AGNEW, STAIR, landowner, politician, jp, and judge; b. in Virginia, likely on 19 Oct. 1757, son of the Reverend John Agnew and Teresa —; m. Sophia Winifred —, and they had at least eight children; d. 10 Oct. 1821, aged 63, at Monkton House, York County, N.B.
Stair Agnew was educated in Glasgow, and returned to Virginia in 1775, at the beginning of the revolution. He volunteered for service in the British forces and was made an ensign in the Queen’s Loyal Virginia Regiment on 1 Dec. 1775; eight days later he participated in the action at Great Bridge, near Norfolk, the first major engagement of the revolutionary war in the colony. Commissioned a lieutenant in the Queen’s American Rangers on 27 Nov. 1776, he was severely wounded at the battle of Brandywine, Pa, the following year. After his recovery he rejoined his unit as a captain. His father, also a staunch loyalist, became chaplain of the regiment in 1778. In 1781 both father and son were captured by a French squadron while on board the British frigate Romulus. They were imprisoned for the remainder of the war in Rhode Island, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), and France. On their return to Virginia they found that they were unwelcome and decided to go to England, where Stair would be married. Reduced on half pay in 1783, Stair was awarded an annual pension of £80 by the loyalist claims commission.
Dissatisfied in England, Agnew and his father had determined by 1789 to settle in British North America. Although they intended going to Quebec, they were persuaded by Benjamin Marston*, whom they met in London, to consider New Brunswick. They arrived at Saint John and after a visit to Fredericton decided to stay. The recipients of land grants along the Nashwaak River, they also purchased property, including 1,000 acres at the mouth of the Nashwaak bought from John Anderson, a pre-loyalist settler. In this location they attempted to build an estate they called Monkton. Patrick Campbell, who visited the area in 1791, recorded Stair Agnew’s “rising mansion house, which has the appearance of being a very handsome one.” Situated opposite Fredericton, which provided a market for the Agnews’ produce, the estate included mill sites and the right to operate ferries across the Nashwaak and Saint John rivers, privileges the family was to retain for many years.
Entering the political field in 1792, Stair Agnew was elected one of York County’s representatives in the House of Assembly, and there became a spokesman for disgruntled landowners who opposed the restrictions that the British government had placed on land granting in 1790. When he was defeated in 1795, he contested the election on the grounds that the sheriff had struck off the results the names of a number of his voters. After an investigation he was awarded the seat the following year. Though his re-election in 1802 was challenged, an inquiry decided in his favour, and he retained his seat through four subsequent elections until his death in 1821. From 1799 to 1821 he also served as a justice of the peace and a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas for York County.
Agnew was considered a conservative in politics, but he was a maverick and quite unpredictable in his behaviour. Many of his political decisions seem to have been based on personalities rather than on principles. For a time he joined James Glenie* in opposing Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton* and his supporters. In 1795 he criticized the government at a meeting in Van Horne’s Tavern in Fredericton, claiming that the people of the province would be better off annexed to the United States than burdened with the existing restrictions on land granting and the shortage of labour that so hampered the efforts of gentlemen farmers. In the same year he supported Glenie’s Declaratory Bill, the object of which was to limit the power of the lieutenant governor in council, and in 1797 he backed Glenie’s attempt to have a vote of censure passed against Carleton. Within two years, however, he had deserted Glenie. Similarly, an alliance with Samuel Denny Street, another thorn in the flesh of the government and a supporter of Glenie, did not last long, and the two men became bitter enemies.
By 1799 Agnew had made his peace with the government. In 1802 he was one of those who signed a petition requesting the removal of Caleb Jones* from the bench of magistrates for making disloyal remarks. Jones, like Agnew, was a slave owner and they had been friends in 1800 when both were involved in court cases testing the legality of slavery in New Brunswick. Agnew’s political volte-face had been most apparent earlier in 1802 when a dispute arose between the assembly and the executive over the right to appoint the clerk of the house. Siding against Street, the assembly’s choice for the position, and supported by Archibald McLean and others, Agnew was the member who – in the absence of the majority of assemblymen and on the order of the speaker, Amos Botsford* – struck Street’s name from the revenue bill; the office thus passed to Dugald Campbell*, the lieutenant governor’s appointee. Yet by 1818 Agnew had changed his position once more and was again opposing the administration, now headed by Lieutenant Governor George Stracey Smyth. In 1821 he supported a bill, rejected by the Council, that would have allowed ministers of all faiths to perform marriages.
A controversial and often troublesome character, Agnew was motivated by his personal likes and dislikes. Nevertheless, throughout his many about-faces he remained popular in York County and the voters continued to elect him until the time of his death.
PANB, MC 1156, V: 16; RG 2, RS8, appointments and commissions, 2/1: 25; unarranged Executive Council docs., petition of the magistrates of the county of York, 14 Oct. 1802; RG 4, RS24, S5-P6, S10-P1; RG 10, RS108, Stair Agnew, 6 Dec. 1816 and two undated petitions. PRO, AO 12/56, 12/99–100; AO 13, bundles 33, 79. P. Campbell, Travels in North America (Langton and Ganong). Revolutionary Virginia: the road to independence, comp. W. J. Van Schreeven et al., ed. R. L. Scribner et al. (7v. to date, [Charlottesville, Va.], 1973– ). Winslow papers (Raymond). New-Brunswick Royal Gazette, 16 Oct. 1821. G.B., WO, Army list, 1783. “Roll of officers of the British American or loyalist corps,” comp. W. O. Raymond, N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., 2 (1899–1905), no.5: 248. Sabine, Biog. sketches of loyalists. Hannay, Hist. of N.B., 1: 256, 258, 273, 279, 296, 309–10, 348–49, 440. Lawrence, Judges of N.B. (Stockton and Raymond). MacNutt, New Brunswick. D. G. Bell, “Slavery and the judges of loyalist New Brunswick,” Univ. of New Brunswick Law Journal (Saint John), 31 (1982): 9–42.