ELDER, WILLIAM, Presbyterian clergyman, journalist, and politician; b. 22 July 1822 at Malin, County Donegal (Republic of Ireland); d. 23 July 1883 in Saint John, N.B., and was survived by his wife and two daughters.
William Elder received an excellent theological education at Belfast College, the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and New College in Edinburgh. His education was reflected in the high literary quality of his later writings and speeches. Elder greatly distinguished himself academically, excelling especially in metaphysics and the classics. Thus trained for the Free Church Presbyterian ministry, he came to New Brunswick as a missionary. In 1853 he briefly occupied the pulpit of the Saint John Presbyterian Church, and early in 1854 was called to the pastorate of the Presbyterian church at St Stephen, where he remained until 1863. But his literary inclinations had soon led him into denominational journalism, and in March 1856 he had founded the Colonial Presbyterian and Protestant Journal, which he continued to publish and edit after moving back to Saint John in 1863. Elder did not continue as an active minister, although he occasionally preached at his former parish in the city.
Perceiving that a much wider influence could be exercised during the confederation era through secular rather than denominational journalism, Elder founded the tri-weekly Morning Journal in Saint John on 1 May 1865. As its publisher and editor, Elder united scholarly attainments with marked journalistic ability in his dignified but forceful editorials in favour of confederation, at the very moment when the fortunes of the pro-confederates had reached their lowest ebb in the province. While opposing Samuel Leonard Tilley* on the question of the Western Extension railway from Saint John to Maine, the Morning Journal played a significant role in helping Tilley achieve the confederate victory over Albert James Smith in the crucial New Brunswick election of June 1866. As early as 1867 Henry James Morgan*, commenting upon Elder’s “bold, earnest and logical” editorials and “cultivated and refined taste,” observed that he already occupied “a first position amongst British American journalists.”
On 2 July 1869 Elder’s Morning Journal amalgamated with John Livingston’s tri-weekly Morning Telegraph (Saint John), to form the St. John Daily Telegraph and Morning Journal, with Livingston as proprietor anti Elder as editor. Simultaneously, Elder’s Colonial Presbyterian merged with the Presbyterian Advocate (Saint John), under similar arrangements. In 1871 Elder purchased Livingston’s interests in both newspapers, and continued as publisher and editor of the Presbyterian Advocate until it was discontinued in 1876, and of the St. John Daily Telegraph and Morning Journal (the title was abbreviated to the Daily Telegraph in September 1873) until his death. Under Elder’s skilful proprietorship, the Daily Telegraph rose to unprecedented prominence in the Maritime provinces. Its circulation was more than double that of any daily in New Brunswick, and that of the Weekly Telegraph was equal to the combined circulation of its three leading rivals in the Maritimes. The Presbyterian Advocate and the Daily Telegraph together had a circulation of 20,000 each week, the largest output for an advertising medium in Canada east of Montreal.
Much of the Telegraph’s success is attributable to Elder’s complete reorganization of its editorial staff, which included James Hannay*, Elder’s assistant editor from 1872 to 1883, who was the Telegraph’s editor between 1893 and 1901 and New Brunswick’s most prominent historian before World War I. But it was principally William Elder’s own character and vigorous, articulate editorship that made the Daily Telegraph, between 1871 and 1883, according to the Toronto Globe, one of the “most enterprising, most ably conducted, and most influential journals in the Dominion. . . . ”
Through the Daily Telegraph’s well-reasoned and conscientious editorials on federal politics, Elder warmly supported Sir John A. Macdonald*, Tilley, and the Conservatives until disillusioned by the Pacific Scandal in 1873. Thereafter, he aligned the Telegraph’s editorial policy with Alexander Mackenzie*’s Liberals in dominion politics, but maintained that provincial politics should be divorced completely from federal. During the New Brunswick school controversy of the early 1870s, he was a strong supporter of the free, non-sectarian school system which was inaugurated against Roman Catholic objections in January 1872. On the local level the Telegraph, with zealous civic pride, devoted much attention to the commercial, industrial, social, and intellectual advancement of Saint John in particular, and New Brunswick in general. Elder’s editorials on such topics combined an articulate literary style and careful logic with high-minded integrity.
