BINNEY, JONATHAN, merchant, politician, judge, and office holder; b. 7 Jan. 1723/24 in Hull, Mass., son of Thomas Binney and Margaret Miller; d. 8 Oct. 1807 in Halifax, N.S.
As a young man, Jonathan Binney went into commerce in Boston, Mass. On 8 Jan. 1746/47 he married Martha Hall of Charlestown (Boston), daughter of the merchant Stephen Hall, and the couple immigrated to Halifax in 1753 in search of better economic prospects. Binney’s early years in Nova Scotia were a mixture of success and personal tragedy. His business affairs prospered, becoming increasingly linked with those of Michael Francklin* and with Joshua Mauger*’s commercial empire, which dominated the province’s trade. In 1757 he became a leader in the local movement for representative government; late that same year he buried his wife in St Paul’s churchyard “with babe in her arms.” When the first house of assembly was called in Nova Scotia in 1758, Binney represented Halifax Township, as he continued to do until his elevation to the Council in 1764. On 26 July 1759 he married Hannah Adams, sister of Henry and John Newton, thus further cementing his alliance to the “Halifax party” of Francklin and Mauger. A year later he buried the remaining child of his first marriage.
By the 1760s Binney was making a name for himself as an opponent of executive authority, as an assiduous collector of appointive offices, and as a figure of controversy. He was an active participant in the strike of the assembly in 1761, which attempted to thwart Lieutenant Governor Jonathan Belcher* in his efforts both to implement Board of Trade policy opening the Indian trade and to end legal protection for debtors, especially those owing debts outside the province. In 1762 Belcher, acting on the advice of the Board of Trade, dismissed Binney and other ringleaders of the strike from those public offices held by gubernatorial fiat. Binney, characteristically, responded by collecting “Subscriptions thro’ the Town” supporting the innocent victims of executive tyranny. It was a posture he would later improve upon in the course of his conflicts with Governor Francis Legge*. The ban on office holding did not last long. In 1764 Binney acquired the posts which brought him into conflict with authority, first with the assembly and later with the governor, when he became collector of provincial duties and magistrate at Canso, a major fishing and trading port. Binney constructed a house there, and claimed to spend most of the summer months at his job. His duties were many in that distant corner of the province: in 1766, for example, “with the assistance of some gentlemen of the Navy, who happened to be near Canso,” he dispersed a group of warlike Indians.
The problem with the Canso appointments was getting payment for his efforts. The legislature in 1764 voted Binney £75 for one year only, and the Council continued the allowance in 1765 in defiance of the assembly’s wishes. Thereafter, Binney’s salary was a major bone of contention in the struggle between Council and assembly for control of the provincial purse. The assembly regularly refused or failed to vote him a further allowance, though the Council provided one until 1769; Binney got into the habit of paying himself by deducting the first £75 of his customs receipts and fines from his remittances to Halifax. In 1768 Binney added the short-lived posts of collector of customs and excise and judge on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island to his collection of offices, in January 1772 he became a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas for Halifax County, and in 1774 he began collecting Cape Breton duties in return for a flat payment of £50 a year.
Binney’s posts at Canso were a long-standing grievance of the assembly when Francis Legge took up his duties as governor of the province, and soon after Legge’s arrival in Halifax on 6 Oct. 1773 the assembly resolved “that the charge of £75 per Annum to Jonathan Binney Esquire for being first Magistrate at Canso, is and has been repeatedly disallow’d by this House.” At this point Legge supported Binney as a “serviceable and necessary” office holder, an opinion that would gradually change as the governor came to oppose the old Francklin faction of which Binney was such an obvious member. When, in the wake of an audit of the province’s ill-kept books begun in late 1774, Legge and his chief legal officers such as James Monk* decided to take action against those with accounts outstanding to the treasury, Binney and his brother-in-law John Newton were their first major targets. In fairness to Binney, it should be emphasized that his case was not a simple example of rampant corruption, though Legge saw it as merely the visible tip of a great iceberg of fiscal abuse. Binney was doing a job for which he was entitled to remuneration, and his chief offence was the political one of paying himself “without warrant from the governor and against the sense of the legislature.” Nevertheless, he, and Newton, were arrested and treated as criminals, being carried to Halifax jail in March 1775.
A jury specially selected by Legge – it even included a member of the committee which had done the audit – in the presence of the governor found Binney liable for £445 16s. 3d. and costs. Refusing to pay, Binney was confined to jail from 4 May to 14 July with his wife and family. It is not clear whether the recalcitrance that sent the Binneys to jail was part of a deliberate attempt to become martyrs to Legge’s tyranny, but it seems likely. In any event, incarcerating the family was a serious blunder on Legge’s part. Binney, wrote John Butler*, was “carres’d by the whole Gentlemen in Town & the Commanding Officer of the Troops visited him with his officers in a Body.” He was finally released by special request of the legislature, which was in the process of closing ranks against the governor. According to Legge, “Mr. Binney’s affair was compared to Mr. [John Wilkes’s] and in Order to keep up the spirit of Malevolence, the Members of the Assembly were every Day carried to visit him, till by Public Votes they had compleated all their Addresses.” The affair, despite its comic-opera overtones, had serious implications for the governor.
Whether Binney’s imprisonment was the cause or the excuse for the astounding turn-about of the 1775 assembly, which ceased to support Legge and instead backed his critics, will probably never be known. But Binney’s “sufferings” were a prominent part of the case against Legge which the victim carried personally and successfully before the Board of Trade in London. In his absence, the assembly obligingly struck off Binney’s debt. Always a centre of controversy, Binney found himself involved on his return from England in a lengthy court battle over some fencing he had caused to be torn down at Canso, was accused in 1777 of illicit trading with the Americans, and in 1784 was charged with certifying New England fishermen as native Nova Scotians in order to sell them fishing licences at Canso for two dollars each. He seems to have retired from public business in the mid 1780s, although he did not die until 1807, leaving his estate to his two sons, Stephen Hall and Hibbert Newton.
Jonathan Binney was a typical example of the first generation of New England merchants and politicians in Nova Scotia. If his affairs always seemed to teeter on the brink of the unsavoury and illicit, it was because in those early times one could not be successful in the harsh climate of the Maritimes by being genteel.
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), B76 (estate papers of Jonathan Binney). PAC, MG 11, [CO 217] Nova Scotia A, 69: 41–42; 94: 58; 97: 353; 101; 105: 248; MG 23, A1, 1: 252–61, 693–97. PANS, MG 100, 111, no.13; RG 1, 44, docs.1, 39; 222, docs.4, 49–52, 69–70; 284, doc.8. [Nova Scotia archives, I:] Selections from the public documents of the province of Nova Scotia, ed. T. B. Akins and trans. Benjamin Curren (Halifax, 1869), 729. Genealogy of the Binney family in the United States, comp. C. J. P. Binney (Albany, N.Y., 1886). Brebner, Neutral Yankees (1969), 65–67, 243–54.