FLEMING, JOHN, businessman, militia officer, jp, and author; b. c. 1786 in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, possibly in Aberdeen, eldest son of Daniel Fleming and Margaret McHardy; d. unmarried 30 July 1832 in Montreal.
John Fleming came from a relatively poor family. His father died when he was a boy, but he received the rudiments of a classical education from a shopkeeper-uncle, Charles McHardy. In 1803 he emigrated to Montreal, where he apprenticed with Logan and Watt, an import house formed in 1796 with links to Greenock, Scotland; his family was connected with the Logans. Logan and Watt was not involved in the fur trade, but it was probably active in the export of the new staples, wheat and timber. Hart Logan, Fleming’s employer, was also a shipowner and shipbuilder; he launched John Molson*’s second steamship, the Swiftsure, in 1812.
In 1815 Logan and his brother William, a baker and landowner, returned to Britain. Fleming was left in control of William’s Quebec assets jointly with William’s son James and Fleming’s cousin John Catenach. At the same time he acquired a one-quarter interest in Hart Logan and Company, created on the dissolution of Logan and Watt. Hart Logan, who held three-quarters’ interest, settled in London, and his firm’s British export activities appear to have been shifted from Greenock to that city and to Liverpool. By 1817 James Logan was also a partner. The company dealt in such usual Canadian export commodities as oak timber, pine staves, deals, ashes, wheat, and flour. By 1820 it appears to have concentrated its British and colonial imports on European wines and spirits and on rum, sugar, molasses, and coffee from Jamaica and the Leeward Islands. It also built and operated ocean-going sailing vessels and St Lawrence steamships. The firm relied in part on loans from William, which by 1831 totalled £6,117.
As head of one of Montreal’s principal wholesale firms, Fleming rose in the business community. In 1822 he was elected to the Committee of Trade, and he served as its secretary from at least 1827 until 1829; a precursor of the Montreal Board of Trade, it provided a lobby for merchants’ concerns. Fleming was a shareholder in the Welland Canal Company, chartered in 1824, and the following year he was among 12 Montreal merchants who, with a group of London businessmen, founded the Lower Canada Land Company; Hart Logan was on the correspondence committee of the land company’s London subscribers. In 1826 Fleming subscribed 25 of the company’s 1,820 shares at £100 each. Two years later he and 76 other merchants petitioned the government for ownership of water lots in Montreal Harbour so that as owners of the adjoining lands they could build wharfs.
Fleming’s rise in the business community had been confirmed in January 1826 by his election to the board of directors of the Bank of Montreal. Aged about 40, he was then the youngest director after John Molson* Jr. A struggle within the board pitted an old guard, led by the president, Samuel Gerrard*, against a younger generation, led by George Moffatt*, who sought a more formal administration of the bank’s business. Fleming supported the Moffatt faction, which triumphed at a board meeting on 5 June 1826; the following day Fleming was elected vice-president. Though a supporter of Moffatt, he joined a majority of the board in opposing Moffatt’s attempt to petition Simon McGillivray* into bankruptcy, a question related to the Moffatt–Gerrard dispute. Fleming occupied the vice-presidency until June 1830 when he became president, a full-time post, the demands of which became his major preoccupation. Under him the bank’s involvement in foreign exchange grew and the practice of keeping considerable funds in New York for call loans was initiated. At the end of 1831, when the charter of the Bank of Canada expired, Fleming organized the absorption of that institution by the Bank of Montreal. During Fleming’s short tenure as president, which lasted until his death, the Bank of Montreal more than doubled its “net profit on hand” to £31,482, and in 1832 it declared a bonus in addition to its dividend of seven per cent, distributing £30,000 to shareholders.
As Fleming’s prominence in the business community increased he took on offices typically filled by its members. In May 1821 he was promoted lieutenant in the Montreal militia. Five years later he became a justice of the peace, but in 1830 he declined reappointment on grounds of business pressures. By 1827 he had been elected a life governor of the Montreal General Hospital. Since 1807 he had been an active member of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, later known as St Gabriel Street Church, which was favoured by the Scottish merchant community; in June 1831 his activism extended to occupying the church with other supporters of the Reverend Edward Black* when the congregation split over the choice of a minister [see William Caldwell].
