BINNS, CHARLES, businessman, lawyer, politician, office holder, and militia officer; b. c. 1786. perhaps in the West Riding, Yorkshire, England; m. 13 May 1809 Elizabeth Clarke in Charlottetown, and they had 12 children; d. there 28 April 1847.
Charles Binns trained as a lawyer in England and then formed a partnership with a merchant named Peter Hope. In August 1808, with the assistance of James Bardin Palmer* of Charlottetown, Binns sailed for Prince Edward Island to set up an agency to supply Hope with such local products as timber. This plan was not a success. Palmer and Binns quickly fell out, for reasons difficult to determine. Without Palmer’s support, Binns drifted into financial failure in 1813, and his partnership with Hope seems to have dissolved shortly thereafter.
Binns, now married, decided to remain on the Island and enrolled as a barrister of its Supreme Court on 16 Feb. 1813. He made moderate acquisitions of land on Lot 25 and in Charlottetown and Royalty, and became a land agent for several other proprietors. At “the solicitation of some extensive Landholders,” Binns opened an emigrant office at Charlottetown in 1819 but, like so many of his schemes, this one rapidly failed. Fortunately for Binns, there were few trained lawyers on the Island prior to the 1830s, and by concentrating on his modest legal talents rather than on business adventures he was able to establish a social and financial position in Charlottetown society. The shortage of lawyers also accounts in large measure for the frequency with which Binns was called upon to fill official posts under Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith*. He was deputy colonial secretary (April 1816–January 1818), solicitor general (January 1818–December 1820), and acting attorney general (November 1819–December 1820).
Although overshadowed as a lawyer by the likes of Palmer and Robert Hodgson*, Binns acted in many of the important trials of his time. The most notorious took place in October 1823 in the Court of Chancery. Binns made a futile attempt to defend the members of a committee which had framed, and a publisher who had printed, resolutions critical of Smith’s administration. Ostensibly charged with contempt of chancery for accusing Smith and his family of using the court for personal gain, the defendants were really found guilty of political opposition. These proceedings were agonizing for Binns, whose natural temperament was to shun controversy. While a member of the House of Assembly for Georgetown between 1818 and 1820, he had tried to find neutral ground in the fight between Smith and the assembly. In defending Smith’s opponents in court he denied any political allegiance to their cause. Preferring to move safely with the tide, Binns openly attacked Smith’s administration only when the lieutenant governor departed, in 1824.
Binns’s basic political timidity runs through his reaction to escheat. As an mha for Charlottetown from 1830 to 1838 Binns shared with his electors the enthusiasm initially engendered by this proposed panacea for the Island’s vexing land question. However, his conservatism reasserted itself, and in a series of ponderous and legalistic speeches Binns opposed quadrennial elections, a heavy land tax on proprietors, and eventually escheat. He was concerned that the agitation created at numerous tenant gatherings by such escheat leaders as William Cooper* threatened to subvert the legislative process. Binns led the drive which had Cooper and two of his allies committed to the custody of the assembly’s sergeant-at-arms during the sessions of 1837 and 1838. Binns himself was too ill to attend most of the 1838 session, and his poor health, combined with renewed financial difficulties and the prospects of a sweeping pro-escheat victory, was probably the factor that induced him to decline nomination in the election of that year. In his last years he appeared publicly only as law clerk of the assembly for the sessions of 1844 and 1845, and as a captain of militia.
Not unlike Shakespeare’s Polonius, Binns was a character of comic pretension and pathos. His speeches in court and assembly were of extraordinary length and characterized by rationalizations which exasperated his opponents and astonished even those with whom he was in agreement. His death went almost unnoticed.
PAPEI, Acc. 2810/25; Acc. 2849/23–24, 2849/38; RG 1, commission books, 5, 10 April 1816; 22 Jan. 1818; RG 6, Supreme Court, barristers’ roll; RG 16, land registry records, 1809–47; conveyance reg., liber 59: f.601. P.E.I. Museum, “Charlottetown manuscript” (n.d.); File information concerning Charles Binns. PRO, CO 226/36: 131; 226/37: 3. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Charlottetown), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (mfm. at PAPEI). P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 1818, 1820, 3 Feb. 1831, 26 Jan. 1835, 22 Jan. 1839. Prince Edward Island Gazette, 14 Oct., 5 Nov. 1818; 3 Sept. 1819. Prince Edward Island Register, 25 Oct., 1, 8 Nov. 1823; 3 Nov. 1829. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 7 Feb. 1832; 5, 19, 26 Feb., 26 Nov. 1833; 18 Feb., 2, 16 Dec. 1834; 31 March 1835; 26, 30 April 1836; 14, 21 Feb. 1837; 27 March 1838; 20 Feb., 27 Aug. 1844;11 March 1845; 29 April 1847. A. B. Warburton, A history of Prince Edward Island from its discovery in 1534 until the departure of Lieutenant-Governor Ready in A.D. 1831 (Saint John, N.B., 1923), 336–43.