JOHNSTON, ALEXANDER, judge of the Court of Vice-Admiralty and legislative councillor; b. c. 1737; d. 26 Oct. 1778.
It is difficult to identify Alexander Johnston. The historian Francis-Joseph Audet* thought him “very likely” the Alexander Johnston who during the military régime of 1760 to 1764 was captain of a company in the 46th Foot stationed at Saint-François-du-Lac in the Government of Trois-Rivières. Audet seems to have been in error, however, since in 1770 this man was a lieutenant-colonel in the 70th Foot serving in the West Indies. We know that by November 1767 the future legislative councillor and judge was a barrister-at-law in the province of Quebec. He may therefore have been the “counsellor Johnston” who was in Quebec that very month with a young wife described by Francis Maseres* as “a very beautiful woman.”
On 2 March 1769 Johnston was appointed judge of the Court of Vice-Admiralty for the province of Quebec. In criminal matters this court was empowered to judge, without a jury, all crimes and offences committed at sea. In non-criminal matters it had jurisdiction over commercial litigation, whether maritime or civil, between merchants and shipowners. Acting with a jury it could also investigate shipwrecks, unclaimed property, treasure-trove, and accidents at sea. Johnston’s salary, when the first payments were finally approved nearly four years after his appointment, was a generous £200 per annum, and his duties were light. As his predecessor James Potts had admitted, “by the situation of this Port [Quebec], very little business is done in the Court of Admiralty, in comparison with what happens in Ports nearer the Sea, which are open all the year.” Johnston secured the position of examiner in the Court of Chancery on 22 Dec. 1769, and about the beginning of 1770 he also became clerk of the crown. He first took over the clerkship in an acting capacity from Henry Kneller, who had become attorney general, but was probably appointed to full rank the following summer. Although the position paid less than the judgeship, it likely occupied more of Johnston’s time, since he was responsible for most of the detailed presentation and recording of King’s Bench business, work which also took him more often to Montreal.
In November 1775 William Gordon and Peter Livius arrived in Quebec bearing mandamuses for positions which included Johnston’s clerkship and judgeship. Gordon took over the former position, but Johnston managed to hang on to the higher paid post, since Livius was made judge of the Court of Vice-Admiralty for Montreal only. Some time after 31 Oct. 1777, however, Johnston relinquished his judgeship as well. Meanwhile the loss of his salary as clerk had been compensated for by his appointment in August 1775 to the first Legislative Council set up under the terms of the Quebec Act. He was a faithful attendant at the few meetings convened before the emergency of the American invasion of 1775–76 caused a lapse in the use of the council. He was also present at the frequent sessions held in the first four months of 1777 and served on most of the important committees, including the one which drafted ordinances establishing courts of justice [see Adam Mabane]. It is surprising, then, that he disappears completely from the council minutes after attending a “privy” council meeting in July 1777. He continued to be a member, as Governor Haldimand’s instructions of 1 April 1778 indicate. Since he died prematurely, it is not too fanciful to suspect broken health in the last year of his life; it was brought on perhaps by his very frequent guard, picket, and fatigue duty as a militia captain during the winter siege of 1775–76, a service that was said also to have injured William Gordon’s constitution.
ASQ, Polygraphie, XXXVII, 1. BL, Add. mss 9913, ff.186, 214 (copy at PAC). PAC, MG 23, A1, ser.1, 7, no.1767; GII, 3, 1; MG 24, B1, 46, p.3; RG 1, E1, 6, pp.1–49; 13, p.14; E15, A, 2; 8; 9; 10; 11; 13/3; 16; RG 4, A1, 14, p.6209; 20, pp.6846, 6947. PRO, CO 42/35, f.114; CO 217/19, p.171 (mfm. at PAC). Doc. relatifs à l’hist. constitutionnelle, 1759–91 (Shortt et Doughty; 1921), I, 74; II, 685. Gentleman’s Magazine, 1763, 314–15; 1765, 147. Maseres, Maseres letters (Wallace), 64. “Orderly book begun by Captain Anthony Vialar of the British militia . . . ,” ed. F. C. Würtele, Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Hist. Docs., 7th ser. (1905), 155–265. Quebec Gazette, 1 Sept. 1768, 18 Jan. 1770, 25 July 1771, 14 July 1774, 29 Oct. 1778. G. B., WO, Army list, 1758–60, 1763, 1766, 1768, 1770. Turcotte, Le Cons. législatif, 3–4, 21–43. Neatby, Administration of justice under Quebec Act. G. F. G. Stanley, Canada invaded, 1775–1776 (Toronto, 1973), 160. A. L. Burt, “The quarrel between Germain and Carleton: an inverted story,” CHR, XI (1930), 205–6.