In addition to his business and social occupations, Fleming had strong cultural interests. He corresponded with Daniel Wilkie*, a Quebec scholar, and was a friend of Montreal educator Alexander Skakel*. In 1824 he published “An essay on the education and duties of a Canadian merchant,” in which he asserted that English grammar, writing, arithmetic, and bookkeeping were necessary but not sufficient elements in the education of a merchant; to those subjects must be added “mathematics including practical navigation to strengthen the mind,” geography (including national customs) “to render it liberal,” and the languages of the principal trading nations. At the same time he was sensitive to local needs and conditions. He was scandalized that “no school-book has yet been compiled” that would give a colonial boy “some correct notions of his native land,” and felt that it was “expedient and necessary that a history and description of Canada should be published, expressly composed for the use of Canadian schools.” Examples in the teaching of business subjects should be drawn from the Canadian scene, he asserted, and the student made “acquainted with the face of his Country, her climate, soil, productions and capabilities” in order better to ascertain the resources that would justify “extensive undertakings in trade or manufactures.” He wrote French fluently, and his friend William Berczy*, who taught him Italian and German, good-naturedly dubbed him “Flemming l’Italien” or “Jean Flemmin,” according to circumstances. Fleming felt as well that a knowledge of ancient languages was necessary for anyone wishing to write English properly, and he made Latin translations for amusement.
Fleming wrote patriotic poetry and songs, but his only known published verse is an ode entitled “On the birth day of His Majesty King George the Third,” which won a gold medal offered by the Literary Society of Quebec in 1809. In it, referring to Lower Canada, he writes:
See! Industry and Plenty rise
And wealth and Commerce greet our eyes
And Science, teaching all these gifts to prize.
While like an Angel sent by Heav’n’s command,
The brave Sir Henry [Sir James Henry Craig*] guards the happy land.
Fleming’s major published work, however, was polemic in the guise of history. Some considerations on this question: whether the British government acted wisely in granting to Canada her present constitution? was written under the pseudonym A British Settler. It appeared in 1810, the year that Governor Craig attacked the Canadian party, seizing Le Canadien (Quebec), a nationalist newspaper, and imprisoning for “treacherous practices” some 20 people, including assemblymen, connected with it. Fleming shared Craig’s objective of assimilating the Canadians but felt, unlike Craig, that it would be best achieved through the functioning of British institutions – such as an elective assembly, to which the inhabitants of the colony had a right in any case as British subjects – rather than through a return to the French colonial institutions of the Quebec Act. Indeed, in Fleming’s view the British government ought rather to eliminate the last vestiges of the Quebec Act, and he felt that a reunion of the Canadas might create favourable conditions for doing so. His attitude towards the Canadians, patronizing rather than vilifying, was moderate for a British merchant of the time.
In 1813, as Britain and her colonies warred with the United States, Fleming published The resources of the Canadas under the pseudonym A Querist. A celebration of the colonies’ human and physical resources and of the abilities of the commander-in-chief of the British forces, Governor Sir George Prevost*, the book was intended to counter the lack of support for the war effort that low militia enrolments were thought to reveal. Fleming’s last and best-known work, Political annals of Lower Canada, was published by A British Settler in 1828. It was written at a time of political tension to influence opinion in Britain in favour of the Montreal merchants. Their proposal of 1822 to unite the Canadas as a means of promoting British immigration and assimilating the Canadian population had been thwarted in the British parliament [see Louis-Joseph Papineau*]. A polemic in the form of a chronological history from 1534, Fleming’s book favoured revival of the union project. A more aggressive work than Some considerations, it contributed to the identification of Fleming as ideologically aligned with an increasingly alarmed “English commercial party,” and provoked a response by Pierre-Jean de Sales Laterrière in Political and historical account of Lower Canada; with remarks (London, 1830); he wrote that Fleming’s work was “as full of information as it is of prejudice against the French Canadians.”
