JOHNSTON, JAMES WILLIAM (the name is sometimes written Johnstone, but he signed Johnston), lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 29 Aug. 1792 in Jamaica; d. 21 Nov. 1873 at Cheltenham, England.
In the mid-18th century, James W. Johnston’s grandfather, Dr Lewis Johnston, emigrated from Scotland to Georgia, where he became treasurer and president of the council at Savannah. Dr Johnston and his sons fought for the crown during the Revolutionary War and, in defeat, fled the colony. William Martin Johnston and his bride, Elizabeth Lichtenstein*, eventually settled in Jamaica, where their youngest son, James William, was born. At the age of ten, the boy went to Scotland for several years’ education under carefully selected tutors. In 1808, shortly after his father’s death, James rejoined his mother and other members of the family in Nova Scotia. He settled at Annapolis Royal with his sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, Thomas Ritchie*, a member of the provincial assembly. Ritchie assumed the role of James’ guardian, placed him in his law office as a clerk, and enrolled him under his command in the local militia during the War of 1812. When he reached his maturity in 1813, James gained admission to the Nova Scotia bar and began practising law in Kentville.
Shortly after the restoration of peace in 1815, Mrs Johnston, who wished apparently to regain in Nova Scotia the prominence which the family had had in Georgia, brought James to live with her at Birch Cove on the outskirts of Halifax. James entered into a law partnership with Simon Bradstreet Robie*, then provincial secretary and speaker of the House of Assembly. Johnston was an imposing figure – over six feet tall, thin, with a Grecian nose, black hair and eyes, a large mouth, a well-defined chin, and skin which showed “a tint of the tropics.” In 1821 he married Amelia Elizabeth Almon, daughter of an influential Halifax doctor.
At this time young Johnston appeared quick-tempered, proud and rash. Soon after arriving in Halifax he reacted to certain courtroom remarks of Charles Rufus Fairbanks* by challenging the man to a duel and then shooting him in the foot, allegedly to end his rival’s dancing career. Johnston’s letters from these years, however, indicate that he was experiencing deep intellectual and emotional turmoil. After a brief enthusiasm for Enlightenment rationalism, he moved increasingly towards a strong religious faith, perhaps influenced by his mother. Contacts with a group of evangelicals active in the Anglican community of Halifax were equally stimulating. Johnston began meeting on Sunday afternoons with other young members of the social élite for prayers, scripture reading, and hymn singing. He joined the Poor Man’s Friend Society to work as a “visitor” among the destitute of Halifax.
In 1824 a crisis erupted in St Paul’s, Halifax’s Anglican cathedral, when Bishop John Inglis* blocked efforts to place the evangelically minded John Thomas Twining* in the recently vacated rectorship. Johnston was swept into the centre of the controversy when the parishioners of St Paul’s called upon him to plead their case against the bishop in the Court of Chancery. The court upheld the bishop, but could not prevent a mass defection from St Paul’s. Most of the dissidents withdrew to St George’s Anglican church, but a small minority, including Johnston, set out in search of a new allegiance. They tried to establish a proprietary chapel, independent of the bishop, with Twining as their pastor, but Twining refused to sanction this defiance of ecclesiastical authority and left his erstwhile disciples to drift uncomfortably among Halifax’s dissenting congregations. Their isolation ended in 1827 when Edmund A. Crawley*, who had studied law under Johnston, returned from Massachusetts with two leading Baptist clerics from Newton Theological Seminary. These men impressed Johnston and the others so favourably that they agreed to establish a Baptist church on Granville Street and appointed one of the men from Boston, Alexis Caswell, their first pastor.
The Granville Street converts quickly emerged as leaders among the Baptists. They provided recruits for the ministry, founded a newspaper, the Christian Messenger, and launched a drive to improve educational standards throughout the Baptist community. J. W. Johnston helped found an education society in 1828, and assisted in the management of the academy which was built that same year in the Annapolis valley. In 1841 he was instrumental in helping secure a charter for Queen’s (Acadia) College at Wolfville, and sat on the new institution’s board of governors.
