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JOHNSTON, WILLIAM, lawyer, office holder, and politician; b. probably in 1779 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, son of George Johnston; m. Sarah Elizabeth – , and they had three children; d. 18 May 1828 at his home, St Avards, in Charlottetown Royalty, P.E.I.

Between 1795 and 1798 William Johnston apprenticed as a law clerk in Edinburgh. Shortly thereafter he came under the wing of such substantial members of the Scottish aristocracy as Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], the Earl of Westmorland, and Viscount Melville. Melville, as keeper of His Majesty’s signet in Scotland, commissioned Johnston writer to the signet on 27 Feb. 1805. All three of these patrons owned large tracts of land on Prince Edward Island. Finding it difficult to obtain an accurate accounting of their affairs, and likely concerned over recent reports of political unrest on the Island, they may well have been behind Johnston’s decision to emigrate to the colony in the spring of 1812.

Upon his arrival Johnston settled in Charlottetown Royalty. The following year he enrolled as a barrister before the Supreme Court and officially took up duties as his patrons’ local agent. As one of the fewer than a half dozen practising lawyers on the Island, he quickly attracted further agencies and briefs. Inevitably, he also attracted the animus of the one other talented lawyer then resident on the Island, James Bardin Palmer.

Johnston’s and Palmer’s professional animosity was exacerbated by Island politics. Palmer was the leader of a controversial political faction known as the Loyal Electors. Ostensibly organized to secure loyalist land claims, the Electors employed their populist rhetoric primarily to challenge the control exerted over Island affairs by what they called the “cabal” or “compact.” Branded as levelling and Jacobin by their opponents, the Electors’ activities – especially their strong showing at the election of April 1812 – distressed many proprietors. Johnston arrived determined, perhaps hired, to oppose the Electors. According to Palmer, he “had been but a very few days on the Island when he asserted in the public sheets that the House of Assembly then sitting was not a House but a Convention.” The house unanimously resolved to prosecute Johnston for this slanderous suggestion of Jacobin sympathies, but before any action could be taken the proprietors secured the recall, in August 1812, of Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, who had favoured the Electors. Interim administrator William Townshend*, a member of the “cabal,” swiftly moved to dismiss Palmer and his friends from all public office. Fortunately for a “cabal” weakened by old age, illness, and death, Johnston was a new and reliable replacement for officials fallen victim to the house cleaning. In October Johnston found himself appointed registrar, and in November solicitor general. When Townshend gave him the office of attorney general in January 1813, following the death of Charles Stewart*, the administrator wrote to Earl Bathurst that he had reason to believe Johnston’s appointment would “give satisfaction to the inhabitants of the Colony, as well as to the great proprietors in England.” Significantly Lord Selkirk wrote twice to Bathurst recommending Johnston in similar terms.

When the new lieutenant governor, Charles Douglass Smith*, took up his duties on the Island in the summer of 1813, he accepted Townshend’s appointments. In particular, Smith recognized that, with Palmer discredited, there was no local lawyer who could “with any propriety” be placed in competition with Johnston. This lack of alternative was to deprive Smith of legal counsel almost immediately, for Johnston fell ill and remained close to death throughout most of 1814 and 1815. When his health did improve in 1816, one of his first acts as attorney general was to obtain Palmer’s removal from the roll of solicitors and barristers for malpractice. Pleased by his admission to the Council in February, revived by the apparent destruction of a foe, Johnston was ready to aid Smith in a program of escheat.

Prior to Smith’s arrival, several attempts had been made to reinvest in the crown those lands belonging to proprietors who had failed to live up to the conditions of their grants. Each attempt stumbled before the power of proprietorial connections in London. It was Smith’s hope to succeed where others had failed by instituting an escheat of only those lots for which there was no known proprietor. His initial target was Lot 55, and he set Johnston to secure the best legal advice on how to proceed. On the basis of precedents set in Nova Scotia, Johnston recommended in December 1817 that Smith constitute a commission of inquest independent of the Supreme Court justices. He also suggested adding the abandoned lots 15 and 52 to the targets. By February 1818 Smith had convened a commission, and the process of escheat appeared to be safely under way.

If Johnston felt he had finally gained a firm place in the running of the Island government, he underestimated the tenacity of Palmer and forgot the power of his original allies, the proprietors. Correctly anticipating that Smith’s escheat of abandoned lands heralded wider proceedings, proprietors in Britain began to reconsider their support for the lieutenant governor. Palmer, in London in 1817, was able to have himself partially rehabilitated by playing on their fears. Indeed, he was able to wrest the power of attorney for the Melville and Westmorland estates away from Johnston. More ominous still was his comment in a letter to a client dated 22 July 1817: “I have a very pretty key to Master Johnston, which came from Scotland – you shall hear more by and by.”

Palmer’s key was the discovery that Johnston, like so many other agents for absentee proprietors, had failed to account to his clients for the management of their estates and had treated the revenue as his own. Palmer was possessed of evidence of one instance in which Johnston had collected a debt in a client’s name and then pocketed the proceeds. He presented this evidence to Smith and the Council in February 1818. Johnston at first avoided giving a reply and, when pressed by Smith in May, impugned the source of the allegations, pleaded illness, and hid behind the pressures of public office. The Council was not convinced, and Smith seems to have been genuinely shocked. None the less, there was little the lieutenant governor could do: Palmer had not yet fully regained respectability and no other qualified candidate was at hand to fill Johnston’s role.

