GRAY, JOHN HAMILTON, soldier and politician; b. 14 June 1811 at Charlottetown, P.E.I., son of Robert Gray* and Mary Burns; m. first Susan Pennefather (d. 1866), and they had at least two children; m. secondly in 1869 Sarah Caroline Cambridge, and they had three children; d. 13 Aug. 1887 at Charlottetown.
John Hamilton Gray’s father emigrated from Glasgow to Virginia in 1771 and during the American revolution fought on the loyalist side. When the war ended he sought refuge in Shelburne, N.S., and in 1787 was invited by Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning* to assume several important official functions on Prince Edward Island. The elder Gray later married the daughter of Lieutenant George Burns, a proprietor and prominent public figure who had come to the Island in 1764. Thus, by the time of the birth of John Hamilton in 1811, the Gray family was established solidly within the ruling upper class of the Island, and his career, both as soldier and as politician, was to a great extent predetermined by family tradition.
In his middle or late teens Gray was sent to England to complete his education. According to an obituary in the Charlottetown Patriot he had, from his childhood, “evinced a desire for military life.” In his early twenties he joined the 7th Dragoon Guards of the British army and served with them for 21 years, much of his time being spent in India and South Africa. His career in the army appears to have been distinguished but unspectacular, and in later years one of his favourite remembrances of his military life seems to have been that he had had a daughter born in each quarter of the globe.
Gray retired to Prince Edward Island in 1852 with the rank of colonel and quickly became involved in public life. Although he had been absent from the colony as an adult, upon his return he demonstrated a lively interest in local affairs and seemed to adjust readily to the restricted compass of Island political life. Gray’s public statements reveal that his experience in the British army had created in him a loyalty to Britain and a sense of empire which were exceptional on the Island at the time; and yet, like other Islanders of the period, he was capable of alluding patriotically to Prince Edward Island as his “native land.”
On 12 April 1854 Gray was appointed to the Legislative Council by the Conservative government of John Myrie Holl*, but his new career as a politician was cut short by the outbreak of the Crimean War. Feeling the call of duty, Gray resigned from office and returned to military life, and though he failed to reach the actual scene of conflict he was absent from the Island for about two more years.
Shortly after his second return to the Island, Gray became embroiled in the dispute over religion which was brewing in the colony and which would bedevil Island politics for the next 20 years. An elder of Charlottetown’s kirk of St James since 1853, he believed strongly that the Bible ought to be a regular part of the school curriculum, a practice vigorously opposed by the large Roman Catholic minority. Gray soon emerged as one of the champions of the Protestant cause and served as chairman of the “Great Protestant Meeting” held in Charlottetown on 13 Feb. 1857 at which it was decided to establish a Protestant newspaper, the Protector and Christian Witness. The paper was merged with the Protestant and Evangelical Witness in 1858, at which time Gray had to deny charges that he had written secretly for it or had directed its editorial policy. He again showed his deep involvement in religious disputes by chairing a second Protestant meeting in February 1858, although his participation did not reveal a rancorous or narrowly sectarian attitude. Yet, it is also clear that his religious views were an asset to him in his political career. In the “Bible Elections” of 1858 and 1859, in which Protestant voters deserted George Coles*’s Liberal party, Gray was elected with sizable majorities as Conservative member for the predominantly Protestant riding of Queens, 4th District.
Following the 1859 election the Conservatives under Edward Palmer formed an all-Protestant government and soon introduced a scheme in which Gray was to play a key role. On 5 May 1859 Gray proposed in the assembly that the British government appoint a commission to inquire into the land question with a view to achieving the eventual abolition of the rental system. The Liberals accused the Conservatives of insincerity and pointed, with some justification, to the Tories’ previous lack of support for measures designed to assist the cause of the tenants, such as the Land Purchase Act of 1853. Eventually, however, a three-man commission was appointed and Gray, the leading proponent of the scheme, stated optimistically that “never in the history of this Island was there a brighter prospect opened to us for a fair and equitable settlement.” He seems to have believed sincerely that the land commission might be the solution to the problem of landlordism, and he was extremely bitter when in 1862 the British government heeded the objections of landlords and disallowed Island legislation which would have allowed a tenant “the right to purchase the land on which he lives.” Having been absent from the Island during the tumultuous 1830s and 1840s, Gray had not participated in the struggles related to land tenure led by William Cooper* or in George Coles’s fight for responsible government. It thus took him some time to perceive that British colonial policy and the best interests of Prince Edward Island were not always identical.
