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d. 16 June 1848 at Quebec


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Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

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RUSSELL, BENJAMIN, lawyer, author, professor, politician, and judge; b. 1849, either on 4 January (the date recorded on his baptismal certificate) or on 10 January (the date he provided in his autobiography and in the 1901 census), in Dartmouth, N.S., fourth of the six children of Nathaniel Russell and Agnes D. Bissett (Bissete); m. there 4 Sept. 1872 Louise E. Coleman (d. 7 March 1934), and they had six sons and two daughters; d. 20 Sept. 1935 in Bedford, N.S.

Benjamin Russell’s father, son of a Boston loyalist, became a successful businessman and respected community leader. He helped to found the first Wesleyan church in Dartmouth and served as a justice of the peace for many years. Young Benjamin attended a number of schools, including one run by the historian Elizabeth Murdoch Frame*; he also spent three terms at the Halifax Grammar School. One of his most vivid memories was of singing in the children’s choir assembled to entertain the Prince of Wales during his visit to Halifax in 1860. As an undergraduate at Mount Allison Wesleyan College (ba 1868, ma 1871) in Sackville, N.B., Russell met his lifelong friend and colleague Richard Chapman Weldon*. At the end of his freshman year, when Russell experienced a spiritual crisis resulting in severe depression, Weldon took him to the family farm at Penobsquis, to recover. There, recollected Russell, “the quiet, amiable and delightful family life dissolved the blues, restored my spiritual health and effected a cure for the welt-schmertz that has never been followed by a relapse in all the years of my life.”

Through David Allison*’s lectures on international law and English constitutional history, Weldon and Russell were introduced to the study of law. Weldon went on to achieve a doctorate in political science from Yale College in New Haven, Conn., in 1872, while Russell took a more prosaic course, apprenticing himself to Halifax lawyer Henry Oldright. Called to the bar on 4 Dec. 1872 after four years of clerkship, he supplemented the earnings from his meagre legal practice by reporting the debates of the provincial legislature and the decisions of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, and undertaking work as a journalist for the Halifax Citizen.

In 1874 Russell joined with others to incorporate the Halifax Law School, but it existed on paper only owing to a lack of funds. Their efforts would not bear fruit until 1883, when George Munro* endowed a professorship in constitutional and international law at Dalhousie University, enabling the creation of a faculty of law there [see Robert Sedgewick*]. Weldon was named to the chair and appointed founding dean, while Russell taught contracts, initially on a volunteer basis. In 1884 he was made a half-time lecturer at a salary of $1,000 per year, and bills and notes, sale of goods, and equity were added to his teaching load. On the first subject he published his own text in 1909, while on contracts, evidence, and sale of goods he produced Canadian editions of standard English texts. Russell introduced at Dalhousie a version of the case method of legal education, pioneered at Harvard law school in the 1870s. This method involved close and critical analysis of judicial decisions advanced through an active dialogue between teacher and student rather than the traditional lecture during which students remained passive. Russell’s teaching career lasted nearly 40 years: only in 1921, after the law school at last secured two full-time professors in addition to the dean, did he finally agree to retire.

Russell and Weldon were united by their Methodist background and their vision of a professional legal education grounded in the liberal arts, but in other respects they were a study in contrasts. According to John Willis, the impish Benny, as he was generally known, was “only a little bit more than five foot tall, excitable and disputatious. Weldon was six foot two, with a commanding presence and a strong moral sense.” Russell was a Liberal to Weldon’s Conservative, and wrote constantly while Weldon published scarcely a word. With age and illness Weldon became increasingly remote, but Russell’s intimate rapport with the students continued unabated.

Russell carried on his father’s leadership role in Dartmouth, serving variously as an elected councillor, town recorder, and stipendiary magistrate in the final decades of the 1800s. Transportation issues were always on the agenda. The poor service offered by the privately run passenger ferry between Dartmouth and Halifax spurred the people of Dartmouth into revolt in 1890, and the result was the establishment of a publicly owned and provincially regulated ferry. Russell was at the forefront of this agitation, and he particularly relished arranging a boycott of the existing ferry so as to ensure the success of the public venture.

