PALMER, JAMES BARDIN, land agent, lawyer, office holder, and politician; b. c. 1771, younger son of Joseph Palmer and Susanna Bardin of Dublin; m. 22 Dec. 1803, in Charlottetown, Millicent Jones of London, and they had 12 children; d. 3 March 1833 in Charlottetown.
James Bardin Palmer’s father was an ironmonger but both James and his elder brother became lawyers. James clerked to Benjamin Johnson of the Irish bar and was admitted as a solicitor in Chancery in 1791. By 1795 he was practising in the courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas, but he left Dublin for London before 1800. Enemies later charged that during his time in London he was reduced to “an advertising place broker, army agent, officer in the Devon militia, Clerk in the Lottery Office, and sometime a prisoner in the King’s Bench.” That there was a measure of truth to the charge is evidenced by Palmer’s admission that he had “failed in his circumstances” before coming to Prince Edward Island as a land agent. He arrived in August 1802 as the agent of the Reverend Raphael Walsh of Dublin, half-brother of Benjamin Johnson.
The Walsh estate on Prince Edward Island was the whole of Lot 11, in the western part of the colony. The 20,000-acre township was one of the poorest on the Island, being mostly bog, but Palmer undertook expensive schemes for opening it up and attracting tenants. His efforts did not meet with success, and when Walsh refused to honour bills, his agent found himself in financial difficulties. It was not until 1807 that the matter was settled, following a visit to Ireland by Palmer who later stated that the affair had cost him £1,000.
Palmer had apparently not intended to practise law on Prince Edward Island, but after arriving there he decided that the opportunity was too great to be missed. There were only three practising attorneys in the courts – Joseph Robinson*, Peter Magowan*, and Charles Stewart* – and all of them were allied to the faction led by Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning* and Chief Justice Peter Stewart*; indeed, Charles Stewart was son of the chief justice. Palmer was admitted to the bar in November 1802 and immediately found employment in pressing actions for those opposed to Fanning and the Stewarts, such as James Montgomery and merchant John Hill*. Palmer’s vigour and his legal knowledge and experience led to success in the courts, but his manner inflamed passions in the community, and within a year he had earned the reputation of being “an unpopular character and a man detested by the Governor,” in the words of merchant Alexander Rea (Rae). The pattern of creating bitter enemies through legal activity became characteristic of Palmer’s relations with almost all of those with whom he dealt in the colony.
Following the arrival of Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres in 1805, Palmer was thrust into a position of political importance. Evidently DesBarres was soon aware of the conflict in the colony for he wrote shortly after his arrival: “The one party seems to contend for a Democratical Institution, the other for an Aristocratical one, surely some measure may be devised and adopted for keeping in perfect consonance with our excellent Constitution, a due proportion of Aristocracy and Democracy in this island.” He determined that many of the problems in the administration stemmed from deficiencies in the legal system and stressed the need for a lawyer on the Council. Unfortunately for the “perfect consonance,” the lawyer he chose was Palmer, whom he appointed in June 1806. Palmer immediately involved the administration in a dispute with the Stewart faction by demanding an accounting of the quitrent fund from Charles Stewart. Stewart took the position that, having been appointed by the Treasury in London, he was accountable only to that office and he refused Palmer’s demand. Intervention by DesBarres failed to resolve the dispute, and Palmer was unable to push the matter further because he lacked public support. He blamed this lack on promises made by the Fanning group – the “grand political bubble the escheat” – and he acknowledged that even the elected House of Assembly was opposed to DesBarres.
Palmer resigned from the Council in October 1806 and successfully ran for one of the Charlottetown seats in the general election held late that year. He sat during a short session in 1806 but was absent from the colony in 1808 during the second session. In October 1809 he was once again called to the Council. Palmer made himself indispensable to DesBarres and gathered a wide range of posts and positions including those of adjutant general of the militia, inspector of public accounts, master and registrar in Chancery, and inspector of roads. In the last post especially, Palmer displayed an enthusiasm for planning and building that was difficult to reconcile with the economic state of the colony but that met with the approbation of the lieutenant governor. In 1810 DesBarres’s insistence on written responses to his proposal for major changes in the administration of public works brought the factions on the Council into sharp disagreement, with Chief Justice Cæsar Colclough opposing Palmer and DesBarres.