Over his lifetime Fleming amassed one of the largest personal libraries in Lower Canada, nearly 10,000 volumes, comprised of some 4,000 books and 145 periodical and newspaper titles; even the Montreal Library counted only 7–8,000 volumes in the 1830s. Fleming’s library included rare books and titles in French, Italian, and Latin, but most works were contemporary and in English; the major subject areas were history (30 per cent) and belles-lettres (25 per cent). Among the periodicals was undoubtedly the Canadian Review (Montreal) of 1824–26, which he had helped to establish. Although he had reputedly wanted his library left to McGill College, it was auctioned off after he died intestate, of cholera, in 1832.
Fleming’s early death has left him in somewhat undeserved historical obscurity. In most respects he was typical of Montreal businessmen of his era, although his poor origins gave him a slow start, compared with others, in his rise to prominence. A cultured man by the standard of his time, he was so more by taste and inclination than by achievement. That he has been remembered for his publications more than for his business activities is an indication that competition was much keener in business than in literature within the British community in Lower Canada.
John Fleming is the author of “On the birth day of His Majesty King George the Third,” published in Séance de la Société littéraire de Quebec, tenue samedi le 3e juin 1809 (Quebec, 1809); Some considerations on this question: whether the British government acted wisely in granting to Canada her present constitution? . . . by a British settler (Montreal, 1810); The resources of the Canadas . . . by a querist (Quebec, 1813); “An essay on the education and duties of a Canadian merchant,” Canadian Rev. and Literary and Hist. Journal (Montreal), 1 (1824): 73–80; and Political annals of Lower Canada . . . (Montreal, 1828).
ANQ-M, CN1-134, 6 mai 1820, 2 juin 1831; CN1-187, 28 janv., 11 oct., 22 nov. 1817; 27 mai 1820. McGill Univ. Arch., W. E. Logan papers, corr. of John Fleming. PAC, MG 30, D1, 12: 855–56; RG 1, 131: 45043–46, 62161232; RG 4, A1, 332, no.47; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 358, 361. William Berczy, “William von Moll Berczy,” ANQ Rapport, 1940–41: 39, 42, 64, 67, 71, 76, 92. [P.-J. de Sales Laterrière], Political and historical account of Lower Canada; with remarks . . . (London, 1830). Canadian Courant and Montreal Advertiser, 1 Aug. 1832. Le Canadien, ler août 1832. Montreal Gazette, 31 July 1832. Quebec Gazette, 1 Aug., 14 Nov. 1816; 27 Nov. 1817; 14 Jan., 14 Oct. 1819; 7 Sept. 1820; 7 May, 27 Sept. 1821. Canada, an encyclopædia of the country: the Canadian dominion considered in its historic relations, its natural resources, its material progress, and its national development, ed. J. C. Hopkins (6v. and index, Toronto, 1898–1900), 4. Augustin Cuvillier and J. Cuvillier, Catalogue of books comprising the library of the late John Fleming, esquire . . . (Montreal, 1833). Philéas Gagnon, Essai de bibliographie canadienne . . . (2v., Quebec et Montreal, 1895–1913; réimpr. Dubuque, Iowa, ). Hare et Wallot, Les imprimés dans le Bas-Canada. H. J. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. F. W. Terrill, A chronology of Montreal and of Canada from A.D. 1752 to A.D. 1893 . . . (Montreal, 1893). Wallace, Macmillan dict. R. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church. Denison, Canada’s first bank. Antonio Drolet, Les bibliothèques canadiennes, 1604–1960 (Ottawa, 1965). T. G. Marquis, “English-Canadian literature,” Canada and its provinces; a history of the Canadian people and their institutions . . . , ed. Adam Shortt and A. G. Doughty (23v., Toronto, 1913–17), 12: 493–589. Benjamin Sulte et al., A history of Quebec, its resources and its people (2v., Montreal, 1908). Wallot, Un Quebec qui bougeait. Thomas Chapais, “Une séance littéraire à Québec en 1809,” Le Courrier du Canada (Quebec), 31 déc. 1890: 3.