Meanwhile, Johnston’s career was steadily advancing. He was closely tied to Halifax’s expanding business community, and belonged to a number of commercial societies. In 1832 he joined several of the capital’s leading merchants in forming the Bank of Nova Scotia to break the monopoly of the Halifax Banking Company. In 1834 Johnston secured the appointment of provincial solicitor general, and in the late 1830s he began building, on the Dartmouth side of Halifax harbour, an estate, Mount Amelia, named in memory of his recently deceased wife.
At this point Johnston’s career began to be influenced by the provincial reform movement, which, under Joseph Howe’s leadership, was starting to undermine the oligarchic power structure. In 1837 the British government, in response to the assembly’s demands for change, dissolved the Council of Twelve and created separate Executive and Legislative councils. Because of his qualifications as a skilled administrator, a confidant of the business community, and a champion of the province’s leading dissenting sect, Johnston was named to both councils. In the Legislative Council he occasionally supported the forces of change in the province, as when he urged that dissenters receive an equitable share of school lands which had been set aside for the Church of England. From time to time Johnston proposed other limited changes, always in the name of greater administrative efficiency. Only once did he decisively break from his normal pragmatic approach. He was a member of the Nova Scotia delegation which visited Lord Durham [John George Lambton*] in Quebec during the autumn of 1838. Johnston returned to Nova Scotia an advocate of Durham’s plan for the legislative union of British North America, which he persistently urged against the almost universal hostility of his colleagues.
Johnston’s reservations about Joseph Howe’s programme for reform remained private until 1840 when three years of agitation culminated in the assembly’s demand for the recall of the governor, Colin Campbell*. Johnston’s sense of duty drove him to speak out against what he considered an unjustified attack on the representative of the crown. On 30 March 1840 he angrily lectured Howe on the folly of political extremism. Johnston opposed responsible government, maintaining that Nova Scotia, which lacked England’s social balance, could not successfully adopt the mother country’s constitutional practices. He predicted that responsible government would destroy all prospects for administrative excellence by ushering in an era of “party struggling against party” for nothing but naked power.
The speech revealed the extent to which Johnston held to the traditional values of the old regime. His views reflected those prevailing in English ruling circles, and he was one of the first consulted by Governor Poulett Thomson*, who came to Halifax in July 1840 in search of a settlement to the crisis. Thomson’s discussions with various leaders resulted in a compromise. Demands for the immediate granting of responsible government were set aside, and Howe and Johnston agreed to work together in a coalition Executive Council which would attempt to find solutions for pressing popular grievances.
Johnston’s decision to cooperate with Howe set him apart from Tory die-hards; the gap widened as the exigencies of trying to keep the coalition together forced him to modify his anti-democratic sentiments. During an 1842 constitutional debate Johnston, who had been appointed attorney general in April 1841, agreed that no executive could govern in defiance of the expressed wishes of an assembly majority. Although he still urged that institutions must be “moulded and tempered according to the circumstances of the country,” Johnston now recognized the need to make concessions to public opinion. The attorney general’s change of position drew a tart comment from the Pictou Observer: “Alas! we find him today a schismatic – tomorrow the advocate of Conservatism – and the third day, he shines forth as the brilliant champion of Responsible Government.”
Johnston’s conciliatory attitude failed to secure harmony between Reformers and Tories. Howe’s administrative reforms aroused the ire of vested interests, and the two factions were soon struggling for ascendancy. By 1843 enmity and mistrust so permeated the Executive Council that it was virtually useless as a decision-making body. Amid this confusion Johnston strove to preserve a position of neutrality and keep the coalition alive. He held aloof from ultra-Tory agitation and consistently supported the government’s programme of administrative reconstruction.
If Johnston felt any uneasiness about Howe’s intentions he kept these doubts to himself and might never have broken his silence had not Howe, during the 1843 legislative session, supported William Annand*’s motion to withdraw provincial grants from sectarian colleges and devote public funds to the creation of one non-denominational university. This move placed Acadia College in jeopardy, thereby providing the Tory-leaning Baptist leaders with a cry which could rally their rank and file against all Howe’s policies. During that same session Howe had announced his intention to push ahead toward full responsible government, including “the formation of a cabinet composed of heads of departments.” Johnston interpreted this as a demand for party government, and in a memorandum to the governor he argued that implementation of Howe’s policies would introduce rule by political factions and “lead to the oppressive and corrupting use of patronage.” The attorney general insisted that the executive power must be shared among a variety of groups acting in a coalition if abuses were to be avoided.
