BRENTON, JAMES, lawyer, militia officer, politician, office holder, and judge; b. 2 Nov. 1736 in Newport, R.I., 13th child of Jahleel Brenton and his first wife Frances Cranston, eldest daughter of Governor Samuel Cranston; m. first 30 May 1762 Rebecca Scott in Newport, and they had one son, Edward Brabazon*, who became a judge of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland; m. secondly 28 April 1766 Elizabeth Russell in Halifax, N.S., and they had nine children; d. there 3 Dec. 1806.
James Brenton, a junior member of the Rhode Island bar, came to Nova Scotia as a young man and on 9 Dec. 1760 was admitted to the provincial bar. He subsequently joined a volunteer militia company, and by 1764 had risen to the rank of captain-lieutenant. Between 1765 and 1770 he represented Onslow Township in the House of Assembly, and between 1776 and 1785 he sat for Halifax County. On 31 Oct. 1778 he succeeded Richard Gibbons* as solicitor general, and on 12 Oct. 1779 William Nesbitt* as attorney general. With the death of Charles Morris* he was elevated to the bench as an assistant judge of the Supreme Court on 8 Dec. 1781. On 10 Dec. 799 he was appointed to the Council. He deputized for Richard Bulkeley* in the Vice-Admiralty Court from 17 Nov. 1798, and after Bulkeley’s death in December 1800 he became judge of the court, an office from which he was removed the following year in favour of Alexander Croke*.
Brenton’s career in law seems to have been one of continuous conflict. As a young lawyer he was forced to apologize for questioning the impartiality of the bench in April 1762. In the assembly his legal talents were constantly in use in the redrafting and revising of new and existing laws as assembly and Council struggled for domination during the 1760s and 1770s. And while serving on the Supreme Court, Brenton and his colleague Isaac Deschamps became involved in the so-called “judges’ affair.”
The death of Chief Justice Bryan Finucane in August 1785 had left Brenton and Deschamps as the only two members of the Supreme Court, and dissatisfaction with their performance caused a secret session of the assembly in 1787 to request of Lieutenant Governor John Parr* and the Council an investigation into the judges’ behaviour. Parr’s reply indicated that he and the Council were not in favour of an inquiry. The issue became the chief one in the 1788 assembly by-election for Halifax County and, after the victory of the Council-supported candidate Charles Morris*, feelings ran so high that the Halifax garrison was called out to quell three days of post-election riots. Shortly after the election the Council published an acerbic vindication of Brenton and Deschamps. This account prompted equally intemperate letters condemning the judges and Council from two loyalist lawyers, Jonathan Sterns and William Taylor, who were struck from the roll of attorneys by Deschamps for contempt of court. In March 1789 the assembly received a reply from Parr to its request for an investigation, and although the response was couched in diplomatic terms it again upheld the judges. Nevertheless, the following year the assembly voted to impeach Brenton and Deschamps. Parr referred the case to Britain, but it was two years before the Privy Council ruled in favour of Brenton and Deschamps. Although the initial charges were damaging to Brenton, the faint vindication of the Privy Council, which recognized that the judges might have erred but found that the fault lay in “the frailty of human nature,” may have been more so. In the final analysis Brenton was a victim of the loyalist determination not to be excluded from positions of power and influence in the Nova Scotia hierarchy. Brenton had seen the collision between loyalists and pre-loyalists coming and had tried to avoid it; he abandoned any thought of seeking re-election in 1785 when he realized that the contest would be carried on with the “Violence and heat of party opposition.” But he could not escape the consequences of the controversy. The unpopularity of his decisions on the Vice-Admiralty Court and the desire for harmonious relations between Britain and the United States dictated his removal from the court in favour of Croke, “a gentleman least connected with the United States.”
Ironically, although Brenton was at the centre of an emerging “family compact,” and despite John Bartlet Brebner’s characterization of him as “ambitious,” he died a far from wealthy man, leaving a personal estate of only £200. His salary as a Supreme Court judge had been discounted as much as 35 per cent since its warrants had to be negotiated on the Treasury. Indeed, without the lucrative period he spent on the Vice-Admiralty Court in 1800–1, when the French revolutionary wars caused a great increase in business and revenue, many of his debts might have gone unsettled. In fact, his widow was forced to petition the assembly for assistance, noting that the family home would have to be sold to satisfy the remaining debts, which amounted to £600. A minor figure on the Nova Scotia scene, Brenton may deserve recognition for his family ties to such persons as Joseph Gerrish*, John and Sir Brenton* Halliburton, and Charles Inglis.
PANS, MG 9, no.109: 49–50; RG 1, 302. PRO, CO 217/60 (mfm. at PANS). Extracts from the proceedings of his majesty’s council [Feb. 21 and 28, 1788, in reference to complaints of improper and irregular administration of justice in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia . . .] ([Halifax, 1788?]). W. E. Boggs, The genealogical record of the Boggs family, the descendants of Ezekiel Boggs (Halifax, 1916), 73–74. B. [C. U.] Cuthbertson, The old attorney general: a biography of Richard John Uniacke (Halifax, ), 19–21. John Doull, Sketches of attorney generals of Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1964). Margaret Ells, “Nova Scotian ‘Sparks of liberty,’” Dalhousie Rev., 16 (1936–37): 475–92. L. H. Laing, “Nova Scotia’s Admiralty Court as a problem of colonial administration,” CHR, 16 (1935): 151–61.