BLISS, JONATHAN, lawyer, office holder, politician, and judge; b. 1 Oct. 1742 in Springfield, Mass., fifth child of Luke Bliss and Mercy Ely; m. there 11 July 1790 Mary Worthington, and they had four sons; d. 1 Oct. 1822 in Fredericton.
Jonathan Bliss’s forebears emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1635 and one branch of the family established itself in Springfield, where Jonathan was born. Over the years the Blisses had acquired property and status in western Massachusetts, and at the age of 15 Jonathan was sent to join the sons of the colonial élite at Harvard College. A high-spirited youth who rejected the Puritan moral code, he was frequently involved in clashes with the college authorities. In 1761 he was rusticated for taking part in a disturbance, but he was readmitted in 1762, graduated with a ba in 1763, and subsequently received his ma for defending the proposition that “the Offspring of Slaves are not Born Slaves.” Following graduation he studied law in Boston and Cambridge in the offices of Thomas Hutchinson and Edmund Trowbridge; in 1764 he began to practise in Wilbraham. Although later described by Joseph Wilson Lawrence* as “one of the leaders of the Massachusetts Bar,” Bliss appears to have had an extremely limited local practice, and he played at best a minor role in the organization of the legal profession in the colony. He achieved greater notoriety as a politician. His father had sat in the Massachusetts General Court and in 1768 Jonathan was chosen to represent Springfield and Wilbraham. On 21 June 1768 Governor Francis Bernard asked the legislature to revoke a resolution protesting the Townshend duties. Because he voted with the minority of 17 rescinders on 30 June, Bliss was condemned in newspapers from Massachusetts to Virginia as one whose name would “be handed down with infamy.”
The roots of Bliss’s loyalism are not difficult to unravel. His family was moving up in society and, like many lawyers of his generation, Bliss looked to the crown for preferment. He had studied law in the offices of two prominent loyalists and he remained closely associated with Hutchinson, who as acting governor of Massachusetts appointed Bliss a justice of the peace on 9 May 1770 and as governor commissioned him a major in the militia on 23 April 1771. None the less, Bliss was not the stuff of which martyrs are made. He did not seek re-election to the General Court after 1768, and on 30 Aug. 1774, when the Springfield court-house was occupied by a large mob, he signed a pledge not to accept office under the coercive acts. He also signed a non-consumption agreement.
After the battle of Lexington, Bliss sailed for England with his close friend and fellow classmate at Harvard, Sampson Salter Blowers*, who had also studied with Hutchinson. In London Hutchinson used his influence with Lord North to secure Bliss a sinecure as solicitor to the Board of Customs. Many of the prominent loyalists who migrated to England were disillusioned by their years in exile but Bliss retained happy memories of the experience. As one of Hutchinson’s protégés he moved in high society, and he participated in the various clubs formed by the New England loyalists. He travelled on holiday to the Continent, spent his summers in Bristol, and wintered in London. At the end of the war he could not return to Massachusetts, since he had been proscribed in 1778 and his property had been confiscated in 1781. When Blowers declined an appointment in 1784 as attorney general of the newly created province of New Brunswick, Bliss obtained the post through the influence of Sir William Pepperrell, the leader of the New England community in London.
On 2 Feb. 1785 Bliss received his warrant of appointment and set off for Parrtown (Saint John), where he assumed office on 16 May. As attorney general he was theoretically chief legal adviser to the government. In practice he was seldom consulted by Governor Thomas Carleton*, who relied for advice on the chief justice, George Duncan Ludlow*, and the solicitor general, Ward Chipman. In 1786 Bliss admitted, “I have as little to do in the Government as an Attorney General can have.” Yet he was not displeased with the limited role assigned to him since he disliked “the Labor of the Bar” and yearned to retire “to a Farm on the Kennebecasis.” He conducted the major crown prosecutions during meetings of the Supreme Court but, because he rarely went on circuit, Chipman, the clerk of the crown on the circuits, prosecuted at the circuit courts. In view of the lucrative fees involved, however, Bliss vainly tried to prevent Chipman, as advocate general, from monopolizing prosecutions in the Vice-Admiralty Court. Although as attorney general Bliss was automatically at the head of the bar, he trained few students in his office and only two of any prominence, John Murray Bliss and William Botsford*. Since he avoided the circuit courts, his private practice was limited, and his clients were drawn exclusively from the older members of the loyalist élite. He acted as counsel for the plaintiff in the first ejectment suit in the colony and as one of the attorneys for his good friend Benedict Arnold* in the first trial for slander. In 1800 he was one of five lawyers who represented the owner, Caleb Jones*, in the trial of Nancy (Ann), a fugitive slave, and he delivered a lengthy defence of slavery. Despite his efforts the bench was divided and no decision was reached. In this case, as in many others, he was overshadowed by his more talented rival, Ward Chipman, who with Samuel Denny Street acted for Nancy.
In 1785 Bliss and Chipman both ran for election to the first assembly as part of the government slate in Saint John County and City. They were opposed by a rival slate which would probably have coasted to victory if the sheriff had not closed the polls for a time after a minor riot and disallowed a number of votes cast for the opposition candidates. The loyalist-dominated assembly upheld the sheriff’s decision, but because the election was contested Bliss was passed over for the position of speaker. During the session of 1786 the house, prompted by Bliss and Chipman, passed a bill restricting the rights of petitioners to the crown and the legislature, and Bliss eagerly prosecuted a number of his opponents for signing a “most seditious” petition, in order “to convince these Men that they will not be able to subvert this Government.” Bliss frequently introduced government bills into the assembly and acted as spokesman for the administration. He consistently supported conservative measures, voting to re-enact the Nova Scotia law of 1758 establishing the Church of England as the official church, and opposing pay for assemblymen. Although he disagreed with Carleton’s decision to move the seat of government to Fredericton, he held his tongue, but he did criticize the Supreme Court for not meeting in Saint John.
