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SANBORN, JOHN SEWELL, teacher, politician, and judge; b. 1 Jan. 1819 at Gilmanton, N.H., ninth and youngest child of David Edwin Sanborn, farmer and teacher, and Hannah Hook; d. 17 July 1877, at Asbury Park, N.J.
In 1842 John Sewell Sanborn graduated from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where his brother, Edwin David, was professor of Latin language and literature. He later received the degrees of am (1845) and lld (1874) from Dartmouth, and of ma (ad eundem, 1854) and dcl (1873) from the University of Bishop’s College, Lennoxville. After 1842, Sanborn was for three years principal of the Sherbrooke Academy (now high school). He then read law in Sherbrooke with Edward Short and in Montreal with Andrew and George Robertson; he was admitted to the bar in 1847, and, returning to Sherbrooke, married in July Eleanor Hall Brooks, daughter of Samuel Brooks, Conservative member of the Legislative Assembly for the old Sherbrooke County. Throughout his political career he continued to practise law.
Brooks died in March 1849, and the parliamentary vacancy was filled by Alexander Tilloch Galt*, commissioner of the British American Land Company in the Eastern Townships. In November Galt proclaimed himself an annexationist, and in January 1850 resigned his seat, implying that his attitude had been criticized by his company and that he disapproved of moving the seat of government from Montreal to Toronto. Sanborn was nominated to contest the by-election as an annexationist, both he and Galt believing that annexation would bring greater prosperity to the Eastern Townships. Their agitation undoubtedly influenced the ministry to give strong backing to the projected railroad, pushed by Galt and Sanborn, from Montreal through Richmond and Sherbrooke to Portland, Maine, thus promising the region the advantages of annexation without the political formality.
Sherbrooke County in 1850 included not the town but the present counties of Richmond, Wolfe, Compton, and Frontenac; only 15 per cent of the population was French Canadian. Sanborn was opposed by Chester B. Cleveland of Shipton, who was nominated by John Henry Pope*, at this time an anti-annexationist farmer in the southern part of the county and now beginning his long political career. Both candidates were born in the United States and had had personal connections with members of the Tory party, but whereas Sanborn was a liberal Congregationalist living amidst the business “aristocracy” of the town, Cleveland was a rural “Episcopalian” (Church of England), residing in the constituency. The Reform ministry of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* publicly supported Cleveland the “Loyalist,” and during the campaign stripped the county’s annexationists of their public commissions. Privately, however, Sanborn, as a promoter with Galt of the St Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, had business connections with the speaker of the assembly, Augustin-Norbert Morin*, and his friend, George-Étienne Cartier. Sanborn appealed for Liberal support.
At the by-election, on 5 and 6 March 1850, Sanborn obtained 51 per cent of the vote. Lord Elgin [Bruce*] reported that “this is the first instance in which a person avowing these doctrines has been elected to the Canadian Parliament,” and explained it by the number of American settlers in the area and the activities of Galt, chief agent “of a body of absentee English proprietors,” the “selfish traitors” of the British American Land Company.
Sanborn was introduced to the house in Toronto on 14 May by two Eastern Townships oppositionists, who had also introduced Galt in 1849 – William Badgley*, the former Tory attorney general, and John McConnell of Stanstead, a Conservative turned annexationist. On 17 May, Sanborn, McConnell, and Louis-Joseph Papineau were among seven members who voted against Robert Baldwin*’s motion not to receive a petition brought by John Prince*, member for Essex, calling upon Canada “to become an Independent Sovereignty.” In the general election of 1851 Sanborn was opposed by John Henry Pope himself, but greatly increased his majority. A month before the election the new railroad had been opened to Richmond. At his nomination he stated that the annexation question was “nowhere mooted in the Province,” and added “requiescat in pace.” In an 1853 by-election he helped secure the election of Galt for Sherbrooke Town.
