BLISS, JOHN MURRAY, lawyer, militia officer, office holder, politician, colonial administrator, and judge; b. 22 Feb. 1771 in Massachusetts, son of Daniel Bliss and Isabella (Isabel) Murray; m. 7 Aug. 1797 Sarah Green Upham in Saint John, N.B., and they had two sons and four daughters; d. there 22 Aug. 1834.
The father of John Murray Bliss was a prominent Massachusetts lawyer and loyalist who immigrated to New Brunswick with his family after being appointed to the first provincial council in 1784. His mother’s father was Colonel John Murray, another prominent lawyer, who had been appointed a councillor in Massachusetts, although he was never sworn in. In 1797 Bliss married his first cousin Sarah Green Upham, the daughter of judge Joshua Upham*, another member of the New Brunswick Council, and in 1819 their son George Pidgeon Bliss married the daughter of Thomas Wetmore, the attorney general of New Brunswick. By the 1820s the Blisses, Murrays, Uphams, and Wetmores thus composed an interrelated network of loyalist families, and the acknowledged patriarch of “this powerful family,” as Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas* described it, was John Murray Bliss.
Bliss studied law in the offices of Jonathan Sewell* and Jonathan Bliss, was admitted to the bar in 1792, and began to practise in Fredericton. In 1794 he became judge advocate to the forces in New Brunswick, a post he was to hold for nearly 20 years. As a youth he was known for his hot temper, and in 1800 he fought a duel with Samuel Denny Street, both men escaping unharmed. Their dispute arose out of a court case and was in part a reflection of the intense rivalry among the members of an overcrowded bar for fame and fees. During the 1790s Bliss had been so despondent about his prospects that he had seriously considered returning to the United States, but he persevered and gradually built up an extensive practice. After his father died, Bliss acquired the family estate in Lincoln, N.B., and completed the construction of Belmont, said to be the finest house in the colony. In 1798 he had been placed in command of a militia company, and when the militia was embodied in 1808, he served as a major; during the War of 1812 he was to act as provincial aide-de-camp to the administrator and commander of the forces, Major-General George Stracey Smyth. He succeeded Ward Chipman as solicitor general in 1809, and two years later he became clerk of the House of Assembly. In 1809 he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the assembly, but he was subsequently returned in a by-election in York County and took his place in the house on 26 Jan. 1814. On 17 May 1816 he was raised to the Council and on 9 July, with some reluctance since he claimed to be earning £1,500 per annum in private practice, he became an assistant judge of the Supreme Court, filling the vacancy left by the death of Edward Winslow*. Because of the “delicate health” of Chief Justice Jonathan Bliss, the frequent absences of assistant judge Ward Chipman and later his son, Ward Chipman* Jr, and the refusal of Chief Justice John Saunders to go on circuit, Bliss performed an unusually large share of the business of the Supreme Court over the next two decades.
From 21 Feb. 1824 until the arrival of Sir Howard Douglas on 28 August, Bliss also served as administrator of New Brunswick. His most controversial action was the dismissal of George Shore* from the offices of surveyor general, receiver general, and auditor general, and the appointment of his son George Pidgeon Bliss to those posts. Douglas was unable to confirm the appointment, but to pacify the ex-administrator he persuaded the authorities in London to confer the position of receiver general on the younger Bliss. While Douglas remained in the colony, he managed to maintain an uneasy balance of power and patronage between the older loyalist families and a rival faction which gravitated towards Thomas Baillie*, the powerful commissioner of crown lands whose appointment had greatly diminished the value of the office of receiver general. After Douglas departed in 1829, Bliss persuaded the Council to vote for a substantial reduction in Baillie’s emoluments, but this recommendation was set aside by the British government. According to Douglas, Bliss had been “deeply wounded & mortified” by the decision of the Colonial Office to prohibit judges from acting as administrator, and during the 1830s he played a less active part in the political affairs of the colony, particularly after judges were excluded from the Council in 1831. In 1834 he applied for the position of chief justice but was turned down in favour of the younger Ward Chipman, who although he was Bliss’s junior on the bench had greater influence in London. Later that year Bliss died while on a visit to Saint John; he was buried in Fredericton.
In its obituary the New-Brunswick Courier proclaimed that Bliss had been “revered and beloved” by the legal profession and that “the dignity of his demeanor and the distinguished urbanity of his manners” had “won . . . the regard of all who were brought into contact with him.” Yet neither as a lawyer nor as a judge does he appear to have been above the ordinary. The only important trial he participated in as an attorney was the famous test case over slavery in 1800, during which he acted as one of the five counsel who unsuccessfully upheld its legality in New Brunswick [see Caleb Jones*]. He does not appear to have attracted students to his law office. As a judge he seems to have been somewhat less severe than his colleagues in the sentences he imposed, and on one occasion his leniency was “a general topic of conversation.” He took an active part in community affairs in Fredericton, where he served at various times as a trustee of the College of New Brunswick, chairman of the local branch of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and president of the New-Brunswick Agricultural and Emigrant Society. Yet he owed his political influence not to his public service but to his extensive connections among leading loyalist families. Since one of his sons had predeceased him and George Pidgeon Bliss died in 1836, his own family went into decline after his death.
The genealogical information in this biography is taken from PANB, MC 1, L. D. Bliss, “Lines of descent in the ancestry of George Pidgeon Bliss and Sarah Armstrong” (mimeograph of typescript, 1975); MC 1156; and the New-Brunswick Courier, 23 Aug. 1834. There are scattered references to Bliss in the Sewell papers, PAC, MG 23, GII, 10, vol.3: 636–40, 762–69, 790–93; in the Douglas papers, PAC, MG 24, A3, 3: 45–47, 57, and 4: 32–33, 143–45, 288–90; and in PRO, CO 188/41: 125; CO 188/50: 4–8, 97; and CO 323/158: 226–27. There are also numerous references in the New-Brunswick Royal Gazette, especially 9 Feb. 1819, 16 Jan. 1821, 2 Sept. and 14 Oct. 1823, 24 Feb. 1824, and 20 June 1826, and in the New-Brunswick Courier, 11 Oct. 1823, 27 July 1827, and 3 May and 11 Oct. 1828. The only secondary sources of value are Lawrence, Judges of N.B. (Stockton and Raymond) and MacNutt, New Brunswick.
Revisions based on:
J. H. Bliss, Genealogy of the Bliss family in America from about the year 1550–1880 (Boston, 1881).