Inevitably, personal and then political relations deteriorated between Smith and his attorney general. In January 1818 Johnston had been replaced as solicitor general and in September he was removed as registrar. However, he put his difficulties to good use. Belatedly realizing how deeply Smith’s escheat had antagonized the absentee proprietors, he now suggested that his troubles with the lieutenant governor sprang from matters of policy, not scandal. Claiming he had prosecuted the escheat only because Smith threatened to suspend him, he joined a resurgent “cabal” in opposition. Smith dismissed him from the Council in January 1819.

Clinging to his post of attorney general, Johnston was concerned by the growing rapprochement between Palmer and Smith, which was facilitated by Palmer’s readmission to the Island bar early in 1819. With his office obviously threatened, Johnston requested sick-leave to visit Britain, which the lieutenant governor readily granted (“Pray keep him when you get him,” Smith wrote to London). From the time he embarked in November 1819 until his return in December 1820, Johnston worked to mend his relations with the proprietors, to secure his position with British officials, and to undermine Smith’s administration by circulating rumours of a wider escheat to come.

It was a fine double game Johnston was to play upon his return to the Island. He was recognized by Smith as one of the two or three leaders of the opposition on the Island; yet he avoided giving the lieutenant governor clear grounds to dismiss him by remaining in the background as a political strategist. Thus, while John Stewart and others organized a series of meetings which passed resolutions condemning Smith in the spring of 1823, Johnston was neither present at the meetings nor a signatory to their petitions. It was only in the autumn during the trial of the visible leaders of the petitioning campaign that Johnston openly committed himself to opposing Smith’s “arbitrary power.” Free then to replace Johnston with Palmer as attorney general, Smith did so, having told London in his letter of 11 December that this action would have “the very best political effect.” But Johnston had judged his moment well, for the opposition to Smith was by then so widespread and well organized that before 1824 was out the lieutenant governor was sailing for home and Johnston was back in office as attorney general, having been named to the post as of 24 Nov. 1824 by Smith’s replacement, John Ready*.

Johnston found himself something of a hero on the Island. In 1820 he had been elected in absentia as an mha for Kings County (he was not sworn in before Smith dismissed the assembly in August), and in the general election of December 1824 he was returned by the same electors. When the assembly met in January 1825 it was clear that Johnston and his allies controlled the new house, and although John Stewart was picked as speaker, it was Johnston who led the majority. He also gained social respectability as a member of the Agricultural Society, vestryman of Charlottetown’s Anglican church. St Paul’s, and chairman of the Sons of St Andrew.

As a leader in the assembly Johnston pushed through a number of reform measures which were particularly beneficial to the local proprietors and middle-class merchants: bills were passed to support and promote a college, the fisheries, and the Agricultural Society. At the same time, having learned his lesson, Johnston was careful not to antagonize the absentee proprietors and he voted against a land assessment tax which they opposed. His most celebrated legislative accomplishment was his vigorous defence of the assembly’s control over revenue against the inroads of the Council. Johnston’s darker side was also present in the house, for even his friends had to admit that he was a “good hater.” He led a series of investigations into the activities of Smith’s supporters on the Island, paying particular attention to Palmer and making sure when his old foe won a by-election in 1827 that he was expelled from the house as “unworthy and unfit.” Appropriately, Johnston died as he had lived, in the midst of a contest with Palmer – a court case again accusing Palmer of malpractice.

Talented, ambitious, and merciless, Johnston was a central figure in the politics of Prince Edward Island for almost two decades, and his early death left a gap not quickly filled. Although occasionally calculating to a fault, he was a skilful politician, and one of the few men who could lay claim to having got the better of James Bardin Palmer. That his quest for power incidentally benefited the Island has been overlooked, as indeed the era in which he operated has been neglected.

M. Brook Taylor

PAPEI, Acc.2367/33; Acc.2849/25, 2849/69, 2849/90, 2849/106, 2849/117; RG 1, commission books, 1812–23; RG 6, Supreme Court, barristers’ roll; RG 16, land registry records. PRO, CO 226/27: 35, 138, 188; 226/28: 8–9; 226/30: 12–33, 116; 226/31: 60, 72–77, 162; 226/32: 42; 226/34: 3–7, 57–77, 79, 83–85, 117–18, 158–59; 226/35: 3–5, 15, 267–68, 275, 304–42, 420–21, 424, 433–36; 226/36: 230–31, 233, 237–38, 244; 226/37: 109–10: 226/ 39: 11, 26, 153–58, 191–96, 414; 226/40: 58, 168. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Charlottetown), Reg. of burials (mfm. at PAPEI). P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 1825–28. Prince Edward Island Gazette (Charlottetown), 16 Feb. 1818. Prince Edward Island Register, 1, 15 Nov. 1823; 6, 27 March, 8, 18 May, 6, 27 Nov., 18 Dec. 1824; 20 Jan., 5 Feb., 31 March 1825; 2 Jan., 27 March, 17, 24 April, 8 May 1827; 25 March, 1, 15–29 April, 20 May 1828. Warburton, Hist. of P.E.I., 310–11, 343. D. C. Harvey, “The Loyal Electors,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 24 (1930), sect.ii: 101–10.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

M. Brook Taylor, “JOHNSTON, WILLIAM (d. 1828),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 28, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_william_1828_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_william_1828_6E.html
Author of Article: M. Brook Taylor
Title of Article: JOHNSTON, WILLIAM (d. 1828)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: July 28, 2014