JOHNSTON, JAMES, businessman, journalist, and politician; b. in Ireland; d. 16 June 1849 in Bytown (Ottawa).
James Johnston immigrated to the Canadas in 1815 and in May 1827 leased property in Bytown. During the next two decades he was at the centre of a series of local conflicts which reveal the ethnic and religious tensions in the young town. Although originally a blacksmith by trade, Johnston functioned in Bytown as a general merchant and an auctioneer. He also developed considerable property holdings in both the town and the surrounding townships.
From his first years in Bytown, Johnston demonstrated a pugnacious and mercurial nature which, coupled with a biting, satirical tongue, would win him large numbers of ardent supporters as well as many bitter enemies. In May 1831, during events displaying the animosity between civilians and the military, Johnston and Alexander James Christie “jostled and threatened” Joseph N. Hagerman, solicitor for the military authorities operating the Rideau Canal, who was in court defending a group of soldiers. If such action indicated agreement between Johnston and Christie, it soon passed, for in early 1834 the little Irish auctioneer complained to Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne* that “all my Scotch enemy” had gathered together with “the well known Doctor Christie” in order to attack him. Johnston argued that Scottish magistrates displayed an ethnic bias – a complaint echoed a few years later by the only local Irish magistrate, Daniel O’Connor. Johnston, however, had also been complaining about O’Connor. An Orangeman, he argued that O’Connor, a Roman Catholic, used his powers only to punish enemies. In July 1835 O’Connor countered by arguing that “neither friend nor foe can escape” Johnston’s accusations and that he was motivated by jealousy. Shortly afterwards, in late October, unknown enemies burned down Johnston’s house.
Only a few months later Johnston embarked on a short-lived newspaper career. Commencing on 24 Feb. 1836, his paper, the Bytown Independent, and Farmer’s Advocate, lasted only two issues, but those issues clearly revealed the editor’s personality and concerns. He promised to advance the interests of “every true Briton – irishmen and their descendants first on the list” and refused to “pledge himself to please either Whig or Tory.” Nevertheless, Johnston, at this point identified as a reformer, was critical of Colborne, was savage in attacking Solicitor General Christopher Alexander Hagerman, and widely cited Marshall Spring Bidwell*. In some articles he stopped only just short of slander. After two issues he sold his press to Christie, who subsequently published the Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser.
Not surprisingly Johnston’s aggressive behaviour angered some, and in early 1837 he was subject to a series of brutal attacks. On 2 January, at a meeting to elect the Nepean Township Council, Johnston and several others were badly beaten. The riot, provoked by Peter Aylen* but fuelled by religious antagonism, marked a break in Aylen’s relationship with Johnston, who had worked politically with Aylen and was then one of his sureties. Johnston’s home was attacked on 9 March by a group of Aylen’s followers (Shiners) who believed that he was aiding in an attempt to have Aylen arrested. Only a few weeks later, on 25 March, three lumbermen, presumably acting for Aylen, attempted to kill Johnston when he crossed Sappers’ Bridge. Johnston was badly but not fatally injured and his assailants were subsequently sentenced to three years in the penitentiary.
Johnston’s political career was equally stormy. In 1834 and 1836 he ran for a provincial seat as a reformer in Carleton County. Defeated at both elections by John Bower Lewis and Edward Malloch, Johnston claimed election fraud each time but his protests were dismissed. Feelings between Johnston and Malloch remained sufficiently bitter that during a session of the Court of Queen’s Bench in April 1840 the two men began to quarrel and then “flew at each other like cats, shedding blood and tearing coats without mercy.”
Johnston was finally elected for Carleton in March 1841, after withdrawing from the Bytown election in favour of Stewart Derbishire*. Johnston’s campaign focused on the abuses committed by the late assembly and on the need for independent politicians. He promised never to become “the cringing sycophant of the Government nor the people,” and he emphasized the various ways in which government policy had unfairly hurt the lumber industry. The Protestant Johnston was proposed by the Catholic O’Connor, and, at a time when national and religious biases were alarmingly high, the Carleton election passed quietly.
During his years in parliament, Johnston worked to advance Ottawa valley interests and to promote Bytown as the future site of government. Although he spoke perhaps too often, he was an efficient debater and, according to Derbishire, had “more business knowledge and power of hitting hard and in the right places than ¾ of the House.” Increasingly, however, Johnston’s political behaviour reflected his Orange lodge attachment. In late 1843 he opposed a bill to ban secret societies, which caused another break with O’Connor. The split, however, did not prevent Johnston from being easily re-elected in 1844.
Although Johnston had begun his political career as a reformer, by the 1840s he was voting as an independent moderate conservative. A close friend and drinking companion of fellow member William Dunlop, Johnston also consistently opposed responsible government, because he felt it threatened the integrity of independent legislators. On 14 May 1846, less than three months after Dunlop had submitted his resignation from the assembly to become superintendent of the Lachine Canal, Johnston also resigned, claiming that “the ingratitude and never-ceasing coercion of Ministers were too much for me.” The Toronto Examiner’s correspondent, however, believed “Poor Johnston is altogether lost in the house; he does not often exhibit, his drunken companion Dunlop being absent.” Nevertheless, Johnston ran in the resulting by-election the following month, losing to George Lyon*. He campaigned, again unsuccessfully, in December 1847, when he was once more the target of an assault, this time by two ruffians on Barrack Hill.
During the last years of Johnston’s life, his personal fortunes suffered, probably as a result of his drinking. At his death, he was survived by his wife, Jane, and the total value of his estate had shrunk to a little less than £700. Despite the conflict and controversy associated with Johnston and the dissipation of his final years, he remained a popular figure in Bytown. Even with only a few hours’ warning before his funeral, “the largest [assemblage] we have ever seen in Bytown,” wrote the Packet, an opponent of the deceased, “accompanied the remains of Mr. Johnston to the grave – a sufficient evidence, if any were wanting, of the wide spread reputation he enjoyed.”
AO, MU 1858, no.2366 1/2; MU 1860, no.2526; RG 22, ser.155. PAC, MG 24, I9, 4: 1100–1, 1212–13, 1281; MG 29, B15, 48, William Bell notebooks, book 8, April 1840; MG 30, E78, 1, Daniel O’Connor to Sir John Colborne, 13 July 1835; O’Connor to —, 4 Dec. 1844; RG 5, A1: 75052–54, 95252, 96076–79. Bathurst Courier and Ottawa General Advertiser (Perth, [Ont.]), 17 Oct. 1834; 2 Oct. 1835; 8 July, 9 Sept. 1836; 17 Aug. 1838; 13 March 1840; 26 March 1841. British Whig, 17 June, 8 July 1834; 2 April, 2 Oct. 1835; 22 March 1837. Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser, 30 June 1836, 27 Sept. 1837. Bytown Independent, and Farmer’s Advocate (Bytown [Ottawa]), 24 Feb., 10 March 1836. Chronicle & Gazette, 18 Jan. 1845. Kingston Chronicle, 28 April 1832. Packet (Bytown), 27 Nov., 11 Dec. 1847; 24 June 1849. Illustrated historical atlas of the county of Carleton (including city of Ottawa), Ont. (Toronto, 1879; repr. Port Elgin, Ont., 1971). M. S. Cross, “The dark druidical groves: the lumber community and the commercial frontier in British North America, to 1854” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1968), 376, 423, 452–53, 458–59.
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Cite This Article
Richard Reid, “JOHNSTON, JAMES (d. 1849),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_james_1849_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:||Richard Reid|
|Title of Article:||JOHNSTON, JAMES (d. 1849)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|