LEONARD, GEORGE, office holder, politician, militia officer, and agricultural improver; b. November 1742 in Plymouth, Mass., son of the Reverend Nathaniel Leonard and Priscilla Rogers; d. 1 April 1826 in Sussex Vale (Sussex Corner), N.B.
Of the fifth generation of his family to live in Massachusetts, George Leonard pursued a conventional existence until the American revolution. He established himself as a “corn and flour” merchant in Boston, clearing £800 annually before the war; he married Sarah Thatcher of Boston on 14 Oct. 1765 and began a family of ten children; and he apparently switched his religious affiliation from the Congregational Church of his father to the Anglican rite. Leonard asserted that he “opposed the riotous proceedings in Boston from the earliest period,” and with his childhood friend and fellow loyalist Edward Winslow* he served under Lord Hugh Percy in the battle at Lexington in April 1775. From then until the end of the war and beyond, Leonard’s fate was inextricably linked with the loyalist cause.
Leonard participated in the siege of Boston, serving in Abijah Willard*’s company, and in March 1776 was evacuated with the British troops to Halifax. That summer he was present at the British capture of New York City, and in the spring of 1778 he was with the troops in Rhode Island. His most conspicuous service in the war was his command of a small fleet of vessels which raided seacoast towns from southeastern Massachusetts to Long Island Sound in the summer of 1779. Leonard was able to organize this fleet himself, “having been so fortunate as to bring from Boston at the Evacuation . . . the greater part of his Property,” the whole of which, “together with all the credit he could obtain,” he “cheerfully devoted” to the venture. Winslow, Joshua Upham*, and other frustrated American loyalists, who had thought themselves condemned to be “idle Spectators of the Contest,” were also employed in the coastal operations. The raids were a gratifying success, producing the capture of many small vessels, large quantities of livestock, and a number of persons; by mid September sales of the prizes had brought in more than £23,400. On the evacuation of Rhode Island in the fall of 1779, however, Leonard sold his fleet at a loss, “finding that these Vessels would be no longer of any use to Government.”
In 1780 Leonard went to England in hopes of receiving compensation for his expenses and of obtaining a pension and other employment in the loyalist cause. There he impressed the secretary of state for the American colonies, Lord George Germain, with a proposal to establish a Board of Associated Loyalists in New York, which could organize additional loyalist offensive excursions on a large scale. The board was formed with Leonard and other loyalist worthies as directors, but the British commanders took little advantage of this new force. Then in 1782 Great Britain renounced all offensive measures, after the defeat at Yorktown, Va, the previous year, and that September the battle-hungry Leonard resigned from the board in disgust. The following month he was awarded a pension of £200 a year.
Like so many loyalists quartered in New York, Leonard resolved to move his family to “the asylum pointed out for the Kings Friends” in the northern British colonies. They arrived at the future Parrtown (Saint John) with the “spring fleet” in 1783 and Leonard was soon made a director of the town, charged with the distribution of town lots. He took this duty seriously; indeed, he seemed to consider himself a guardian of the new settlement whose views on its development must prevail. Leonard’s energy and talent were valuable assets in the wilderness, but his self-righteousness antagonized many. When subsequent fleets arrived and the newcomers demanded a redistribution of water lots, which, they claimed, the directors had unfairly assigned to themselves and their friends, Leonard denounced such “Malcontents” and their lawyer, Elias Hardy*. In the spring of 1784 Governor John Parr* of Nova Scotia sent Chief Justice Bryan Finucane to mediate the dispute, and Leonard wildly accused Finucane of crediting “every idle report from Barbers and Grog shops.” The chief justice redistributed some of the contested lots, but a hearing before the Nova Scotia Council cleared Leonard and his colleagues of any impropriety in the exercise of their duties. By the time the investigation was held, however, New Brunswick had been created as a separate province, and it may be that the judgement of Parr and his councillors was influenced by diplomatic considerations. Leonard’s intense concern to establish the rule of “the Gentlemen” in the new settlements north of the Bay of Fundy had led him to work closely with Winslow and other loyalist officers in effecting the partition of Nova Scotia.
After its establishment in 1784, the new colony of New Brunswick engaged all of Leonard’s imagination and loyalty. He spent the remaining 25 years of his active life trying to build up strong community institutions in the province and protect its trade from American competition. His appointment in 1786 to succeed Jonathan Binney* as superintendent of trade and fisheries at Canso, N.S., charged with enforcing the navigation acts against American smugglers, seemed highly appropriate for this loyalist merchant. Yet it was an impossible task. For neither the officers of the revenue nor the popular assemblies of Nova Scotia or New Brunswick would support Leonard’s efforts. Visits to England and a constant stream of letters to imperial officials and his agent in London, William Knox, expressed Leonard’s fierce determination to suppress this “Illicit Trade” and make the colonies a “nursery of seamen” for the empire. In 1797 he did get his jurisdiction increased to include all of the Maritime provinces, and permission was granted to use armed vessels, but, although he had suggested that for reasons of economy the post of superintendent be combined with the lieutenant governorship of either Cape Breton or St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, the higher position eluded him.
Leonard’s zeal to enforce the navigation acts produced one of the great moments of comic opera in early New Brunswick history. At the turn of the century Great Britain was engaged in a mighty conflict with Napoleon and was therefore most anxious to maintain amicable relations with the United States. Oblivious to this larger concern, Leonard pursued his aggressive enforcement policy and in 1805 seized the American ship Falmouth for illegally trading in British waters. In the remarkable trial that followed the two British customs officers defended the Falmouth’s activities as having been sanctioned by informal agreement. Judge William Botsford* sought to mediate the dispute by condemning the Falmouth’s cargo but refusing to fine the ship’s owners and at the same time reprimanding Leonard from the bench. Undeterred, Leonard advertised in the newspaper his determination to continue prosecuting smugglers “from the late revolted colonies,” and his headstrong course was only halted after an outraged complaint from the British ambassador in Washington. Yet Leonard never conceded he had erred. His only crime, he told Winslow, was “too much zeal.”