Identification with the land commission might have seriously impaired Gray’s political credibility, but by the time of the provincial election of January 1863 the religious controversy over education had become the dominant issue in Island politics and he succeeded in being re-elected. Gray had become government leader in the assembly in 1860 when Edward Palmer moved to the Legislative Council; after the election, he resigned from the Executive Council in mid February and precipitated a crisis which forced Palmer out of the Conservative leadership. Gray assumed the premiership by 2 March 1863.
The British government’s dismissal of the land commission’s recommendations propelled Gray towards the belief that, if united, the British North American colonies “would have more power and be in a better position to approach the British throne. . .” It is not surprising, therefore, that in the discussions regarding union of the Maritime colonies and confederation which came to the fore in the early 1860s, Gray was quite sympathetic to the notion of political amalgamation. In 1863 and 1864 he endorsed the Island’s participation in discussions of a Maritime union, though he seemed to prefer the idea of a broader federation. He argued that a form of British North American federation would present a strong united front to possible American expansionism in addition to improved relations with Britain. Gray was clearly committed to union, though not without reservations. Most Islanders, on the other hand, were quite evidently opposed to a union of any sort.
When the Charlottetown conference convened on 1 Sept. 1864, Gray, as premier of the host colony, was selected chairman. The conference was dominated by the persuasive delegates from Canada, and Gray, along with the rest of the Maritime delegates, appears to have been satisfied for the most part merely to listen to the arguments for a general British North American union. He needed little convincing, and by the time the conference ended he had become an ardent supporter of the scheme. After leaving Charlottetown the delegates made their way to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and although Gray’s speech in Halifax appears from the reports to have been rather non-committal, in Saint John he expressed enthusiastic support for confederation.
At the Quebec conference the following month Gray continued his support. However, the Prince Edward Island delegation, especially Edward Palmer, soon became a thorn in the side of the conference, expressing disapproval of almost every major resolution. Though Gray did not relinquish his support for confederation, he joined with his fellow delegates from the Island in arguing that the arrangements proposed regarding such matters as the composition of the Senate and representation in the House of Commons were inimical to the best interests of the Island.
The entire conference must have been an extremely difficult exercise for Gray because as a committed supporter of confederation he was anxious that the experiment not flounder, but as an Island politician he could not support measures which were clearly unacceptable to the Island populace. Nonetheless, he joined many of the “Fathers” on the banquet circuit following the Quebec conference. In Ottawa he stated his conviction that the new nation would soon take its place “among the first nations of the world,” and in Belleville predicted that the colonies would soon be united “in the bonds of brotherhood which shall never be severed.” It was the kind of talk that went over particularly well in Canada West, but its reception in his home province was quite another matter.
By the time Gray returned to Charlottetown on 10 Nov. 1864, Attorney General Palmer had already launched a peremptory and damaging attack against confederation. Gray responded by submitting to the newspapers an impassioned defence of the proposed union, arguing principally that confederation would offer a permanent solution to the vexatious land question by making compulsory the sale of lands and by providing the Island government with funds to purchase them. The sharp public difference of opinion between the premier and his attorney general placed Gray in an extremely awkward position, especially when it became increasingly clear that the overwhelming majority of Islanders were on Palmer’s side of the dispute. Palmer could see no advantages for the Island in confederation and his rather churlish behaviour during this episode may also be explained by his personal animosity towards Gray, who in 1863 had deposed him as Conservative leader and premier. Feeling deserted and isolated, Gray resigned on 20 Dec. 1864, thereby bringing a sudden and permanent end to his political career. For a man of Gray’s disposition and honour it must have been an extremely bitter and regrettable stroke of misfortune. The resignation was an unexpected and, to some, a rather precipitous decision, and it is possible that the illness of his wife had some bearing on the decision. Susan Gray had been too ill to accompany her husband to the Quebec conference and, after a lingering illness, died on 12 Nov. 1866. In 1868 the Charlottetown Herald attributed Gray’s exit from the political scene to an “irreparable family affliction.”