Fears of political dislocation and the introduction of a “godless” system of higher education finally persuaded Johnston to abandon non-partisanship. He attended the June 1843 annual meeting of the Baptist Association in Yarmouth, and delivered a rousing indictment of Reformers and their educational policies. Endorsed by the clergy, Johnston and Edmund Crawley held “educational meetings” throughout central and western Nova Scotia to rally popular support. By early autumn Howe was defending his anti-sectarian policies, and provincial newspapers teemed with arguments on higher education. Seeing his executive advisers out stumping in opposition to one another, a dismayed Governor Falkland [Lucius Bentinck Cary*] ordered dissolution of the assembly on 26 Oct. 1843 in the hope that an election might clear the air. Johnston greeted the news by resigning from the Legislative Council and entering the active political arena as candidate for Annapolis County. Simultaneously, the attorney general and his religious allies broadened the basis of their campaign by attacking “party government.” This shift brought them the support of Halifax Tories and other traditional foes of Howe. These allies apparently thought that with Johnston leading a sizeable bloc of votes in the new assembly, the pace of change could be slowed or made more amenable to their interests.
Johnston’s strategic objectives in the campaign appeared to be maintenance of the status quo. The impossibility of stabilizing the situation on the basis of the 1840 compromise quickly became apparent, however. In December 1843, as final election returns were coming in, Governor Falkland was impolitic enough to appoint Mather Byles Almon, a Tory and Johnston’s brother-in-law, to the Executive and Legislative councils. Howe, James Boyle Uniacke*, and James McNab denounced the appointment as an intolerable display of favouritism toward the attorney general, and resigned from the coalition.
When the house met in 1844, Johnston assumed leadership of the “rump” administration and, after a hectic three weeks’ debate, staved off an opposition non-confidence motion by a two-vote margin. The assembly’s decision was essentially negative, more a hesitant withholding of support from Howe than an enthusiastic endorsement of Johnston. Recognizing this, Johnston tried to strengthen his position by negotiating for restoration of an all-party coalition. The opposition refused to cooperate. For three years Johnston struggled to maintain his slim majority. Although weak and generally indecisive, his government did enact a compromise settlement which preserved the principle of state-supported sectarian colleges, brought in a series of minor administrative reforms, authorized surveys for a Halifax to Quebec railway, and passed a simultaneous voting act decreeing that future elections take place on the same day throughout the province. Perhaps more significantly, Johnston used this period to consolidate his leadership, transforming the loose coalition of his supporters into a disciplined party with considerable popular support. Each autumn found him on the hustings trying to rally electoral support behind the gradualist policies of his administration. After a last futile attempt to reactivate the all-party coalition in 1846, Johnston secured dissolution of the assembly from the new governor, Sir John Harvey*, and led the Conservatives into an election.
Through a long, bitter campaign Johnston stumped the province, uttering dire warnings that Howe had abandoned the coalition ideal for “a system pregnant with all the elements of anarchy.” Political antagonisms became intertwined with religious feelings as Conservative spokesmen, including Johnston, raised the cry of “Catholic Ascendancy,” alleging that the Liberal party’s Irish allies were plotting Protestantism’s destruction. Racial tensions further confused the issues, and just before the campaign closed Halifax witnessed a minor riot between Negro Conservatives and Irish Liberals. Voting took place on 5 Aug. 1847, and as returns trickled in it became apparent that the Liberals had won, although their margin of victory remained uncertain. Johnston refused to accept this result as a clear mandate for change and stayed in office in the hope of reconstructing the coalition. Early in 1848 the assembly decisively voted non-confidence in the administration; Johnston resigned immediately.
Following the government’s defeat, Governor Harvey offered to help his ex-attorney general find a place in the imperial service, but the idea quickly died, probably because Johnston had no desire to leave the province. Despite loss of office, his professional skills and business connections in Halifax provided him with position and material comfort. In addition, he had just settled into Mount Amelia with his new wife, Louisa Pryor Wentworth. He had not, moreover, appeared to enjoy being a partisan politician; certainly his temperament was not suited to the role. Volatile pride and a rather humourless sense of propriety made him vulnerable to criticism. Within the assembly Johnston’s supporters found him aloof and withdrawn; he went into company rarely and then almost exclusively among Halifax’s élite. He did keep his assembly seat, however, perhaps because of his sense of mission, his ambition, and an irascible refusal to admit defeat.
