SEWELL (Sewall), STEPHEN, lawyer, landowner, militia officer, office holder, and politician; b. c. 25 May 1770 in Cambridge, Mass., son of Jonathan Sewell (Sewall) and Esther Quincy; m. 18 June 1801 Jane Caldwell in Montreal, and they had at least six children; d. there 21 June 1832.
The younger son of a prominent loyalist who was the last British attorney general of Massachusetts, Stephen Sewall was only five when his family emigrated to England at the beginning of the War of American Independence. In 1778 the Sewalls – the name was at some point changed to Sewell – settled in Bristol, where Stephen attended grammar school and at home absorbed his parents’ fear of democracy and their fervent desire that he and his elder brother, Jonathan*, recoup what the family had lost in America.
In 1787 Stephen and his parents recrossed the ocean to join Jonathan, who had earlier immigrated to Saint John, N.B. Stephen followed his brother into the legal office of Ward Chipman, and was called to the New Brunswick bar in 1791. Like Jonathan before him, he decided – later that year – to seek his fortune in the larger colony of Lower Canada, whose governor was Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton*], patron of the loyalists. This decision evinced a permanent character trait: the desire to model his career after that of his elder brother. To the latter he had confessed in 1790, “It has been always my ambition to follow as nearly in your footsteps as I was capable and beleive me it always will be.”
After obtaining his commission as a lawyer on 16 Dec. 1791, Sewell established himself in Montreal and began the pursuit of clients, who would soon include many of the leading merchants and wealthier seigneurs. By 1805 he had one of the most flourishing practices in the city, and from it he reputedly drew between £600 and £800 a year. He was less fortunate in his many business investments, among them the Company of Proprietors of the Montreal Water Works [see John Gray], at least one high-risk venture to the West Indies in 1816–17, and extensive speculation in real estate in Lower Canada; he acquired 1,000 acres of land in Grenville Township in 1797, was granted 3,200 acres in Hemmingford Township in 1811, and owned land in Montreal.
Sewell was a staunch adherent of the English party in Lower Canada, and his most notable enthusiasm was ferreting out spies and revolutionaries. Like many others of his party during the wars against revolutionary France, he was convinced that at the appearance of even the smallest French force the Canadians would rise in arms and massacre the British minority. In the aftermath of riots against militia service in 1794 he was one of the organizers of cartridge making and other preparations to defend Montreal against what proved to be a phantom horde of armed habitants. During disturbances protesting the road act of 1796 Sewell believed the story of Montreal tavern-keeper Elmer Cushing that Citizen Pierre-Auguste Adet, the French minister to the United States, had come in person to Montreal to hatch a “plan for the extirpation of the English.” With more reason he accepted his informer’s claim that one of Adet’s agents had attempted to recruit a fifth column. Sewell hurried Cushing down to Quebec to see his brother, then attorney general. Promised an entire township for his evidence, Cushing swore a deposition describing the activities of the agent, David McLane*. McLane was arrested in the capital in May 1797, convicted of treason in July, and on the 21st of that month hanged, beheaded, and disembowelled as an example to others.
Sewell remained nervous and alert throughout the Napoleonic period. In 1801 he convinced himself that the parish priests north of Montreal were conspiring to aid a leader of the Canadian party in the House of Assembly, Joseph Papineau*, in his determination “to [be] a Buoniparte in this province.” A series of fires in the city during the summer of 1803 was put down to the “great design which the Emissaries of France have on this Country,” Sewell having earlier decided that Napoleon would “make every possible Exertion to land troops in the Province” and that “the Canadians will join them in numbers.” “Heaven only knows,” he concluded, “if we do not stand On the brink of destruction.” In 1801, and again during a political crisis in 1810 [see Sir James Henry Craig*], he employed a Canadian informer to report on disloyalty among the captains of militia. Sewell himself joined Montreal’s 1st Militia Battalion, a British unit, as an ensign about 1803; he became a captain in 1812. An attempt in 1814 by Canadian lawyers to establish an advocates’ society – which Sewell helped to abort – was characteristically interpreted as the work of “Jacobins.” Sewell made sure that Jonathan and, through him, the governor were kept informed of his activities, for visible loyalty was a common route to the government posts he coveted.
