CALDWELL, Sir JOHN, lawyer, politician, office holder, businessman, and seigneur; baptized 25 Feb. 1775 at Quebec, only son of Henry Caldwell* and Ann Hamilton; m. 21 Aug. 1800 Jane Davidson at Quebec, and they had two sons and a daughter; d. 26 Oct. 1842 in Boston.
John Caldwell spent his childhood near Quebec, at the manor-house of Belmont. The estate was one of the properties on which his father had taken a 99-year lease from Lieutenant-General James Murray* in 1774 and which he was to buy in 1801. In addition to looking after his numerous fiefs, business activities, and responsibilities as a legislative councillor, Henry Caldwell served as receiver general from 1794. On 29 Jan. 1799 he decided to give his son power of attorney to administer his assets and business affairs. John, after a thorough education under Alexander Spark*, had been called to the bar on 20 June 1798, but as a result of his father’s action he never practised as a lawyer.
In 1800 Caldwell went into politics when the residents of Lauzon, a seigneury also leased by his father for 99 years, urged him to run for the Lower Canadian House of Assembly. He stood for Dorchester that year and was elected along with Jean-Thomas Taschereau*. He remained a member until the 1809 elections, when some irregularities worked to his detriment. The polling officer, Jean-Baptiste Demers, whose sympathies lay with the Canadian party and Caldwell’s opponents, declared Taschereau and Pierre Langlois elected before the polls were due to close. Shortly after the house opened in January 1810, Caldwell and his supporters protested against the conduct of Demers and demanded that the election be overturned. This request was rejected, then reconsidered. It was decided that the legitimacy of the election would be verified on 10 March. On 1 March, however, Governor Sir James Henry Craig* prorogued parliament, and the order died. In the following elections Caldwell defeated Taschereau, but only by 51 votes. After a decade in the house he relinquished his seat on 15 Dec. 1811. He had not played a large role, distinguishing himself more by his repeated absences than by his speeches. In general he supported the “Château clique” – the government party – but he retained a certain independence of mind. For example, he spoke in favour of pronouncing judges ineligible to be assemblymen, citing the difficulties that might arise from the simultaneous exercise of the two offices. He was called to the Legislative Council in 1811 and remained on it until 1838.
At his father’s death in May 1810 Caldwell entered into possession of almost all his assets – one of the few exceptions being the seigneury of Lauzon, which was bequeathed to his young son Henry John. The distribution had been made according to a hand-written will, unsigned and undated; the only other one dated from 1799, when Henry’s wife was still alive. As his son was just nine, Caldwell continued to manage Lauzon. At this time he owned Belmont and was the recognized seigneur of Gaspé and Foucault; in 1803 he had bought the seigneury of Saint-Étienne.
Joseph Bouchette’s descriptions of Caldwell’s properties, published in 1815, give an idea of their state of development. The surveyor general paid little attention to Foucault, Gaspé, and Saint-Étienne, which had more wood than people, but he underlined the advantages of the seigneury of Lauzon. It was near Quebec, and had soils of high quality and plentiful timber. As numerous rivers flowed through it, it had three grist-mills and several sawmills. With the economic situation in his favour and a domain having highly prized and varied resources, Caldwell had not waited for his father’s death to develop Lauzon, which he was managing. Using his engineering skills, he had diverted rivers to improve the output of the mills. A few years after his father’s purchase of the seigneury in 1801, the two men had laid down new regulations for granting lands. Anxious to make their properties profitable and to safeguard them, they had raised the yearly payments and had added to previous contracts a series of restrictions on the building of mills. They had not, however, acted differently from other seigneurs.
In dealing with his lands, Caldwell not only kept the best locations for himself but also sought to ensure the supply of wood for his sawmills. In 1826, when he granted Pierre Lambert the sub-fief of Saint-Félix in the seigneury of Gaspé, he retained the rights to exploit any pine and spruce forests on it. Ten years earlier he had presented a request to Lord Bathurst for a change in the system of tenure on the seigneuries of Gaspé and Saint-Étienne. His proposed measure was designed to encourage the immigration of people from the British Isles, who were not eager to settle on seigneurial land. In the end the request was turned down, but if things had gone differently, Caldwell would have had sole ownership of 40,000 arpents, with only 4,000 cleared.