No longer opposed by the ministry, who were prepared to forget the annexationist agitation, Sanborn supported advanced liberal proposals, but not radical opposition for its own sake. In June 1854 he voted against the vague motions by which Conservative and Liberal opposition members combined to defeat the Francis Hincks* – Morin government. An immediate dissolution followed. In the election, Sherbrooke County having been divided, Sanborn contested Compton, bordering on the United States. But in Compton lived his relentless Tory opponent, John Henry Pope, who ran as a farmer, denouncing the Sherbrooke “family compact and the oppression of the British American Land Company.” Sanborn won but only by eight votes.
In September 1854, Galt and Sanborn voted for Cartier, ministerial candidate for speaker. But upon his defeat they joined the section of the opposition led by William Lyon Mackenzie* and George Brown. They participated in the final destruction of the Hincks-Morin administration but denounced the succeeding Allan Napier Mac-Nab* – Morin (or Liberal-Conservative) combination as “an utter abandonment of principle.”
Upon the creation of elective seats for the Legislative Council in 1856, Sanborn and Pope each nominated a candidate for Wellington, a new division including the town of Sherbrooke and a surrounding area even larger than the original county. Sanborn’s man, Hollis Smith, won for the Liberal opposition in spite of a bitter personal attack on Sanborn by the provincial secretary, Timothy Lee Terrill.
In the general election of 1857, Sanborn and Galt parted company politically. Galt suddenly dissociated himself from the Grit-Rouge party, promised not to endeavour to overthrow the administration, and was re-elected by acclamation in Sherbrooke. But Sanborn remained in opposition, and allowed Compton to go by acclamation to Pope. In contrast to 1854, George-Étienne Cartier’s party would this time have helped Sanborn’s Tory opponent in the closely balanced constituency.
The death of Hollis Smith enabled Sanborn to enter the Legislative Council for Wellington by acclamation on 8 May 1863. The John Sandfield Macdonald – Antoine-Aimé Dorion* government, formed a few days later, offered Sanborn the post of solicitor general east, but he declined; he preferred to remain a private member and a practising advocate. On 15 Aug. 1863, he was created queen’s counsel by the same ministry, and was re-elected by acclamation to the Legislative Council on 27 Sept. 1864 for a regular term.
In the confederation debate of 1865, Sanborn proposed an amendment calling for an elective senate, which was defeated 18–42. Although he viewed confederation favourably, he would not vote for the measure “unless after it had been submitted to the country.” He abstained on the main motion, warning that “the power of the local governments” (that is, provincial governments), which might not respect their minorities in matters of property and civil rights, was “an apple of discord which our posterity might gather in fruits of the most bitter character.” However in 1867 he was almost automatically appointed to the Senate for Wellington, and on 1 July was the official orator in Sherbrooke.
In July 1872 his law partner since 1858, Edward Towle Brooks, brother of his first wife, succeeded Galt as Conservative member for the federal constituency of Sherbrooke, and on 12 Oct. Sanborn’s political career ended with his appointment by the Conservative government to the Superior Court for the district of Saint-François, at Sherbrooke; he was proud of the fact that this nomination had been made by his political opponent, Sir John A. Macdonald*. On 6 March 1874 his old friend, A.-A. Dorion, in the new Liberal government, promoted him to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Montreal. He died while vacationing in the United States and his funeral service, appropriately for the only person ever elected to the Canadian parliament as an annexationist, was held at the American Presbyterian (now Erskine and American United) Church in Montreal.
Sanborn was a characteristic New England Calvinist – a deacon in the Congregational (now Plymouth United) Church in Sherbrooke, president of the Temperance and Prohibitory League of Quebec, full of good works and charity towards the poor, president of the Sherbrooke Library Association, thoroughly democratic in outlook, highly successful in business, a champion of the rights of private property and throughout his life a progressive continentalist. A Liberal living until 1874 in a town which after 1854 was overwhelmingly Conservative, he was fortunate in having close personal connections in both parties.
John Sewell Sanborn’s first wife died in 1853, leaving three children; their only son died unmarried. His second wife, Nancy Judson Hasseltine, of Bradford, Mass., whom he married in 1856, died in 1874, leaving one daughter.
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