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STEWART, JOHN JAMES, teacher, lawyer, editor, publisher, and businessman; b. 13 May 1844 in East Branch River Philip (Williamsdale), N.S., son of William Stewart and Sarah Emily Peppard; m. 13 Oct. 1880 Catherine Olivia MacKay in Halifax; they had no children; d. there 27 Feb. 1907.

Educated at the East Branch River Philip public school and Amherst Academy, John James Stewart served the latter as headmaster from 1870 before moving to Halifax to study law in the office of Howard Maclean (McLean). Called to the bar in 1874, the next year he became one of 88 shareholders in the city’s last morning daily to be founded in the 19th century, the Morning Herald. The paper, backed by such Conservative party notables as Simon Hugh Holmes* and John Sparrow David Thompson*, was a brash and unlikely challenger in an overwhelmingly Liberal province informed at its urban centre by Liberal journals, the Morning Chronicle and Henry Dugwell Blackadar’s Acadian Recorder.

Stewart was less active in the beginning than some of the other shareholders, including his law partner Robert Sedgewick, but in 1876 he became the paper’s first president and in 1878 its third editor; he left the financially troubled partnership with Sedgewick the latter year. In 1883, after strenuous efforts, he bought the shares of all but a few founders, and he became the Herald’s first publisher. His third choice of vocation appalled, then delighted, his brother Douglas. Douglas’s opinion that the Herald office was “a more disreputable place” than “the lunatic asylum . . . to find a brother in” quickly changed to a glowing tribute to journalism’s good effect on J. J.’s health.

That health was both physical and financial. Stewart’s paper, which was joined in 1879 by an afternoon companion, the Evening Mail, quickly became the equal of its rivals in circulation and advertising, and by 1892 (the year it was renamed the Halifax Herald) moved into a lead never relinquished. A frank and forceful seeker of patronage for his newspapers, Stewart irritated and puzzled Conservative ministers in Ottawa with his representations and complaints. That his lobbying was successful was beyond doubt, as was the continued prosperity of his journals even after federal advertising and printing contracts were denied them when the Liberals gained power in 1896. They flourished unaided because his protégé and (from 1882) news editor, William Dennis, whom he had encountered during his temperance work in the 1870s, devoted himself to promotion, circulation, and a vigorous policy of reporting that frequently flirted with the sensational. Stewart’s admission of Dennis to a 50-50 partnership in 1897 was evidence that his own commitment to journalism had been challenged, in part by business interests. These included the Acadia Loan Corporation and the People’s Bank of Halifax. His presidency of the latter institution was troubled by accusations of corruption privately brought against him and other directors not long before People’s was purchased by the Bank of Montreal in 1905.

Stewart’s influence within the provincial Conservative party and through his federal connections was considerable. He helped to encourage a reluctant Thompson to enter provincial and then federal politics, and with the equally outspoken Charles Hazlitt Cahan*, his chief editorial writer from 1886 to 1894, he established his newspaper office as the centre of the often disorganized opposition to Premier William Stevens Fielding*. His political acumen was none the less questioned inside and outside his party. Unremitting attacks on Fielding did little to enlist support for the Conservatives, whose policies and leaders, including Cahan in the House of Assembly from 1890 to 1894, his newspapers all too often failed to publicize. Stewart himself failed to gain election to the assembly for Halifax County in 1890 and 1901. A desultory attempt between 1887 and 1891 by Thompson, Cahan, and others to secure a federal civil service appointment for him and put Cahan in his editorial chair had come to nothing, a result Cahan attributed to the influence of Sir Charles Tupper* and his son Charles Hibbert*. Both were occasional critics of Herald policies.

A strong British imperialist and Canadian nationalist in a province troubled by secessionist sentiments in the late 1860s and mid 1880s, Stewart fought or ignored proposals for better financial arrangements with the federal government, including at least one modest recommendation from his provincial party. His faith in confederation, as drawn in 1867, was undimmed to the end; he found little wrong even in the decline of Nova Scotia’s political and financial influence in the country during the first decade of the 20th century. To these and other minority views he brought an uncompromising attitude and a fiercely partisan prose style that hid from all but a few friends a gentle, considerate, sometimes lonely soul. Martin Joseph Griffin*, his predecessor as Herald editor and no stranger himself to acerbic prose, captured the paradox when he wrote, “You think him gloomy, find him gay / Believe him fierce and find him kindly.”

Stewart’s death from burns suffered in his home caused confusion as well as sorrow in his family; although a lawyer, he died intestate, his plans for the Herald and Mail unclear. In the absence of effective family opposition, Dennis soon assumed the shares of a man whose legacy to the community is a collection of 3,200 books, some rare, in the Killam Memorial Library of Dalhousie University. Chiefly of interest to students of English and of 19th-century Canadian history, it is another evidence of the strong intellectual interests of leading Canadian journalists of the time.

W. D. March

[Information contained in the following sources supports references to John James Stewart and his activities in my study, Red line: the “Chronicle-Herald” and the “Mail-Star,” 1875–1954 (Halifax, 1986), 4–5, 13, 17–19, 22–29, 33–37, 42, 45–60, 65–67, 77–79, 87, 91–95, 212, 220, 319, 356. Specific citations in these sources are noted at the end of each chapter.  w.d.m.]

Archival material on Stewart is found in three collections: among the Stewart family papers at PANS, MG 1, 1056A-57C; in the J. J. Stewart papers at Dalhousie Univ. Arch. (Halifax), MS 2-193; and in the J. J. Stewart coll. at Dalhousie Univ. Library, Special Coll., which preserves the subject’s extensive library of 18th- and 19th-century books, pamphlets, and almanacs. The Stewart collection also contains a portrait of the subject, which is reproduced on p.86 of Red line.

House of Lords Record Office (London), Beaverbrook papers, ser.G1, file 1 (photocopies in PANS, MG 3, 6149, docs.1a-b). NA, MG 26, A (mfm. at PANS); MG 26, D; MG 27, I, E10. Halifax Herald, 28 Feb. 1907. William Miller, Incidents in the political career of the late Sir John Thompson not contained in MrJCastell Hopkins’ book ([Arichat, N.S., 1895]).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

W. D. March, “STEWART, JOHN JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_john_james_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_john_james_13E.html
Author of Article: W. D. March
Title of Article: STEWART, JOHN JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: September 21, 2014