The 1806 election which had brought Palmer to the assembly had also seen the first appearance of a political group with which he became closely associated. The Society of Loyal Electors probably made its debut during the campaign, although Palmer later stated that it had not been formed until after he was a member of the house. It certainly played little role in the election, and its importance has been overstressed by historians, owing to a controversy five years later which was to provide exposure and examination it would not otherwise have received. Certainly, Palmer and four others elected in 1806 formed a more cohesive opposition group than was usual in the assembly but in 1809, perhaps expecting more lucrative political appointments, Palmer resigned from the house. He was then named to the Council.
Palmer’s political opponents were alarmed at the influence he enjoyed with DesBarres. Colclough described him as a person “of some talent and more impudence” who had taken “possession” of the lieutenant governor, bending his thoughts and convincing him that the officers of the government were his opponents. The efforts of the two sides crystallized with the struggle for the attorney generalship which followed the death of Peter Magowan in June 1810. DesBarres supported Palmer for the office, while Colclough and the “old party” sought the appointment of Charles Stewart. In a detailed letter to the Colonial Office DesBarres recommended Palmer as successor. He was critical of other members of the legal profession on the Island and dismissed Stewart’s qualifications lightly. His comments did not reach sympathetic ears, for the absentee proprietors in London, influenced by reports from their own sources on the Island, had been at work. Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] wrote to Lord Liverpool early in 1811 that Palmer was “so extremely objectionable in every respect.” Under orders from London, Stewart’s appointment was registered in November 1811.
Despite this personal set-back for Palmer, the Loyal Electors had made gains. By 1809 the society had attracted to its membership powerful individuals such as Angus Macaulay, leader of the settlers brought out by Selkirk, and William Roubel, a London lawyer who had been induced to come to the Island by John Hill. The influence of the Electors was increased with the founding of the Weekly Recorder of Prince Edward Island in 1810 by James Bagnall*, himself a member of the society since its organization. William B. Haszard and William Hyde successfully fought by-elections under the banner of the Electors the same year, but the results were overturned because of irregularities.
The Loyal Electors came under public scrutiny as the result of charges directed against Palmer rather than against the organization itself. The opening shots were fired in April 1811 by Thomas Marsh and John Frederick Holland*, who swore affidavits that Palmer had proposed a secret committee to manage the affairs of the society. The charge amounted to an accusation of subversion and disloyalty. Marsh was then engaged in a lengthy suit with Palmer over the ownership of some 10,000 acres, and Holland had been openly opposed to Palmer since the latter gained the lieutenant governor’s ear. Palmer’s response to the charge was supported by four affidavits from members of the Loyal Electors which denied allegations of secrecy and disloyalty. These responses also contained detailed complaints against Colclough, Stewart, and the colony’s unpaid judges, James Curtis* and Robert Gray. Although the original complaint and the responses had been made to the lieutenant governor, word of their contents soon reached Colclough’s ears and in October he obtained copies. Instead of treating them as evidence in the case against Palmer, he allowed them to be the basis of libel actions against Macaulay and Haszard and a charge of contempt against Roubel. Roubel refused to submit to questions put to him by the attorney general, and on 7 Nov. 1811 Colclough ordered his name struck from the roll of barristers for the contempt and for “threatening to exhibit charges against the Chief Justice at the Secretary of State’s office.” A public meeting called in support of Roubel met with such approval that the actions against Macaulay and Haszard were not proceeded with.
The Loyal Electors had a chance to test their support amongst the electorate when DesBarres called a general election in April 1812. Palmer again resigned from the Council to run and was again successful. The Loyal Electors increased their membership from five to seven in the 18-seat house. In September, a month after the house began sitting, a number of other members including James Curtis, Charles Worrell*, and Fade Goff* chose not to appear, and the Loyal Electors gained effective control of the assembly. The house then investigated the events surrounding the use made of the affidavits; instead of placing the blame on the lieutenant governor for releasing the information, it resolved that Colclough had obtained and used the documents illegally and it sought his dismissal. Armed with this support, DesBarres suspended the chief justice a few days later, on 30 September.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, the proprietors’ lobby was bringing pressure on the Colonial Office and in August DesBarres had been stripped of his post and the Island’s administration given to William Townshend*. After the arrival in October of the dispatches Palmer was removed from the many minor positions he had collected under DesBarres. Late in the year he went to England in an effort to clear his name and regain some of the government posts he had lost.