Increasingly disgruntled with a salary of £150 and fees which amounted to about £30 per annum, and disheartened as well by the “cursed cold Climate” of New Brunswick, he unsuccessfully applied for a position on the bench of Upper Canada in 1791. He had also been lonely for some time and in 1786, “weary of this cursed Celibacy,” he had begun to search for a wife. His eventual choice was Mary Worthington, nearly 20 years his junior, whom he had known as a child in Springfield. Mary’s father, John Worthington, was a wealthy and prominent lawyer and her sister was to marry Fisher Ames, one of the leading members of the Federalist party in the American Congress. In 1790 Bliss travelled to Springfield, where he and Mary were wed, and upon his return to Saint John he purchased the large house previously owned by Benedict Arnold. The marriage was a happy one and produced four sons: John Worthington in 1791, Lewis in 1792, William Blowers* in 1795, and Henry* in 1797.
Bliss was defeated when he ran for re-election to the New Brunswick assembly in 1793, but in 1795 he was again selected to represent Saint John County and City. Since the assembly was dominated by opponents of the government [see James Glenie*], Bliss usually found himself voting with the minority. The 1790s were difficult years both for New Brunswick and for Bliss personally since his income shrank, but his wife and boys, he wrote to Arnold, “make my Fire side happy even in this wretched country.” Bliss was devastated by Mary’s death on 17 April 1799. Partly for financial reasons he was compelled to send his younger sons, William and Henry, to live with Mary’s relatives in Massachusetts and he became more and more an aloof figure. After 1802 he did not seek re-election to the assembly. In 1803 he resigned from the board of commissioners of the New England Company, on which he had served since 1787, because of a dispute with his colleagues. Acting on behalf of the commissioners for auditing the public accounts, in 1804 and 1805 he prosecuted the former deputy paymaster of contingencies, Edward Winslow*, with a degree of enthusiasm that seemed to Winslow’s friends to border on vindictiveness. When a vacancy occurred on the provincial bench in 1807 Bliss did not apply for the post because the salary of a puisne judge was so low. But when the salaries of the judges were raised the following year and the office of chief justice became vacant, Bliss used all of his influence in London to secure the appointment. He was sworn into office on 28 June 1809 and on 7 July 1809 he assumed a seat on the provincial council. The following year he moved from Saint John to Fredericton; there he presided over the deliberations of the Supreme Court and the Council conscientiously, but with little enthusiasm, while his health rapidly declined. In 1819 he attempted to retire but neither the British government nor the assembly was prepared to grant him a pension and he clung to his office, although increasingly unable to perform the duties, until his death on 1 Oct. 1822. He was succeeded as chief justice by John Saunders.
In 1796 Bliss had written to a friend that he had lived “too long” in England “to be content in this wretched corner of his Majesty’s Dominions.” New Brunswick was for Bliss, as it was for many of the loyalists whose careers had been shattered by the American revolution, a poor second choice. Some of the younger loyalists, such as Ward Chipman, were able to adjust to their adopted home but Bliss never made the transition. He had not participated in the partition movement which had created New Brunswick and, although out of necessity he accepted the office of attorney general and later the office of chief justice, he played only a minor role in establishing the legal and judicial institutions of the colony. He served two terms as a legislator but mainly acted as the voice of the executive. His commitment to the colony was limited and his contribution to its development minimal. After his death all three of his surviving children, Lewis, William Blowers, and Henry, left the colony for greener pastures.
The best collection of Jonathan Bliss papers is found in the Bliss family papers (PANS, MG 1, 1595–1613), esp. vols.1601–8. There is a smaller collection in N.B. Museum, Benedict Arnold papers, packets 1 and 2, and a number of letters among the Winslow papers (UNBL, MG H2), most of which are printed in Winslow papers (Raymond). Some useful references occur in the Colonial Office files for New Brunswick, esp. PRO, CO 188/4 and 188/14–15. There are also many references to Bliss’s activities in N.B., House of Assembly, Journal, 1786–1822, and scattered mentions among the newspapers of the period.
The most complete secondary source is I. E. McAfee, “Jonathan Bliss: a loyalist success story” (ma thesis, Univ. of Maine, Orono, 1973). The chapter on Bliss in Lawrence, Judges of N.B. (Stockton and Raymond) and the sketch in Shipton, Sibley’s Harvard graduates, vol.15, are useful. There are also brief references to him in Carol Berkin, Jonathan Sewall: odyssey of an American loyalist (New York, 1974); Gorman Condon, “Envy of American states”; Jones, Loyalists of Mass.; MacNutt, New Brunswick; and M. B. Norton, The British-Americans: the loyalist exiles in England, 1774–1789 (Boston and Toronto, 1972).
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Cite This Article
Phillip Buckner, “BLISS, JONATHAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bliss_jonathan_6E.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:
|Author of Article:||Phillip Buckner|
|Title of Article:||BLISS, JONATHAN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|