It would have taken more than one refusal to make Caldwell slow down in his initiatives. In building sawmills and flour-mills at the mouth of the Etchemin his father had encouraged the founding of a village there. This development was attractive to John, who was working along the same lines. Using his right of repurchase he had begun in 1804 to buy land along the St Lawrence now included in Notre-Dame ward at Lévis. He continued his dealings and in 1818 acquired in the space of two months the entire stretch of land above the cliff. The locality was called the town of Aubigny. Caldwell divided this magnificent domain into building lots, setting some aside for a public market and a park, and then he had a hotel and an Anglican chapel built. Wealthy people from Quebec had their summer homes there. Nevertheless the settlement never grew as Caldwell had hoped, and in Bouchette’s time there were only about 40 dwellings. According to him the rents the seigneur demanded were far too high.
On 19 Nov. 1808 Caldwell had been appointed acting receiver general at the request of his father, who was gradually relinquishing his activities. The post became his officially on 6 June 1810. As receiver general he made only £400 a year, a sum he thought quite insufficient considering his heavy responsibility. His plans and his style of living required substantial capital outlays. In 1817 Caldwell sold Belmont to James Irvine* for £4,000 and then divided his time between his residence at Quebec and his seigneurial manor-house at Pointe-Lévy (Lauzon and Lévis).
Caldwell could also count on the proceeds from his lumber and flour business. He was in partnership with his brother-in-law John Davidson, who had been acting as business agent and attorney for the seigneur of Lauzon since 1811. The firm of Caldwell and Davidson specialized in dressing lumber. Caldwell got some of the wood from Upper Canada, but most of it came from the reserves on his seigneuries. He hired his censitaires to chop down the trees and bring the logs to his mills, where they were sawn into boards. All the facilities for shipping the product were near at hand.
Like other lumber merchants at Quebec, Caldwell and Davidson went into shipbuilding. On 28 Sept. 1816 they formed a company with Hiran Nicholas, a Montreal merchant, François Languedoc, John White, and John Goudie* of Quebec, and Richard Lilliot, a merchant at Pointe-Lévy. The company was to put a steamship into passenger and freight service between the two shores of the St Lawrence. Each partner was entitled to one share. Caldwell was to import the engine and necessary fittings from Great Britain, and then have a loading wharf built. The Lauzon would go into service in 1818. On 28 Sept. 1816 Caldwell and Davidson had also entered partnership with Robert Armour*, George Davis (Davies), and James Macdowall, all Montreal merchants, and White, Languedoc, Goudie, Robert Melvin, and François Bélanger to form the Quebec Steamboat Company, for the purpose of running a steamship between Quebec and Montreal. Caldwell and Davidson held jointly one of the seven shares, and Caldwell was to furnish the same equipment as in the first arrangement.
In 1820, wanting to prepare for their own succession, Caldwell and Davidson brought their sons, Henry John and John, into the management of the flour-mill at Saint-Nicolas through a partnership agreement signed on 27 October. But subsequent events thwarted their plans. No matter how much profit Caldwell made from exporting flour and from his lumber business, his expenditures for Aubigny, the mills he built, and the purchases of land he was constantly making exceeded the income he could count on. His situation, like that of all the lumber merchants, remained precarious and subject to the impact of the protectionist policy of the imperial government. That the receiver general had such a grand style of living created doubt in the House of Assembly about the use he might be making of public funds. From 1815 the assembly demanded that it be kept informed of his accounts and the true financial situation of the province. The fact that Caldwell had loyal friends inside the administration did not prevent a scandal from erupting in 1823.
The receiver general was directly answerable to the British government. He had full power to levy and collect fees, taxes, and other revenues payable in the province for the maintenance of the administration of justice and the civil government. His salary was minimal, but he could dispose of the funds he held for his own purposes, on condition that he account for them on request. Caldwell had made generous use of this privilege, to the point that on 1 May 1822 he was unable to meet the expenses of the civil list. To cover his insolvency, Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay] took £30,000 out of military funds and then in January 1823 turned to the house for reimbursement. Judging that Caldwell had received a personal favour and that he ought to have had more than £100,000 to hand, the house took no action on the governor’s claim and voted supplies as if there had been no deficit. The situation was becoming embarrassing for Dalhousie. He submitted the problem to the Executive Council, which questioned Caldwell. Caldwell was no more able to honour his obligations now than he had been the previous year. The council declared that the matter had to be referred to the British government and that the best solution was to postpone payment of the civil list until July and of other appropriations until November or December. This delay would give time to ascertain the crown’s position and might enable Caldwell to replenish his funds.