Within a year all the leading characters of the drama except for Palmer had left the stage. DesBarres was banished to retirement, and Colclough to Newfoundland. Attorney General Charles Stewart died. Of the new protagonists, Stewart’s successor, William Johnston, became one of Palmer’s bitterest enemies, and the new chief justice, Thomas Tremlett, fell under Palmer’s control. The new lieutenant governor, Charles Douglass Smith*, arrived already prejudiced against Palmer. Smith had been ordered to keep an open mind and to steer clear of party affiliation, but he was well aware of the charges against Palmer and the Loyal Electors because of correspondence he had received from individuals such as John Hill who had interests on the Island. Palmer’s supporters failed to gain the ear of the lieutenant governor and Smith soon wrote that he was completely in agreement with the reports critical of Palmer.
While in England Palmer prepared a lengthy and detailed defence of his actions and badgered Lord Bathurst and other Colonial Office officials to review the affair. He met with limited success. On his return to the colony late in 1813 he found Tremlett installed in office, and it was not long before the chief justice and the lieutenant governor were at odds. Tremlett, untrained, quickly became dependent on the skill and experience of Palmer. Palmer, as usual, plainly benefited from the relationship, for by mid 1814 Smith was complaining that it “would not be safe to suffer any question of Property to be tried in the Supreme Court against Palmer, with him any man may be sure of success.” The lieutenant governor also noted that Tremlett had arranged sittings of the court to allow Palmer to carry on a law practice in Pictou, N.S.
Despite the growing association of Tremlett and Palmer, Smith had greater problems. The corruption and petty politics of the colony were soon evident, and he complained that he was in charge of an administration where the chief justice would not do his duty, the attorney general was so ill he could not, two members of the Council were dying, another was living so far away he could not attend, and a fourth suffered from “political indisposition”; moreover, the militia was insubordinate. Smith continued to see the machinations of the Loyal Electors behind his problems and in 1815 linked them with the freemasons but, in fact, with the 1812 election the Loyal Electors had ceased to have any political importance in the colony.
Palmer meanwhile seemed unable to resist making further trouble through his legal practice. While he was in England in 1813 he was contacted by the creditors of John Hill concerning the fraudulent concealment of assets by Hill at the time of his bankruptcy in 1807. When Palmer returned to the Island he set out to prove the allegations. Hill, alarmed by Palmer’s efforts, combined with Johnston to bring eight charges of professional and political misconduct against him, some of which predated his first arrival on the Island. They were brought in the Court of Chancery, where Smith presided as chancellor, rather than in the Supreme Court. Refused time to prepare a defence, Palmer was struck off the roll of barristers on 14 Nov. 1816. His request to appeal to the king in council was turned down by Smith and within two months Palmer was on his way to England seeking to have the matter reviewed and the decision overturned. At the time he considered leaving the Island for good and practising in the appeal court for the colonies, a forum with which he was becoming quite familiar. While in England, however, he was able to secure the support of some of the Island’s absentee proprietors and he returned to the colony late in 1817 or early in 1818 as agent for Lord Westmorland and Lord Melville.
The appointment brought him into further confrontation with Attorney General Johnston, who had been Westmorland’s and Melville’s agent. Palmer had previously been critical of Johnston’s Scottish training and complained that he was “unacquainted with the law, or at least the practice of English courts.” The two frequently clashed in the courts and whether it was Palmer’s skill or his influence over Tremlett, Johnston was rarely successful. Palmer now charged that Johnston had not accounted for funds relating to the Westmorland estate and in February 1818 took the complaint to Smith and the Council. Johnston’s defence was couched in personal terms and referred to the “implacable animosity” that Palmer bore towards him. The Council decided it was not expedient at the time to suspend Johnston, but early in 1819 the lieutenant governor reported the “political necessity” of his having asked both Johnston and his ally Holland to resign as councillors. Palmer was reinstated on the roll of barristers in January 1819. A report on the affair by the law officer to the Colonial Office in August indicated that although Palmer was not beyond reproach he was not guilty of any offence warranting disbarment. For a few years Palmer steered clear of deep involvement in the colony’s politics, although he did unsuccessfully seek a seat in the assembly in 1824, as he had done in 1818. Smith’s escheat of two townships in 1818 had alarmed the proprietors and it united the forces that he had been alienating since his arrival in the colony. Palmer, writing to Roubel, noted with apparent satisfaction that there was “a Cabal against Smith very like that against our old friend his predecessor.”