William Elder himself first entered politics in the federal general election of 1872 as a Conservative candidate for the City and County of Saint John. The members elected were Isaac Burpee and Acalus Lockwood Palmer*, but the contest had little political significance since all the candidates presented themselves as moderate Conservatives. On the provincial scene, the Daily Telegraph’s spirited support of the Common Schools Act, 1871, had contributed much towards the carrying of the measure by the government of George Luther Hatheway* in May 1871. When a vacancy occurred in Saint John County through the death of Joseph Coram, Elder was elected to the provincial assembly in a by-election on 6 Nov. 1875. He was re-elected in 1878 and 1882. Although there were no firm dividing lines between parties in New Brunswick provincial politics before 1883, Elder was generally seen as a supporter of the government of George Edwin King* and he became, both through the Telegraph’s influential editorials and his polished oratory in the house, one of the strongest defenders of John James Fraser*’s administration formed in 1878. After Fraser resigned as premier and William Wedderburn as provincial secretary prior to the June 1882 general election, the government was reorganized under the leadership of Daniel Lionel Hanington* and Pierre-Amand Landry*. Elder was shocked at being excluded from the reconstituted administration. The new government, which depended for its support on the 22 conservative assemblymen elected in June 1882, soon faced an opposition of the more liberal supporters of the previous King and Fraser administrations, among whom Elder and Andrew George Blair were most prominent. When the Hanington–Landry government was forced to resign following defeat on a non-confidence motion on 24 Feb. 1883, Blair formed a Liberal government on 3 March, the first distinct “party” administration following confederation. Elder was appointed provincial secretary, president and chairman of the board of agriculture, and a commissioner of the provincial lunatic asylum. He died less than five months later, but during his brief tenure in office he revealed himself to be an able and industrious administrator.
While he was actively engaged in journalism and politics, Elder also served as an elected director of the Saint John Grammar School Board and of the Saint John Board of Trade; he frequently represented the latter at the annual meetings of the Dominion Board of Trade. He considered himself a member of the Saint John business community and was a director of the Saint John Cotton Company and the principal organizer of the Dominion and Loyalist Centennial Exhibition held in Saint John in October 1883. His unceasing labours as the exhibition’s executive chairman possibly contributed to his death a few months before it opened. Between April 1867 and October 1872 he had been a frequent contributor to Stewart’s Quarterly (Saint John), one of the highest quality literary magazines in Canada in the immediate post-confederation era. In educational matters, Elder was primarily responsible for the establishment of the Fredericton Normal School in the late 1870s and he frequently addressed university convocations. These orations, several of which were published, exhibited refined scholarly eloquence. In recognition of his services to education in the province, the University of New Brunswick conferred upon him the honorary degree of lld in June 1883.
Elder’s sudden death occasioned great public mourning throughout New Brunswick and brought forth eulogistic tributes from across Canada. As a Presbyterian clergyman, the leading orator of the New Brunswick assembly from 1875 to 1883, and briefly a prominent member of the Blair government, he had gained widespread recognition, but he was best known for his successful career as New Brunswick’s most influential journalist after confederation. The dignified publisher and editor of the Saint John Daily Telegraph became, as the Dominion annual register observed, commenting upon his enlightened public spirit and indomitable energy, “one of the ablest and most worthy newspaper writers in the Dominion.”
William Elder was the author of Meliora: an oration delivered before the “Alumni” of Mount Allison Wesleyan College, Sackville, on the 1st of June, 1880 ([Saint John, N. B., 1880]) and The university: medieval and modern; an oration, delivered at the encœnia of the University of New Brunswick, on the 21st of June, 1871 (Saint John, 1871).
Colonial Presbyterian and Protestant Journal (St Stephen, N. B., and Saint John), March 1856–June 1869. Daily Sun (Saint John), 24, 27 July 1883. Daily Telegraph (Saint John), 2 July 1869–27 July 1883. Globe, 25 July 1883. Morning Journal (Saint John), 1 May 1865–30 June 1869. Presbyterian Advocate (Saint John), 1869–76. Stewart’s Quarterly (Saint John), April 1867–October 1872. CPC, 1883. Dominion annual register, 1883. Harper, Hist. directory. W. G. MacFarlane, New Brunswick bibliography: the books and writers of the province (Saint John, 1895). Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. Hannay, Hist. of N.B.