Dalhousie sent John Davidson to England to present the facts and defend both his policy as governor and Caldwell’s claims. Caldwell made a modest effort towards obtaining funds to pay his most pressing debts. To this end he parted with his shares in the Lauzon and the Quebec Steamboat Company and he committed to it the arrears owed by the Lauzon censitaires and the sale price of the Hôtel Lauzon. In addition he signed a promise to sell the seigneury of Foucault to Robert Christie*, receiving from him an initial £2,000.
Meanwhile Dalhousie was preparing to confront the house on this awkward case, which involved not only some £100,000 but also the entire machinery of colonial administration. The assembly had more than once complained that it did not have sufficient control of public revenues. The Caldwell affair provided a number of arguments in support of its point of view, beginning with the governor’s complicity. In a hurry to take action Dalhousie, with the backing of the executive, appointed two controllers to assist Caldwell, and then a few days before the opening of the session on 25 Nov. 1823 he dismissed him from office. On being informed of these developments, the assembly set up a committee, chaired by Austin Cuvillier, to examine the situation. Caldwell was called before it and questioned about the organization of the receiver general’s office and the steps he intended to take to clear his debt. He proposed, among other measures, to sell his house in Lower Town Quebec, the seigneuries of Gaspé, Saint-Étienne, and Foucault, about 50 acres in the suburbs of Quebec, and some 40,000 more in various townships. The committee’s report made little mention of this suggested course of action and emphasized the assembly’s complaints about the colonial administration. In a message sent to London the assembly argued that the receiver general was directly responsible to the imperial government, and that London had an obligation to reimburse the province for the funds it had lost.
Caldwell wanted at all costs to be reinstated in office. Davidson went to England to plead his partner’s cause once more and to inform the lords of the Treasury about the measures Caldwell had in mind to discharge his debt. Reinstatement was turned down, supposedly because Caldwell did not put up sufficient guarantees. Legal action was started: on 13 June 1825 two complaints were brought before the Court of King’s Bench at Quebec. The first one involved Caldwell himself and sought recovery of the sum he owed as of 17 Nov. 1823, a little more than £219,000, plus interest. The second concerned him as heir to his father’s estate and involved nearly £40,000, which the elder Caldwell had owed at his death. He contested both suits, but on 20 October the court ruled that he had to pay more than £96,000. He proposed to Dalhousie a method of reimbursement similar to the one that he had laid before the house committee, but he insisted on retaining Lauzon in return for an annual payment of £2,000. The governor submitted his proposals to the Executive Council, which suggested waiting for instructions from the Treasury. These delays antagonized the assembly, as did the attitude of Caldwell, who at one moment made conciliatory offers and at the next rejected the accusations against him and refused adamantly to part with Lauzon. The house was well aware that Caldwell enjoyed support on both sides of the Atlantic.
Despite Caldwell’s connections and all his efforts, the seigneury of Lauzon had to be put up for sale on 27 Aug. 1826. Henry John Caldwell protested the sale on grounds that the seigneury had been bequeathed to him by his grandfather and that it could not be used to clear his father’s deficit. But because the will in Henry Caldwell’s hand was neither signed nor dated, in June 1827 the Court of King’s Bench declared it invalid. The case was appealed, and on 30 July 1828 the judgement was upheld. Henry John Caldwell decided to appeal to the Privy Council. While awaiting the final decision his father made a request to the Treasury that he might be considered the lessee of Lauzon for a period of five to seven years rather than on a yearly basis, but his request was denied.
The sale of Caldwell’s other properties began on 21 Sept. 1829. Moses Hart* bought the seigneury of Gaspé, George Pozer that of Saint-Étienne, and John Anthony Donegani* that of Foucault. Thomas Scott purchased the lots at Sainte-Foy, and the property in Lower Town went to John Jones. Caldwell did not remain inactive in the mean time and continued to make land grants on Lauzon until 1835. In his situation he was in a great hurry to collect annual payments and arrears due him. To satisfy his creditors he would give up a piece of land or the right to build a mill, always for monetary compensation. He took care, however, to grant the best parts of the seigneury to his children. To protect his sources of income as far as possible he even leased the communal mill to his brother-in-law Davidson for 20 years. He remained involved in the lumber business. In the Legislative Council the former receiver general, who in 1830 had inherited a baronetcy from a cousin, still enjoyed the confidence of his colleagues, and in 1831 Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer] did not hesitate to appoint him acting speaker.