By 1823 Smith’s unpopularity had resulted in a series of public meetings asking for his recall. When the proceedings were published that fall in the Prince Edward Island Register, he brought charges in the Court of Chancery for contempt and libel. Palmer was instructed to bring the charges but this move by Smith does not signal a reconciliation between the two so much as it does the extent of Smith’s isolation in the community. Johnston was reported to be supporting the faction led by John Stewart, who escaped to England with the complaints against Smith. The lieutenant governor asked that Johnston be removed as attorney general and in April 1824 he named Palmer to the post. The appointment remained temporary despite Palmer’s attempts to disassociate himself from the charges made against Smith. Less than two weeks after Smith’s departure in November, the newly appointed lieutenant governor, John Ready*, reappointed Johnston to the post. Johnston and Palmer remained bitter antagonists until the death of the former four years later.
Shortly after his first arrival on the Island Palmer had been engaged by merchant John Cambridge and for many years had kept the case of Bowley v. Cambridge before the courts in both Prince Edward Island and England. His complex legal stratagems resulted in high costs for the litigants, especially when the arcane practice before the Court of Chancery (Palmer’s specialty) was employed. In 1823 Palmer, in collecting arrears of rent on the estate which was the subject of the litigation, had ruined several tenant farmers. The proceedings were reviewed by the House of Assembly in 1825 as part of an attack on the officers of the Court of Chancery. The assembly saw Palmer’s actions as having only one purpose, “to obtain illegal fees by illegal courses,” and asked Lieutenant Governor Ready to institute an inquiry into Palmer’s conduct. Palmer arrogantly refused to have anything to do with the inquiry and questioned the authority of the house even to consider his activities as a solicitor. Ready had the charges investigated by judge Brenton Halliburton* of Nova Scotia but the case dragged on without action being taken. When in 1827 the assembly formed its own committee to look into the matter Palmer once again refused cooperation. Later in that year he was elected in a by-election but when the house sat in the spring of 1828 it ruled that because of the Chancery actions Palmer was “unworthy and unfit” to take his seat and refused him admission. A court action based on the charges was dismissed the same year owing to want of prosecution.
Palmer had run in nearly every election and by-election held in the colony since his arrival, and by the late 1820s his electoral ambition was becoming something of a joke. Following his defeat in the by-election held because of the assembly’s refusal to let him sit, it was noted by James Douglas Haszard*, publisher of the Prince Edward Island Register, that Palmer’s political life “had had its alloted time upon the earth, and it melted away like a lump of fetid grease, leaving nothing behind but the smell.” Haszard was premature in his judgement, for Palmer fought by-elections in 1829 and again in 1830, unsuccessfully.
After his expulsion from the assembly in 1828 Palmer and others sought to establish a new newspaper on “loyal, patriotic and impartial principles.” They advertised in Nova Scotia for a printer but it was James Bagnall of Charlottetown who brought out the Phenix. Palmer used the paper as a public forum to refute the charges against him, to seek re-election, and to press for all the reforms he felt were necessary in the colony, ranging from improvements in agriculture to changes in the courts. The newspaper had too much of the strident tone of Palmer to meet with success and fell back among the ashes in August 1828 after 15 issues.
Palmer continued to be active in the courts until his death, apparently from a stroke, in 1833. Since Charles Stewart’s death in 1813 he had been senior member of the colony’s bar, and many of the barristers and solicitors practising had been trained in his office. Among these were two of his sons, Henry and Edward*. In an obituary in the Royal Gazette Haszard praised his legal skills and noted that “to recapitulate the principal incidents of his public life during his thirty years’ residence in this Colony, would be to write the history of the Island during that period, for in almost all public transactions, until latterly, he bore a part, either in supporting or opposing them.”
The principal incidents of Palmer’s public life have overshadowed the very real contributions he made to the law on Prince Edward Island. In addition to being the leading lawyer in the colony, he practised in Nova Scotia and possibly in New Brunswick. He wrote in 1813 that “an independent lawyer is the subject of perpetual alarm in P.E.Id.,” and perhaps this independence is the key to the extreme reactions that he provoked. He was no doubt an individual of unsavoury characteristics who took every advantage he could either for himself or for his clients, but there are few criticisms of his professional ability. He had a deep interest in the evolution of the courts of the Island and was himself responsible for several important changes. He wrote the rules for the Court of Chancery and through his own successful practice made that court of equity a force to balance the shortcomings and political connections of judges and court officials of the Island’s Supreme Court. He was instrumental in the colony’s acquisition of a law library to remedy the situation described by DesBarres: “One hundred pounds would purchase in England a better selection of Law Books, than the joint stock of all the Judges and Lawyers in this Island would exhibit.” He was not successful in all his efforts to improve legal services, however. From the time of his arrival he sought to ensure greater access to the law for those who lived some distance from the capital. He urged the establishment of courts of quarter sessions in places other than Charlottetown, but at his death the system remained unchanged, and it was not until the following year that county sittings of the Supreme Court were finally held.
