DOUGLAS, JAMES, merchant and office holder; b. 1789 in Annan, Scotland, son of John Douglas, a labourer, and Sarah Hunter; d. unmarried 31 Oct. 1854 in St John’s.
James Douglas arrived in Newfoundland as a young man. Although he may have come to join his brother Hugh R. in a haberdashery and tailoring business, he was probably in the employ of one of the large Scottish mercantile houses based in Greenock which were involved in the St John’s trade. First mentioned in 1818 as co-owner of a vessel, he was a typical independent trader with diversified interests; at various times during his life he was active in the importing and exporting field, a newspaper, a retail store, and a drugstore in partnership with Thomas McMurdo. In 1846 his business reached its peak with his ownership of four sealing vessels, but it soon declined when his premises in St John’s were destroyed by the fire in June of that year which ravaged the city and when some of his ships were lost in the great gale that swept the coast of Labrador three months later. Most of Douglas’s investments were of a high-risk nature and, according to his contemporaries, by 1848 he was dependent on the annual salary of £200 that he received as commissioner of roads for the central district, although he continued to outfit a sealer until 1850.
Douglas’s first recorded political activity occurred in 1831 when he signed a petition urging that representative government be introduced in Newfoundland. Some time after April 1833 Douglas and William Carson* supported Robert John Parsons* in the founding of the reform Newfoundland Patriot but Douglas severed his connection with the paper in 1835. In that year he was chairman of a group including Patrick Doyle, Thomas Bennett*, and James William Tobin* which petitioned the British government to dismiss Chief Justice Henry John Boulton* for using the bench to protect the interests of Conservative politicians. Boulton was eventually removed from his post by Lord Glenelg, the colonial secretary, in 1838. After the reform victory in the election of 1837 Douglas had been appointed to the board of road commissioners for the central district by Governor Henry Prescott*, a move which was interpreted by some as a token gesture to the reformers. In 1843 he was nominated chairman of the board by Sir John Harvey. The board had veto power over the local commissions in all decisions concerning the dispensing of funds for the construction of roads in the district. Like Governor Harvey, Douglas was most interested in building and improving truck roads which would facilitate the transportation of foodstuff to the capital. By using winter road crews he also provided work and wages for some of the seasonally unemployed in the city. Although the post of chairman was potentially the most lucrative of any in the colony, allowing the holder to dispense patronage almost at will, Douglas seems to have filled it in an efficient and business-like manner. He was reappointed to the post every year until his death.
During the 1830s Roman Catholic reformers dominated the House of Assembly and Protestant Conservative merchants, the group usually favoured by the governors, had control of the Council. In a move that defied the religious polarity of the island’s politics, the Presbyterian Douglas entered a May 1840 by-election under the Liberal banner in the predominantly Catholic district of St John’s. Shortly before the election, however, the Roman Catholic bishop, Michael Anthony Fleming*, urged his parishioners to “support their religion” by voting for one of Douglas’s nominators, Laurence O’Brien*, a Roman Catholic who had consented to run. O’Brien was subsequently elected by eight votes in a hard-fought and often vicious campaign.
In December 1841 Douglas became one of the founding members of the Agricultural Society, formed to encourage and improve husbandry. The society was patronized and encouraged by Harvey and his successor, John Gaspard Le Marchant*. Under its direction, production in the colony doubled over the next few years and, through the distribution of seed potatoes, the population was saved from the worst effects of the potato blight during the depression of 1846–49. Douglas belonged to the closely knit Scottish-Presbyterian community of St John’s and he served on the non-sectarian board of the St John’s Hospital. As well, he was appointed to the Fire Relief Commission in 1846, was supervisor of streets for St John’s, and was instrumental in establishing a new water supply system for the city following the fire.
Subsequent to his appointments to the roads commission and the Agricultural Society, Douglas in the early spring of 1843 demonstrated his political independence by opposing Governor Harvey in his dispute with Chief Justice John Gervase Hutchinson Bourne*, a fellow Presbyterian; however, his action does not appear to have affected his future as a public servant. In 1848 Douglas again entered active politics, running in St John’s during the general election as an independent against four Catholic Liberal candidates. He came fourth in the three-member constituency. Two years later he made his third and last attempt to gain elective office, standing, once again as an independent, in the St John’s by-election called after O’Brien had taken a seat on the Legislative Council. He, like many other older politicians in these years, was defeated by a member of the new political generation: in Douglas’s case, it was Philip Francis Little*, a future prime minister of Newfoundland.
Douglas, a Scottish Presbyterian and a 19th-century liberal, was forced to run as an independent when the predominantly Roman Catholic Liberal party refused to support him. His political opponents did not attack his character during elections nor did they aim charges of corruption at the man who, during his tenure as roads commissioner, used highway construction as a means of providing employment for the poor. When he died, Douglas left an estate valued at less than £1,200.
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