The internecine feuding within the Conservative party which surrounded Gray’s departure and Palmer’s simultaneous resignation from the Executive Council created a serious crisis of leadership. Early in January 1865 Gray was invited by the party to return to the position he had vacated, but he declined to lead a party which did not share his commitment to the Quebec Resolutions. Instead, James Colledge Pope, whose position on confederation was ambiguous, became premier.
In 1867 Gray’s urge for political involvement apparently returned. However, he was defeated by David Laird*, an anti-confederate, in his attempt to secure the Conservative nomination in his old riding of Queens, 4th District. In 1873 he managed to win the nomination, but was defeated soundly at the polls. It would appear that Gray’s role in the confederation controversy did irreparable damage to his political career, though this assessment is difficult to substantiate.
Gray’s removal from the political scene allowed him to become more deeply involved with another of his great interests, the militia. He had been since 1862 the commanding officer of the volunteer brigade of the Island, and in 1867 was appointed adjutant general of the militia of the Island. In 1873 he accepted a position as deputy adjutant general of the newly formed Military District no.12 of the Dominion of Canada.
The comments of contemporaries reveal that Gray was a private, serious man whose reserve probably bordered on severity. There were few who would have questioned his integrity and rectitude, but he inspired respect rather than affection. In many ways he remained very much the soldier, possessing, by all accounts, a disciplined and somewhat officious manner, and being, in the words of the Charlottetown Examiner, “punctual to a fault.” His comments in the legislature were generally of a practical, commonsensical nature, with a fine command of detail. He usually spoke clearly and to the point, and had little patience with the “useless repetitions” of some of his more garrulous colleagues. He was easily provoked by those members who, in his words, insisted on “serving up the same viands, hot, cold, hashed and rehashed.” In debate he exhibited little in the way of rhetorical flair, but was very much the infantryman, advancing relentlessly and logically from one point to the next. Apart from the occasional sardonic gibe he lacked the gift of wit, and whereas the official reporter would often record “Laughter” following the remarks of a witty member, on one occasion, when Gray had attempted to be humorous, the reporter recorded simply “A laugh.”
Though somewhat grave, Gray was not a harsh or vindictive man. In a period when the language in the Island legislature was frequently shrill and acerbic, he refrained from abuse and was seldom even sarcastic. Neither was he a narrowly partisan person, and when in 1869 a drive was begun to raise funds for the erection of a monument in honour of the Liberal journalist and politician Edward Whelan* who had died in December 1867, and to raise support for his widow and child, Gray did not hesitate to endorse the campaign. This is remarkable inasmuch as Whelan had been one of the most outspoken of his political opponents. In the Examiner Whelan had frequently criticized Gray, and on occasion held him up to ridicule. At Gray’s death in 1887, obituaries also mentioned his Christian charity towards the poor of the city of Charlottetown.
Today in Prince Edward Island, John Hamilton Gray is possibly better known than any of the other talented public figures of the lively and eventful 1850s and 1860s. Though he is most often remembered as a politician, it is clear that he was above all a soldier. His years in public office were but a brief interlude between his service in the British army and with the Island volunteers and the Canadian militia. Indeed, his chairmanship of the Charlottetown conference and role as a father of confederation were something of a happenstance, and it is interesting that his obituaries almost completely pass over this aspect of his life. They suggest that by the time of his death the Island public had practically forgotten his participation in the confederation movement. It would appear, therefore, that the recognition Gray has received for his role as a father of confederation has been the result of the increased Canadianization of the Island’s self-image in the decades since his death.
P.E.I., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1858–65. Examiner (Charlottetown), 1858–65, 19 Nov. 1866, 15 Aug. 1887. Islander, 1858–65. Patriot (Charlottetown), 15 Aug. 1887. Prince Edward Island Register (Charlottetown), 26 Feb. 1828. Canada’s smallest prov. (Bolger). Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in P.E.I.” Edward Whelan, The union of the British provinces . . . (Charlottetown, 1865; repr. Summerside, P.E.I., 1949).
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Cite This Article
David E. Weale, “GRAY, JOHN HAMILTON (1811-1887),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gray_john_hamilton_1811_87_11E.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:||David E. Weale|
|Title of Article:||GRAY, JOHN HAMILTON (1811-1887)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1982|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||March 21, 2023|