to trade, he devoted his time to the commissariat and to his Martock property, which he used as a summer residence. Portraying himself as a champion of agricultural improvement, he eventually secured a 4,000-acre crown grant along the Hants County coastline. The grant was never taken up, however, since he left Halifax in 1811 to perform commissariat work for Lord Wellington during his Peninsular campaigns. By 1813 Butler seems to have gone on half pay, and at the end of the Napoleonic Wars he settled in England, spending most of his remaining years in Bath. He came to Halifax in 1833 to see to his real-estate investments, but although tradition has him spending the next 20 years in active retirement at Martock, he actually died there the following year. Credit for transforming the Martock property into a landscaping and architectural triumph should go to his second son, Colonel Edward Kent Strathearn Butler, who came to Nova Scotia after his father’s death.
As in the case of Joshua Mauger, his uncle, and a succession of other 18th-century entrepreneurs, Butler possessed an expatriate mentality, regarding his colonial enterprise merely as preparation for eventual position and affluence in Britain. The opposition he encountered from Wentworth testified to the emergence of a new “nativist” élite, one that had become dominant in the affairs of Nova Scotia by the early 19th century.
Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 72: f.389 (mfm. at PANS). Hants County Registry of Deeds (Windsor, N.S.), Deeds, book 6: 284; 25: 530 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, RG 1, 173: 81; 214, 25 April 1809 (transcripts); 414, no. 17; RG 20A, 1, 1775: 21; 1776: 24; 1779: 41. PRO, CO 217/37: 266; 217/62: 337; 217/63: 313, 323; 217/70: 186, 209; 217/75: 146; 217/78: 86, 250; 217/79: 205; 217/84: 158; 217/88:12, 16, 242. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1785–93. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 1 Oct. 1799, 13 Feb. 1810. Directory of N.S. MLAs, 100–1. Akins, Hist. of Halifax City, 104. J. B. Brebner, The neutral Yankees of Nova Scotia, a marginal colony during the revolutionary years (New York, 1937; repr. ), 254, 268. R. V. Harris, The Church of Saint Paul in Halifax, Nova Scotia: 1749–1949 (Toronto, 1949), 135. Murdoch, Hist. of N.S., 3: 101. F. W. Vroom, King’s College: a chronicle, 1789–1939; collections and recollections (Halifax, 1941), 17–18. Novascotian, 26 Jan. 1846. A. W. Wallace, “Martock: colonial architecture in the Maritimes, part iv,” Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Journal (Toronto), 10 (1933): 97–100.