Zeal was indeed Leonard’s merit and his undoing. His contributions to the settlement of New Brunswick were outstanding. While living in Saint John he served as an alderman and also as chamberlain and treasurer of the city. He was a member of the Council from 1790 to his death, a trustee of the college at Fredericton and of the academy in Saint John, a founder of the masonic lodge in Saint John, lieutenant colonel of the militia in Kings County, quartermaster of the provincial militia, a stalwart supporter of the New England Company’s efforts to establish Indian schools in the province [see Oliver Arnold], and a benefactor of the Church of England. He tried to get a bishopric for New Brunswick and sought through his English friends to raise funds for a classical libraret many of his projects failed because of his contempt for popular politics and “the peasantry,” as he termed them. The printer Christopher Sower* once provoked a fight with the much stronger Leonard in the belief it would advance his electoral prospects. And Leonard’s inability to brook criticism over the management of the Indian school at Sussex Vale cost the support of Chief Justice George Duncan Ludlow* and other important officials. Few of Leonard’s papers survive. Those that do display a man warm in friendship and generous in his enthusiasms. Among the small cadre of loyalists who governed New Brunswick in its early years, he seems to have been the most imprisoned by memories of his youth in Massachusetts and his wartime triumphs. He sought in New Brunswick to reproduce that earlier colonial society and reverse the verdict of the revolution.
Leonard’s private pursuits proved more rewarding than his public life. Although he owned a substantial house in Saint John, his principal residence – likened by Bishop Charles Inglis* to a “European Villa” – was in Sussex Vale, an agricultural community 40 miles northeast of the city on the Kennebecasis River. This “pleasant valley” had earlier been marked off by the French as a site for seigneurial estates, and during the loyalist period it was praised repeatedly by travellers for its beauty, fertility, and abundance of fish, game, and wild fruit. Not only did Leonard make strenuous efforts to settle families and improve roads in the area, but he became the paternalistic benefactor of his neighbours, thanks in large part to the capital he had accumulated as a merchant in Boston, the compensation of almost £5,000 he received for his wartime losses, and the income of £200 he drew as superintendent of trade and fisheries. These sums enabled Leonard, according to Colonel Joseph Gubbins, to invest the remarkable amount of £8,000 in clearing and developing his lands at Sussex Vale.
In 1792 Patrick Campbell reported enthusiastically on his ventures: “Mr. Lenard told me that he had a natural meadow of wild hay of vast extent, about two miles, of which he permitted the neighbouring inhabitants to carry off as much as they pleased; that he had pasture enough in his woods for several hundred head of cattle, of which he made no use whatever; that he had 200 Sheep, twenty Milk Cows with their followers, some Mares, Oxen, and Horses.” Campbell was even more impressed by Leonard’s willingness to let out such well-stocked lands to tenants on shares, with the profits to be divided equally after three years. To Campbell this method of proceeding seemed an ideal opportunity for an immigrant farmer who was intent upon “bettering his own condition.” Twenty years later Gubbins singled out Leonard’s far-sighted interest in agricultural improvements, particularly livestock breeding. Gubbins also noted that the collapse of land values in New Brunswick had more than halved the market value of Leonard’s estate, but no one faulted Leonard’s vision or his importance for the Sussex valley. He graced his efforts with a philanthropy reminiscent of the English squirearchy, making numerous gifts to local educational and religious projects, and with a personal style that was both “genteel and hospitable.”
Leonard gradually retired from public life after 1809. A painful illness marked his final days and when, on the death of Lieutenant Governor George Stracey Smyth in 1823, he became eligible through seniority for the presidency of the Council he turned the post down owing to “my age and infirmities.” He died in 1826, two months after the decease of his wife of 60 years. His son George Jr had drowned while on a hunting expedition in 1818. There were three other sons and six daughters.
PAC, MG 23, D1, ser.1, 21: 43–112. PANS, MG 1, 480, 9–11 Aug. 1792 (transcripts). PRO, CO 188/9, Leonard to John King, 10 Sept. 1798; 188/10, Leonard to Duke of Portland, 1 Nov. 1800; 188/16, “Reports of officers of governments on duties and emoluments,” 1810; PRO 30/55, no.5577. P. Campbell, Travels in North America (Langton and Ganong). G.B., Commission Appointed to Enquire into the Losses of American Loyalists, American loyalists; transcript of the manuscript books and papers of the commission of enquiry into the losses and services of the American loyalists . . . preserved amongst the Audit Office records in the Public Record Office of England, 1783–1790 . . . (60v., [London], 1898–1903), 14: 117–18, 136, 175; 28: 283. Gubbins, N.B. journals (Temperley). Winslow papers (Raymond). DAB. G.B., Hist. mss Commission, Report on American manuscripts in the Royal Institution of Great Britain, [comp. B. F. Stevens, ed. H. J. Brown] (4v., London, 1904–9). Esther Clark Wright, The loyalists of New Brunswick (Fredericton, 1955; repr. Moncton, N.B., 1972, and Hantsport, N.S., 1981). Gorman Condon, “Envy of American states.” MacNutt, New Brunswick. Judith Fingard, “The New England Company and the New Brunswick Indians, 1786–1826: a comment on the colonial perversion of British benevolence,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 1 (1971–72), no.2: 29–42.