Sewell’s longstanding efforts, and those of his brother, who became chief justice in 1808, succeeded the following year when he was named by Governor Craig to replace James Stuart*, recently dismissed for political unreliability, as solicitor general of Lower Canada; the office was worth about £1,700 a year in salary and fees. In November 1809 Sewell won a seat in the House of Assembly for Huntingdon County along with a leader of the Canadian party, Jean-Antoine Panet*. The contest had been hotly disputed: after 15 days of polling Panet obtained 897 votes to Sewell’s 895, and the loser, Augustin Cuvillier*, protested Sewell’s election in February 1810. However, Craig dissolved the legislature on 1 March, and in the subsequent elections Sewell was returned along with Joseph Papineau in Montreal East, Stuart being a defeated candidate. Like many others of his circle, Sewell thought Craig’s imprisonment of certain Canadian political leaders in March – the so-called Reign of Terror – an heroic and infinitely wise act of statesmanship, but he was soon disappointed to learn that the imperial authority had quietly repudiated any further aggressive actions, including enforcement of claims to royal supremacy over the Roman Catholic Church and a proposed suspension of the constitution. As usual Sewell and his friends proved to be more imperialist than the imperial government.
In 1811 Craig was replaced by Sir George Prevost*, who, requiring the support of the population as war with the United States loomed, adopted a conciliatory policy towards Canadian leaders. Sewell and his colleagues in the English party were outraged by the resulting deprivation of influence and patronage they suffered. They responded in part with a series of vitriolic letters to the Montreal Herald in 1814–15 attacking Prevost’s civil and military administration. The most damning letters, signed Veritas, attributed the British retreats from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., in 1813 and Plattsburgh in 1814 to cowardice and stupidity on Prevost’s part. Suspicious, despite Sewell’s denials that he had authored the letters, the governor cleverly ordered him to prosecute the printer and the editor of the Montreal Herald for criminal libel. The editor, Mungo Kay, thereupon revealed that Sewell had written and brought to him in great secrecy an unsigned article entitled “Particulars of the late disastrous affair on Lake Champlain,” which was published shortly after the Plattsburgh débâcle. Sewell admitted authorship but asserted that the piece was simply a review of the facts. Although the article was less explicitly critical than the polemics of Veritas, its conclusion left little doubt about what the writer thought of Prevost’s strategy. “A few minutes more would have given up the fortifications . . . into our hands, and every American must have fallen, or been made prisoner,” he wrote. Instead, “it was thought necessary to check the ardor of the troops” and control of the lake was lost. Sewell was suspended from office immediately, and in July 1816 he was dismissed by Governor Sir John Coape Sherbrooke following a report on the matter by the Executive Council.
Thereafter a great deal of Sewell’s energy was expended in seeking rehabilitation. The chief justice operated under a standing injunction to work for his brother’s interest whenever an office remotely suitable became vacant and to work fast, since, as Stephen put it in 1825, “there is no time ever to be lost in looking after Appointments.” Jonathan pleaded with Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] to restore the office of solicitor general to his brother, but to no avail. Nor could he, despite repeated attempts, satisfy Stephen’s most cherished ambition, which was to follow him to the bench. The chief justice seems, however, to have been able to influence the granting of some minor posts and honours. In any case Sewell was named secretary to boundary commissioner John Ogilvy* (1817), a warden of the House of Industry in Montreal (1818), a commissioner for the repair of the Montreal prison (1819), and a commissioner for the construction of the Lachine Canal (1821).
As secretary to Ogilvy, Sewell kept a journal of the boundary commission’s work between May and September 1817 along the St Lawrence River from Saint-Régis to Cornwall, Upper Canada. In it he recorded meteorological observations and commented on geological structures, soil conditions, flora, and fauna. He also had a clear eye for revealing details of social life. Thus he remarked that Highland settlers made poor farmers but good militiamen, that it was the women who ran the farms – “in fact they are the supports of their husbands and families” – and that their daughters furnished Montreal with servants. He saw that “the manners of the St Regis Indians are fast changing to European their dress resembles the Canadians.” Although the immigrants who passed by in bateau loads on the St Lawrence on their way to Upper Canada were not dressed in rags, there was an “appearance of great want amongst them,” and he noted that “they frequently lament having quitted their own country.” Their plight touched him, and he found it “a subject of great regret that Government in times of such extreme pressure should have deemed it proper to deprive the new settlers of their rations.” He was also highly attentive to economic trends as trade with Upper Canada expanded and the machine age dawned in the colonies. Thus, he observed that Lower Canadian villages such as Vaudreuil, Les Cèdres, and Coteau-du-Lac could be developed around mills and factories using water-driven machinery, and that transportation procedures could be made more efficient on the heavily used section of the St Lawrence between Cornwall and Montreal.
In Montreal Sewell was active in community affairs. Early in the century he served on a committee for the erection of Christ Church [see Jehosaphat Mountain*]. In 1820 he acted as the senior attorney of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning to negotiate the transfer from James McGill*’s estate of the Burnside property on which McGill College was to be built [see François Desrivières]. He was a principal founder seven years later of the Natural History Society of Montreal, of which he became president. In 1828 he was among the founders of a lawyers’ library, which became the Advocates’ Library and Law Institute of Montreal in 1830 and ultimately the Montreal bar library; he also served as the library’s first president.
