STEWART, JOHN, businessman, justice of the peace, office holder, and politician; b. 24 Nov. 1773 in Musselburgh, Scotland, son of John Stewart, a surgeon, and Sarah Jackson; m. 28 March 1814, at Quebec, Eliza Maria Green, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel James Green*, and they had eight children, of whom five survived childhood; d. 5 June 1858 in Sillery, Lower Canada.
Nothing is known of John Stewart’s youth in Scotland or of the factors that brought him to British North America. He was already 20 years old when he sailed from Greenock for Quebec in the spring of 1794. He was to remain a resident of the city for the next 64 years, during which time he rose to membership in the economic and political élite of Lower Canada.
In the late 1790s Stewart’s career seems to have followed a fairly straightforward path. In both 1797 and 1798 he was employed by Monro and Bell, owned by Mathew Bell* and David Monro*; it is not at all clear in what capacity he served them. Gradually, over the next few years, he began to act on his own behalf in various commercial matters. Starting in 1807 he carried on an importing business. From stores and cellars located on Rue Saint-Pierre, he sold Madeira, port, and claret as well as rum, cognac, brandy, and London-bottled porter. Other imported goods were also found on the premises: muscovado, tea, coffee, spices, vinegar, English iron, hardware, and dry goods. Occasionally Stewart advertised that he had on hand such North American goods as wheat, flour, Newfoundland biscuit, and square timber. He does not appear to have been involved in the export of the North American produce.
Stewart continued on his own account until some time in the fall of 1816. On 26 October of that year, Monro, who had decided to withdraw from Monro and Bell, sold his interests in the firm to Bell for £14,350. Bell then chose Stewart as his former partner’s successor. The two men carried on in Quebec under the name Bell and Stewart from 1816 until January 1822. Unfortunately, little is known of the internal organization of the firm: no information has been located to document what each man brought to the partnership, or to explain how responsibilities and revenues were shared. Bell had been a lessee of the Saint-Maurice ironworks since 1793 and Stewart seems to have become involved in this aspect of Bell’s affairs, at least from 1817 to the early 1820s, but the extent of his affiliation with Bell is not known. During the same period Bell and Stewart also operated a foundry in Trois-Rivières and did business there as general merchants.
The formation of this partnership, linking Stewart with one of the most prominent businessmen of Lower Canada, coincided with Stewart’s emergence as a recognized leader of Quebec’s mercantile community and as one of its most visible spokesmen. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1815. In February 1816 he and five other merchants from Quebec were chosen to testify before a committee of the House of Assembly formed to examine the incorporation of a bank in Lower Canada. The following year he was selected as a director of the Office of Discount and Deposit, which acted as the Bank of Montreal’s branch at Quebec. He became the office’s president in 1824. In May 1817 a meeting of the Quebec Exchange, established to facilitate the transaction of business by providing a central location for the gathering and dissemination of commercial information, offers graphic evidence of the prominent position Stewart occupied. He chaired the meeting flanked by four vice-presidents, James Irvine*, John Mure*, John William Woolsey, and Robert Melvin. In 1822 he was elected chairman of the Quebec Committee of Trade, a position he held for the next three years. In 1824 he began a lengthy term as master of Trinity House of Quebec, the body that oversaw the activities of what was then the largest port in British North America. During these years he also played a central role in numerous organizations and committees through which the Quebec business community sought to express its concerns and to influence both the colonial and the British governments.
Stewart’s success in business and his rise to prominence within the Quebec mercantile community seem to explain the decision of Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] to appoint him first to the Legislative Council in May 1825 and next to the Executive Council in January 1826, thus opening up a new phase in Stewart’s career. As Dalhousie himself wrote to him in December 1825, “You know it is no sinecure, and you know how important it is, that the respectable Members in this community of Quebec, should thus give their abilities to that Branch of Public Service.”
On 26 June 1815 Stewart had been named a commissioner for the Jesuit estates. He became the sole commissioner in 1826 in a move by Dalhousie to cut expenses. During the 1830s the House of Assembly sought to exercise more control over the estates and, while Bell was negotiating to renew his lease on the Saint-Maurice ironworks, it became known that Stewart, as commissioner, had designated extensive lands in Cap-de-la-Madeleine as a reserve for the ironworks to ensure its supply of wood and ore. The assembly, especially the member for Trois-Rivières, René-Joseph Kimber, resented the favouritism that Stewart had shown to a fellow legislative councillor and former business partner, and criticized the commissioner for failing to allow settlement on the estates, for permitting arrears to accumulate in the payment of dues to the estates, and for the negligence of his agents. No action was taken, however, because the brevity of the 1836 and 1837 sessions of the assembly prevented the committee on the Jesuit estates from presenting a report.
Little else is known of Stewart’s political career. No documents have been located that shed light upon his particular contribution to the formulation of government policy during this period of growing political tension. He was president of the Executive Council when the rebellions broke out in the fall of 1837. He ceased to be a legislative councillor with the suspension of the constitution in March 1838 and his role as executive councillor came to an end with the act of union in 1841.
Thus, in 1842, at age 68, Stewart found himself at the end of another stage in his long career. His political life was seemingly at a close, while his business activities had gone into decline over the previous decade. As he embarked upon his retirement years, his major concern seems to have been to find ways to augment the apparently inadequate income that his appointments as master of Trinity House and commissioner for the Jesuit estates provided. Writing to Governor Sir Charles Bagot* in July 1842, he sought to obtain both an increase in salary for these positions and the reinstatement of his income as an executive councillor. He recalled that he had “at different times, within the last thirty three years filled many high and confidential offices . . . to the entire satisfaction of Your Excellency’s Predecessors and the Government.” He enclosed a list of the services he had rendered, from his work for Governor Sir James Henry Craig* in 1809, negotiating commissariat bills of exchange in New York, through his contribution as deputy paymaster general of the Lower Canadian militia during the War of 1812, to his numerous later appointments. His petitions proved unsuccessful. He appears to have lived quietly, and perhaps more modestly than in previous years, until his death 16 years later.
John Stewart has been remembered by historians for his role in the political life of Lower Canada in the years preceding the rebellions of 1837–38. This view of him is at best incomplete. Stewart, the politician and office holder, can be understood only if he is seen first as a merchant, as a man who devoted the greater part of his adult life to business pursuits. It is especially necessary to examine his relationship with the Quebec mercantile community, whose spokesman he became and whose interests he represented.
Can., Parks Canada, Quebec region (Quebec), Centre de documentation, système infothèque. PAC, MG 24, B3: 1–3; D84: 220–21; L3: 8986, 8992–93; MG 30, D1, 28: 430–36; RG 1, L3, 4: 1355, 1446, 2021; 7: 2230; 8: 2462, 2566; 80: 558; 126: 62170; 187: 89812, 89817–19; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. Quebec Gazette, 1794–1824. E. H. Dahl et al., La ville de Québec, 1800–1850: un inventaire de cartes et plans (Ottawa, 1975). Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians. Quebec directory, 1822. Turcotte, Le Conseil législatif. R. C. Dalton, The Jesuits’ estates question, 1760–1888: a study of the background for the agitation of 1889 (Toronto, 1968). Denison, Canada’s first bank. Fernand Ouellet, Histoire de la Chambre de commerce de Québec, 1809–1959 (Québec, 1959).