Johnston’s early efforts as opposition leader were devoted to a defence of the existing social order. For example, he opposed any extension of the franchise for fear that influence be given to an “inferior class,” who were without property and irresponsible. Although consistently conservative in motivation, Johnston frequently advocated radical measures. He urged replacement of the appointed Legislative Council and appointed justices of the peace by an elected upper house and elected municipal councils. He ultimately emerged as an advocate of manhood suffrage. Yet this zeal for franchise reform resulted from his conclusion that the rate-paying franchise was unsatisfactory because it could be used by the executive to manipulate the electorate to its own advantage. He openly predicted that an elected upper house would curb “the surges of popular opinion.” Thus Johnston’s principal objective in urging these changes was to hobble the reform-dominated Executive Council by decentralizing authority and restoring what he described as a “just balance” of power among the various branches of government.
Not surprisingly, the electorate did not regard Johnston as a champion of reform. He did briefly stir popular enthusiasm in the mid-1850s, when, as present worthy patriarch of the temperance movement, he rallied a bipartisan group of assemblymen behind a prohibition measure. The bill failed in its last stages because of Johnston’s unwillingness to include Annapolis valley cider in the ban.
Railways preoccupied most Nova Scotians through the 1850s. Johnston emerged as a voice of caution, criticizing many suggested construction schemes and refusing to support a line from Halifax to Quebec without imperial financial backing. Early in the decade he appeared to favour a form of commercial union with the United States as the surest guarantee of provincial economic expansion. If railways must be built, he urged a line from Halifax to Windsor as a first step towards linking Nova Scotia and the New England states in an all-steam transportation system. In 1850 Johnston attended the Portland railway conference and pledged his support to an overland rail line from Maine to Nova Scotia [see Poor].
Shortly after the return of the delegates from Portland, Howe announced that a shortage of private capital necessitated government construction of Nova Scotia’s section. Johnston immediately attacked Howe’s policy, predicting that public railways would be ruinously expensive and patronage-ridden. Sectional and monied interests rallied to the Conservatives during the 1851 election, weakening the Liberal majority and delaying the start of construction. Meanwhile, Johnston had opened negotiations with William Jackson, agent of an English engineering firm involved in several North American rail projects, including the Grand Trunk. In 1853 Johnston announced that British capital was ready to finance railways in Nova Scotia and the assembly moved to suspend Howe’s policy and await a firm offer from Jackson’s principals.
The opposition leader appeared to have triumphed, and in September 1853 he and Jackson attended a railway celebration in Saint John, N.B., where Johnston boasted that modern means of transportation would enrich the British North American colonies and ultimately “unite them by iron bands into one great confederation.” The bubble of optimism burst within weeks, however, when Jackson withdrew his offers, arguing that disturbed conditions in Europe made it impossible to secure the necessary private capital. The assembly met in 1854 and Howe easily gained permission to proceed with his plan. The affair seriously undermined Conservative unity and morale and led the Novascotian to comment that Johnston had “been used – sucked dry – and then thrown aside like a dry orange.”
The opposition leader was again roused by the 1854 reciprocity treaty which threw open Nova Scotia’s coastal fisheries to the Americans. Johnston told the assembly that this was a virtually gratuitous surrender of provincial resources resulting from Nova Scotia’s isolation and consequent weakness. He used the occasion to reiterate his belief that the province’s destiny lay in a union of British North America which would have an “acknowledged national character” and the strength to resist absorption into the United States. Johnston also advocated union as a means of escaping the rancour and corruption which had plagued local politics since the coming of responsible government.
The province continued to grumble about the reciprocity treaty but no support materialized for Johnston’s union proposals. People increasingly tended to discuss the opposition leader as “the old man malignant” clinging to impractical and lost causes “like grim death to a dead nigger.” After a disastrous Conservative showing in the 1855 election, Johnston announced that the “infirmities of age” had persuaded him to “leave the trials and responsibilities of statesmanship in the hands of more youthful and vigorous men.” It was widely assumed that the informal mantle of party leadership had passed to Charles Tupper*, the newly elected member from Cumberland.