James Bardin Palmer’s 30 years on Prince Edward Island gave rise to a litany of complaint which for the most part has been uncritically accepted by historians. Yet few of the complainants could be regarded as disinterested and most had suffered as a result of Palmer’s legal skills. Annoying and petty as Palmer could be, he was possessed of an obstinate determination. He successfully defended himself against all of the major complaints which were brought in his lifetime but in so doing usually created more enemies. It is fortunate that he was so good a lawyer, for he was often his own best client.
James Bardin Palmer from time to time made announcements in the press concerning planned publications, but it appears that only one work was actually published, The fruits of refection; or, second thoughts are best: a little tract relating to Prince Edward Island (Pictou, N.S., 1827). There are two Palmer collections at the PAPEI: the Palmer family papers (Acc. 2849), which include copies of his outgoing correspondence as well as other material, and the Palmer papers in the Smith–Alley collection, Acc. 2702/216–18, 221, 223, 236–38, 242, 319, 334, 346, 459–60, 833–34, 836–41, 843–51, 853–56, 858.
PAPEI, Acc. 2702/428, 430, 432, 437–41, 446, 463–65; Acc. 2810/25–26, 2810/138, 2810/145, 2810/154, 2810/171–72, 2810/174, 2810/182b–c; RG 1, letter-books, 54–56; RG 5, minutes, 1805–29; RG 6, Court of Chancery, minute-books, 1808–30; docket-books, 1802–10; prothonotary account-book, 1820–27; Supreme Court, case papers, 1802–25; minutes, 1802–27. PRO, CO 226/18: 33, 56, 70, 72, 82, 117, 134, 139, 166, 188, 198, 241; 226/19: 176, 202, 217, 221; 226/20: 15, 17, 43, 112–13; 226/21: 237; 226/22: 159, 182, 198, 221; 226/24: 74; 226/25: 11, 35, 80; 226/26: 15, 39; 226/28: 3, 8, 24, 53, 61, 137; 226/29: 19, 67, 115, 118, 153; 226/30: 7, 17; 226/31: 5, 12, 63, 72, 182, 243; 226/32: 251, 268, 270, 272, 304, 308, 311; 226/33: 41; 226/34: 57, 61, 347, 351; 226/35: 69, 303; 226/39: 264, 414; 226/40: 58, 160, 333; 226/43: 257; 226/45: 50, 52, 58, 64, 68, 175, 389 (mfm. at PAPEI). SRO, GD293/2/17. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Charlottetown), Reg. of marriages, 22 Dec. 1803 (mfm. at PAPEI). P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 1802–30. Phenix (Charlottetown), 21–28 April, 5–19 May, 16 June, 7 July, 20 Aug. 1828. Prince Edward Island Gazette (Charlottetown), 5 Nov. 1818, 1 Aug. 1820, 13 April 1822. Prince Edward Island Register, 6–13 Sept., 11, 25 Oct., 1, 15 Nov., 20 Dec. 1823; 24 Jan., 6 March, 29 Dec. 1824; 22 April, 1 July 1825; 28 Feb. 1826; 20 Feb.–6 March, 15 May, 7 Aug., 13 Nov. 1827; 28 Feb., 7–13, 25 March, 1–15 April, 20 May, 24 June 1828; 16 June, 14 July, 3 Nov. 1829; 16 March, 22 June 1830. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 5 March 1833. Royal Herald (Charlottetown), 19 Jan., 21 Nov. 1805. Weekly Recorder of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown), 23 Oct. 1810; 9 Feb., 3, 16 April, 18 July, 31 Aug., 2, 15, 26 Oct., 16 Nov. 1811; 28 March 1812; 12 June 1813. Canada’s smallest prov. (Bolger), 75–99. G. N. D. Evans, Uncommon obdurate: the several public careers of J. F. W. DesBarres (Toronto and Salem, Mass., 1969), 79–94. Frank MacKinnon, The government of Prince Edward Island (Toronto, 1951), 53–56. Warburton, Hist. of P.E.I., 291–361, 431–39. J. M. Bumsted, “The Loyal Electors of Prince Edward Island,” Island Magazine, no.8 (1980): 8–14. D. C. Harvey, “The Loyal Electors,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 24 (1930), sect.ii: 101–10.