In January 1834, since the Privy Council had not yet given its opinion, the assembly wanted to reopen the debate and find out where matters stood. A committee of five was set up which reported on the situation, emphasizing irregularities. Among other things it questioned why Caldwell should not be required to pay interest on the amount of his default that had been recognized. In the end, the house demanded that the imperial government repay the sums owing the province, or that the remaining assets of the seigneur of Lauzon be seized. This famous scandal was reflected in the 92 Resolutions passed on 21 Feb. 1834, for Caldwell is depicted in the 34th, and the 84th gives as one of the assembly’s grievances “the refusal of His Majesty’s Government to reimburse to the province the amount for which the late Receiver-general was a defaulter.” In June the Privy Council upheld the judgement of the Court of Appeal.
In his vexation Caldwell, who could not even make the annual payment required for the seigneury of Lauzon, wanted to resign from the Legislative Council in 1836. At that time he was living in seclusion in Boston. There being no precedent since councillors were named for life, his resignation was refused. That year the house set up a new committee to study the conditions of sale of Lauzon as well as Caldwell’s proposal to make it over to the government as settlement for his debt, rather than to put it up for auction. The majority in the assembly, however, thought it more advantageous to proceed with a public sale. The debate was cut short by the turmoil of 1837–38.
The Caldwell affair was revived in 1840 in the Special Council. The former receiver general still owed the province some £78,675. He did not live to learn of the official decision. A bill passed the year after his death ordered Lauzon to be sold by the sheriff of the district of Quebec. On 17 March 1845 the government bought it for £40,500. More than 20 years of lawsuits, manœuvres, delays, and impassioned debates had been required to resolve the matter. These events revealed, of course, the ambition of one man, John Caldwell. They also reflected all the tensions that stirred up the colony in the years preceding the union of the two Canadas.
ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 25 févr. 1775, 21 août 1800; CN1-49, 2 juill. 1824, 22 déc. 1830; CN1-116, 23 oct. 1818; 31 août 1826; 28–29 mai 1831; 30 mars, 1er août 1832; CN1-178, 2 févr. 1801, 10 mai 1814; CN1-208, 22 avril, 13 oct., 7 nov. 1823; 1er oct. 1824; 22 mars 1825; 11 avril 1827; 19 avril, 31 oct. 1829; 17 déc. 1830; 12 avril 1832; 12, 24 sept. 1834; 17 déc. 1836; 24 sept. 1840; CN1-230, 9 janv. 1817, 13 mars 1823; CN1-262, 29 janv. 1799; 9, 21 oct. 1811; 28 sept. 1816; 18–19, 31 août, 4, 8, 14, 17, 19 sept., 23 oct. 1818; 12 nov. 1825; 21 janv. 1828; 20 janv. 1843; 8 mai 1846. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Council, Journaux, 1843: 12, 29, 32–33, 62, 130; Statutes, 1843, c.26. L.C., House of Assembly, Journaux, 1802: 213; 1803: 171, 173, 177;1810: 131, 151–57, 195; 1815: 342, 344, 346, 434, 436, 494; 1820–21: 87, 107, 160–61, 280; 1823: 45, app.H; 1823–24: 23, 55, 107, 197, 230, app.E, L, S; 1825, app.O; 1826: 25, 59, 78; 1827:23, 42, 95, 153, 187, 294; 1828–29:212, 226, 320, 322, 346, 349–351; 1832–33: 191; 1834: 26, 31, 147, 194, 264, 482, app.CC; 1835–36: 366, 526–27, 604, 633, 645, 648; Legislative Council, Journaux, 1835: 22–23; 1835–36: 114, 216; Special Council, Journals, 1840–41, app.A. Docs. relating to constitutional hist., 1791–1818 (Doughty and McArthur), 490–501. Docs. relating to constitutional hist., 1819–28 (Doughty and Story), 88–89, 186–201, 315, 323–38, 453–70, 486–90. Quebec Gazette, 19 April 1810, 1 April 1813, 19 Dec. 1825, 31 Oct. 1842, 17 March 1845. Bouchette, Topographical description of L.C. Quebec almanac, 1799, 1830, 1831. P.-G. Roy, Les avocats de la région de Québec; Inv. concessions. Turcotte, Le Conseil Iégislatif. Christie, Hist. of L. C. (1866), vol.3. J.-E. Roy, Hist. de Lauzon, vols.3–5. D. T. Ruddell, “Quebec City, 1765–1831: the evolution of a colonial town” (d. ès l. thesis, Univ. Laval, Quebec, 1981). P.-G. Roy, “Le testament de l’honorable Henry Caldwell,” BRH, 29 (1923): 202–4.
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Cite This Article
Andrée Héroux, “CALDWELL, Sir JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/caldwell_john_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Andrée Héroux|
|Title of Article:||CALDWELL, Sir JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|