As a lawyer Sewell could not equal his brother’s ability to go quickly to the nub of a complicated legal problem or to ground a conclusion in general principle as well as precedent. He was able, however, to weigh both sides of a case intelligently; he prepared thoroughly and was well read in both the common and the civil law systems. Sherbrooke’s unfavourable opinion of Sewell’s capacities at the time of his dismissal can probably be discounted; the lawyer’s clientele suggests high competence, and La Minerve, which was hardly sympathetic politically, observed after his death that his “knowledge of law made him one of our leading jurists.” In 1827 Dalhousie had appointed him a king’s counsel. His talent as a lawyer and his loyalty were much in demand in the spring of 1832 following an election riot in Montreal West during which regular troops had fired on a crowd, killing three Canadians [see Daniel Tracey]. He acted as legal adviser to the commanding officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Fisher MacIntosh and Captain Henry Temple, and in his capacity as king’s counsel and doyen of the Montreal bar he later assisted in the deliberations of the Court of King’s Bench that resulted in the freeing of the two officers, an outcome ardently desired by Governor Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer*].
Sewell had less than three weeks to congratulate himself and imagine the favours soon to flow from government. In the early morning of 21 June he was struck down by cholera, and he died a few hours later. He left a comfortable home as well as moveable property valued at nearly £600. The library of more than 900 volumes alone was worth £215. His properties included a farm and lot in the seigneury of Prairie-de-la-Madeleine and 3,400 acres of township lands. However, unfortunate investments had continued to sink him in financial difficulties, and after 1817 he had avoided bankruptcy only through the generosity of his brother; in October 1832 his debts totalled £7,256, of which nearly £3,000 was owed to Jonathan. The estate was insolvent; his widow, Jane, and their six children, of whom two were minors, were obliged to renounce it.
Stephen Sewell is the author of “Particulars of the late disastrous affair on Lake Champlain,” published in the Montreal Herald, 17 Sept. 1814. He may also have written The letters of Veritas, re-published from the “Montreal Herald”; containing a succinct narrative of the military administration of Sir George Prevost, during his command in the Canadas . . . (Montreal, 1815), but this pamphlet may have been the work of John Richardson, as Henry Scadding* asserts in “Some Canadian noms-de-plume identified: with samples of the writings to which they are appended,” Canadian Journal (Toronto), new ser., 15 (1876–78): 332–41.
ACC-Q, 72–79. ANQ-M, CE1-63, 18 juin 1801, 21 juin 1831; CN1-187, 27 oct. 1832. McGill Univ. Libraries, ms coll., CH1O.S46 (copies at PAC). PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 131: 173–83; 137: 44–47; MG 23, GII, 10, vols.2–7; MG 24, B169; RG 4, A1: 20706–8, 21772–76; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 272. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1809–14; 1822–23, app.T; 1832–33, app.M. Natural Hist. Soc. of Montreal, Annual report (Montreal), 1828–32. Reports of cases argued and determined in the courts of King’s Bench and in the provincial Court of Appeals of Lower Canada, with a few of the more important cases in the Court of Vice Admiralty . . . , comp. G. O. Stuart (Quebec, 1834). Jonathan Sewall, “Letters of Jonathan Sewall,” Mass. Hist. Soc., Proc. (Boston), 10 (1896): 407–27. La Minerve, 22 juin 1832. Montreal Gazette, 1791–1832. Quebec Gazette, 12 Jan. 1792; 18 Nov. 1802; 12 June, 6 Nov. 1806; 22 June, 23, 30 Nov. 1809; 15 Feb., 5, 12, 26 April 1810; 12 March, 19 Nov. 1812; 30 Nov. 1815; 28 May 1818; 7 Jan., 11 March, 27 May 1819; 10 May, 19 July, 2 Aug., 13, 27 Dec. 1821. F.-J. Audet, Les députés de Montréal, 81–83. Quebec almanac, 1804: 47; 1810: 58; 1820: 91; 1821–27. L.-P. Audet, Le système scolaire, 3: 239–43. Carol Berkin, Jonathan Sewall: odyssey of an American loyalist (New York, 1974). A. W. P. Buchanan, The bench and bar of Lower Canada down to 1850 (Montreal, 1925), 76–77. F. M. Greenwood, “The development of a garrison mentality among the English in Lower Canada, 1793–1811” (phd thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1970). Hochelaga depicta . . . , ed. Newton Bosworth (Montreal, 1839; repr. Toronto, 1974). Taft Manning, Revolt of French Canada, 105, 378–83.
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Cite This Article
F. Murray Greenwood, “SEWELL, STEPHEN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sewell_stephen_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||F. Murray Greenwood|
|Title of Article:||SEWELL, STEPHEN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|