In the federal election of 23 June 1896 Russell ran as the Liberal candidate for Halifax. In this two-member constituency, each party traditionally presented one Protestant and one Roman Catholic candidate, and one party would claim both seats. For only the second time since confederation, Haligonians split their ticket, sending Russell and the Conservative Robert Laird Borden to Ottawa, while their Catholic running mates, Thomas Edward Kenny* and Michael Edwin Keefe, were defeated. When the House of Commons was in session, Russell took the train after his Friday class, arrived in Ottawa on Saturday at midnight, went to the Dominion Methodist Church on Sunday, attended to his constituents’ business on Monday, and took the train late in the day, returning to Halifax in time for his Wednesday class. Russell found the “plague of patronage” disheartening, and his inability to manage the demands of his constituents in Halifax prompted him to run instead for Hants in 1900. He won by a majority of 16 votes, upon which “enthusiastic law students joined local Liberals in a torchlight procession through Dartmouth up to [Russell’s home] where … they serenaded their beloved ‘Benny’ with stirring songs and College cheers.” In his new riding, Russell was pleasantly surprised to find that “there seemed to be hardly anybody who wanted anything.”

Russell’s dedication to the law was rewarded with several honours. He was made a qc in 1890, received an honorary dcl from his alma mater in 1893, and served as president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society the following year. His law practice was never large, however, and educating his eight children continued to strain his finances. As a result, he began to seek the security of a judicial appointment; anticipating that he would get one, Russell decided not to run for re-election in 1904. Even before Chief Justice James McDonald* retired from the provincial Supreme Court in January 1904, Russell and his friends undertook a strenuous writing campaign, asking Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier* and Nova Scotia’s federal cabinet representative William Stevens Fielding* to award him the post. Russell had to be content with a puisne judgeship, to which he was named on 3 October; it was Robert Linton Weatherbe* who was made chief justice in January 1905. Russell’s aspirations were twice more disappointed: upon Weatherbe’s retirement in 1907, when Charles James Townshend* replaced him, and again upon the death of Chief Justice Sir Wallace Nesbit Graham* in 1917, when the much younger Robert Edward Harris got the prize. Russell would retire in 1924. Russell’s colleague Robert Henry Graham thought that his “impulsiveness and changefulness” had marred his otherwise estimable reputation on the court. Probably his finest hour came in the wake of the Halifax explosion of 6 Dec. 1917. Public feeling ran high against the crew of the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and its pilot, Francis Mackey, who were thought to have been responsible for the collision with the Imo and the ensuing disaster. Mackey was charged with manslaughter. When the charge was tested via habeas corpus, Russell agreed that there was insufficient evidence against Mackey and ordered him released.

On his appointment to the bench in 1904, the Halifax Herald had praised Russell’s ability to contribute “clever newspaper correspondence and able public lectures on subjects of social, civic and national importance, and … brilliant and witty addresses on all sorts of public occasions.” He and his sister Mary Chesley were strong supporters of women’s suffrage, and Russell was said to have been solicited by the Halifax Local Council of Women to draft the suffrage bill presented to the legislature in 1917; the siblings were also strong advocates of the League of Nations in the post-war years. In 1929, aged 80, Russell was still socially engaged, campaigning vigorously for the temperance cause during the provincial plebiscite. In 1932 Dalhousie created the Russell Chair in Law in his honour, and on 30 Oct. 1933 Russell spoke at the great banquet marking the 50th anniversary of the law school. After his speech his many students from across Canada, who included premiers Leonard Percy de Wolfe Tilley* of New Brunswick and Angus Lewis Macdonald* of Nova Scotia, as well as judges from most provincial supreme courts in the country, gave him “a great and sincere ovation.” Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett*, one of the school’s most distinguished graduates, paid tribute to Russell’s work in his congratulatory letter to the institution.