Johnston’s status remained uncertain through the succeeding months of intrigue as religious antagonisms aroused by the Crimean War eroded the strength of William Young*’s Liberal administration. In 1857 the bloc of Roman Catholic assemblymen shifted their allegiance over to the Conservatives, and Johnston, who had just completed a successful courtroom defence of the Irish navvies accused of murder in the Gourley Shanty religious riots, returned to take office as attorney general and head of the new government. His leadership seems to have been nominal: he failed to prevent wholesale political purges in the civil service, and appears to have largely surrendered control of patronage to Tupper. Nevertheless, Johnston played a major role in terminating the General Mining Company’s coal monopoly in Nova Scotia. After journeying to England and negotiating a preliminary agreement with the company in 1857, he returned to pilot a settlement through the assembly. Suspicions that Johnston, as the company’s ex-solicitor, might have betrayed provincial interests were unfounded: a Liberal, Adams G. Archibald*, had participated in the negotiations and fully concurred in the terms.
The year 1859 brought another fierce electoral contest from which the Liberals emerged as apparent victors. As in 1847, Johnston refused to resign, maintaining that several of the Liberals were legally disqualified from sitting in the assembly. His critics, probably with cause, saw this as a desperate attempt to stay in power until the aged Sir Brenton Halliburton* died and cleared the path for Johnston’s promotion to chief justice. After months of squabbling the Conservatives were driven from office. William Young, who became premier, shared Johnston’s ambitions for the bench and shortly succeeded Halliburton. With unconcealed fury Johnston proclaimed the moral bankruptcy of responsible government in Nova Scotia.
Three years later, in 1863, Charles Tupper engineered a campaign which virtually annihilated a demoralized Liberal party, and the Conservatives returned to office under Johnston’s nominal leadership. The new government had been formed amidst a renewed interest in colonial union, especially a union of the Maritime provinces. Early in 1864 Johnston told the assembly, “I look at a union of the Lower Provinces as a step toward a larger one. I have never favoured a union of the provinces by way of federation, for it did not appear to tend to the great object we had in view. What we want is to produce a real unity – make the parts that are now separate a homogeneous whole – give them a oneness of existence and purpose.” A few weeks later he published a letter reiterating his preference for a legislative union, but saying that he was prepared to accept federation as a temporary expedient.
In May 1864 Johnston retired to the bench. Tupper’s intention to create a second chief-justiceship had been blocked by the Liberals in the Legislative Council with the result that Johnston accepted office as judge-in-equity, a position subordinate to William Young. This appointment prevented him from actively participating in the conferences leading to confederation, but in 1867 he made several grand jury addresses appealing for the calm acceptance of membership in the new dominion. His partisanship was rewarded in 1873 when John A. Macdonald* proposed that Johnston succeed Howe as Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor. The old man, who was in France at the time, initially accepted the offer. In June 1873, however, he wrote Tupper from London saying that poor health prevented his assuming new official duties. Johnston died in England a few months later.
In many ways Johnston always remained a figure of the old regime, adhering to an 18th-century view of society as a hierarchical order based on property rights. At the same time, however, evangelical zeal, which made him an ardent advocate of mankind’s spiritual redemption, enabled him to go beyond the oligarchy and become a spokesman for alienated dissent. When he entered politics in the 1840s he drew together disparate interests into an alliance which ultimately emerged as the Conservative party. Under Johnston’s leadership, party policy hovered precariously between reaction and reform. He never fully committed the Conservatives to responsible government, being more concerned to spread his view that Nova Scotia’s prospects depended on her entry into a larger economic and political entity. After a brief flirtation with New England, he returned, in the mid-1850s, to his conviction that British North American union offered the best avenue for escape from provincial isolation and political frustration. Johnston, as a survivor of the old regime, could well have seen confederation as a final triumph over the volatile local democracy which had so disrupted his public career.
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Cite This Article
D. A. Sutherland, “JOHNSTON, JAMES WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_james_william_10E.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:||D. A. Sutherland|
|Title of Article:||JOHNSTON, JAMES WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1972|
|Year of revision:||1972|
|Access Date:||March 29, 2023|