ROBINSON, JOSEPH, judge, politician, militia officer, author, and lawyer; b. c. 1742 in Virginia; m. Lelia – , and they had at least two children, both daughters; d. 24 Aug. 1807 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
A resident of South Carolina at the outbreak of the American rebellion, Joseph Robinson was major of the militia for Camden District. Ordered by Governor Lord William Campbell* to march against the rebels in Ninety-Six District, he advanced with a party of men and fought the insurgents to a stand-off at the battle of Ninety-Six Court-House in November 1775. In the mean time, however, Campbell had been forced to abandon the province, and Robinson and his men found themselves stranded in the west without money or stores. A price having been put on his head, he made his way through Cherokee and Creek country to East Florida, where he arrived in 1777; he was joined there by his wife and daughters, who had been driven by the rebels from the family plantation. Robinson was commissioned lieutenant-colonel of the South Carolina Royalists and fought with his regiment in a number of small actions in the south during the remainder of the conflict. Placed on the half-pay list of the British army in 1783, he went with his family to Jamaica the following year, but, finding the climate unsuitable, they moved on to New Brunswick in 1785. Finally, in 1789, Robinson settled on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island at the invitation of Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning, who particularly enjoyed the company of fellow loyalist officers. There both Robinson’s daughters would make good marriages, Rebecca to Robert Hodgson and Matilda to merchant Ralph Brecken.
In 1790 Robinson was appointed an assistant judge, without pay, of Chief Justice Peter Stewart’s Supreme Court and was elected to the House of Assembly (which chose him speaker). Well respected by most leading inhabitants, in 1793 he was one of three arbitrators mutually agreed upon to sort out the complex business dispute between the lord chief baron of Scotland, James William Montgomery, and his Island representative, David Lawson. That same year he was appointed an agent for the loyalists on the Island and colonel of the Prince County militia. The militia’s refusal to assemble for him on several occasions was largely a protest against his not being resident in the county rather than an expression of personal animosity. Although he lived in Charlottetown, Robinson leased from Montgomery a farm on Lot 34 in Queens County, where he conducted agricultural experiments and made many improvements. In 1794 he resigned from the assembly to take up an appointment to the Council.
Robinson made his principal mark upon Island politics in 1796, with his pamphlet To the farmers in the Island of St. John, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. which was widely distributed by Hodgson. An extremely brief production – only four pages in length – the pamphlet mainly dealt with the difficulties of soil and climate facing the farmer on the Island. Robinson was also conscious of the problem of land tenure, however, and particularly so since he was himself involved in a dispute with a proprietor (in his case, Montgomery) over land he had hoped to purchase but was obliged to rent. He believed that the existing system of leasehold under large proprietors was producing a population in a “state of low spirits, in much want, misery and distress: devoid of animation,” who could well turn into a “grotesque picture of the Highland Clans.”
Robinson concluded with a call for a petition from the House of Assembly asking the king to inquire into the grants and to create a court of escheat under which the lands of delinquent proprietors would be taken over and tenants left to pay quitrents to the crown. “Harmony, happiness and tranquillity, must then flourish and succeed, to contention, misery, and distress!” Islanders would no longer migrate to provinces “where lands are given to them and to their heirs forever – where they may cultivate their lands in quietude, and enjoy the fruits of their labours: – where men only look up to God and their King!” Known to most historians only through hostile commentary by Robinson’s enemies, To the farmers was hardly an inflammatory production. Contemporary critics claimed that Robinson was merely acting as spokesman for the Fanning–Stewart faction in raising and popularizing the escheat issue, and their interpretation may have been valid; however, he did not advocate – as often charged – a popular division of proprietorial lands on a freehold basis.
In 1797 Robinson resigned his judgeship in order to become the Island’s only practising attorney besides Peter Magowan. His action permitted the resumption of Supreme Court business, which had virtually ceased in the absence of lawyers for opposing parties. According to John Hill* and John MacDonald of Glenaladale, however, Robinson refused to plead in the Trinity term of 1800 because, given control of the court by the Stewarts, he felt he could not obtain justice for his clients.
Robinson apparently enjoyed a wide intellectual curiosity. In a submission to the loyalist claims commission he mentioned “A Valuable Library of Books consisting of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Mathematics, Divinity, a Considerable number of the Laws of England,” the last in 60 volumes. His grandson Robert Hodgson*, who perused his papers, described him to Egerton Ryerson* in 1861 as “a man of a refined mind, an excellent classical scholar, with a great taste for astronomy, and possessing no ordinary talent in that science, which seems to have amused and occupied his mind in his latter years.” His interest in farming evidently continued throughout his life, for in 1803 he was one of those instrumental in organizing an agricultural society on the Island. He died in 1807, after suffering ill health for some years.
The PAPEI holds a copy of To the farmers in the Island of St. John, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (n.p., n.d.) (Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll.); it is likely the only one extant. Robinson’s authorship of it is established in SRO, GD293/2/19/6 (James Douglas to James William Montgomery, 26 April 1798).
PAC, MG 11, [CO 226] Prince Edward Island A, 17: 430–31. PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll., “Proposal to have meeting of persons interested in forming on the Island an association like the Board of Agriculture in England”; RG 6, Supreme Court records. PRO, AO 12/49: 332–39; AO 13/92: 317–22. SRO, GD293/2/19/6, 9; 293/2/78/ 12; 293/2/81/2. Documentary history of the American revolution: consisting of letters and papers relating to the contest for liberty, chiefly in South Carolina . . . , ed. R. W. Gibbes (2v., New York, 1855–57), 1: 214–19. Loyalists in East Florida, 1774–1785 . . . , ed. W. H. Siebert (2v., Deland, Fla., 1929). Royal Gazette and Miscellany of the Island of Saint John (Charlottetown), 30 Jan. 1793. Egerton Ryerson, The loyalists of America and their times: from 1620 to 1816 (2nd ed., 2v., Toronto, 1880), 2: 213–16.