Russell died of old age at home on 20 Sept. 1935 and was buried at Mount Hermon Cemetery in his native Dartmouth. The Autobiography of Benjamin Russell is a somewhat rambling account of his life, and reveals the author’s wry wit and his taste for literature. This latter quality inspired a posthumous entry on Russell in the diary of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King*, who recorded in 1945 a “vision” involving the late judge, “a great student of Matthew Arnold.”

Benjamin Russell was well known in his time for his political and judicial careers. Although his work in these fields has left little trace, through his and Weldon’s “little law school” he has had a profound and lasting influence on legal education in Canada.

Philip Girard

Benjamin Russell left no personal papers, but he was unusual among early-20th-century judges in having published a substantial memoir, the Autobiography of Benjamin Russell (Halifax, 1932). His principal legal publication was A commentary on the Bills of Exchange Act … with references to English, Canadian and American cases, and the opinions of eminent jurists (Halifax, 1909). He also wrote Canadian footnotes for standard legal texts by distinguished English jurists. For context, see Philip Girard, “The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia: confederation to the twenty-first century,” in The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, 1754–2004: from imperial bastion to provincial oracle, ed. Philip Girard et al. (Toronto, 2004), 140–203. In later years he published essays on legal and political figures in the Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), including “The career of Sir John Thompson,” 1 (1921–22): 188–201; “Reminiscences of a legislature,” 3 (1923–24): 5–16; “What we owe to Francis Parkman,” 3: 330–41; “Reminiscences of the Nova Scotia judiciary,” 5 (1925–26): 499–512; “John Thomas Bulmer,” 9 (1929–30): 68–78; “Recollections of W. S. Fielding,” 9: 326–40; and “A suggestive retrospect,” 10 (1930–31): 75–82, in which he issues an eloquent plea for the avoidance of war.

Russell’s contributions to legal education are well covered in John Willis, A history of Dalhousie law school (Toronto, 1979). The Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds at LAC contains some two dozen letters from Russell to Laurier, many with replies (R10811-0-X, 3697-12, 4387-8, 44318-20, 48628-33, 66892-98, 69651-53, 78607-11, 78796-804, 81958-65, 122259-64).

LAC, “Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King,” 25 Sept. 1925: www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/prime-ministers/william-lyon-mackenzie-king/Pages/diaries-william-lyon-mackenzie-king.aspx (consulted 9 April 2014). NSA, MG 2, vol.509 (W. S. Fielding papers), no.28; MG 100, vol.216, no.22 (Mr Justice R. H. Graham, “Honourable Benjamin Russell”); RG 39, M, 5 (bar admission case files), no.10. Dalhousie Gazette (Halifax), 27 Oct. 1932, 2 Nov. 1933. Halifax Chronicle, 21 Sept. 1935. Halifax Daily Star, 19 Oct. 1929. Halifax Herald, 3 Oct. 1904, 21 Sept. 1935. Morning Chronicle, 4 April 1913. C. L. Cleverdon, The woman suffrage movement in Canada, intro. Ramsay Cook (2nd ed., Toronto, 1974). In re Frank Mackey (1918–19), Nova Scotia Reports (Halifax), 52: 165–81. J. P. Martin, The story of Dartmouth (Dartmouth, N.S., 1957; repr. 1981). J. M. and L. J. Payzant, Like a weaver’s shuttle: a history of the Halifax–Dartmouth ferries (Halifax, 1979).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Philip Girard, “RUSSELL, BENJAMIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/russell_benjamin_16E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/russell_benjamin_16E.html
Author of Article:   Philip Girard
Title of Article:   RUSSELL, BENJAMIN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2015
Year of revision:   2015
Access Date:   June 16, 2024