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FANNING, EDMUND, army officer, colonial administrator, and land agent; b. 24 April 1739 in that part of Southold Township, N.Y., which is now Riverhead, son of Captain James Fanning and Hannah Smith; d. 28 Feb. 1818 in London, England.
Edmund Fanning graduated from Yale College in 1757 and moved to Childsburgh (Hillsborough) in Orange County, N.C., where five years later he was admitted to the bar. Rapidly acquiring offices and reputation, in the 1760s he served variously as a militia colonel, registrar of deeds, assemblyman for Orange County, and a Superior Court judge. Reputed “the best educated man in the province,” Fanning became a particular favourite of Governor William Tryon, but he was also the object of great public outcry as an interloping pluralist and exploiter of the common people. According to one set of contemporary satirical verses:
When Fanning first to Orange came
He looked both pale and wan,
An old patched coat upon his back
An old mare he rode on.
Both man and mare wa’nt worth five pounds
As I’ve been often told
But by his civil robberies
He’s laced his coat with gold.
By 1768 Fanning had become the chief symbol of corruption for the Regulation – an outburst of popular back-country opposition to seaboard domination – and the main target as well for the mob violence associated with it. His house was on several occasions set aflame, and in 1770 he was dragged through the streets of Hillsborough, a humiliation that contributed to Tryon’s forcible suppression of the Regulation in a pitched battle at Great Alamance Creek the following year.
When Tryon was transferred to the governorship of New York in 1771, Fanning was more than pleased to abandon North Carolina and accompany his patron as private secretary. He subsequently served as surrogate of New York City from 1771 and provincial surveyor general from 1774. On 6 July 1774 the University of Oxford awarded him a doctorate of civil laws. At the outbreak of the American rebellion Fanning received permission to raise and command a force of loyalists known as the King’s American Regiment or the Associated Refugees, which soon became notorious in the colonies for the ferocity of its fighting and cruel treatment of the enemy.
Fanning has been portrayed in American historical mythology as an evil tyrant (an interpretation given much circulation by the publication in Boston in 1771 of a work attributed to Hermon Husbands, A fan for Fanning, and a touch-stone to Tryon, containing an impartial account of the rise and progress of the so much talked of Regulation in North-Carolina). There is thus a disparity between his earlier notoriety and assessments of his subsequent career in St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, where, it has often been claimed, he was an ineffectual governor. To some extent, of course, the American reputation was undeserved; most modern scholars agree that Fanning in North Carolina was made the scapegoat of popular opinion. But his experiences there made a strong impression upon him, and on the Island he became almost compulsive about courting popular favour and working behind the scenes, thus disguising his real position on potentially controversial matters. Although some contemporary Island critics saw him as an impotent dupe of others – and some later scholars as a drifter with the tide – during most of his lengthy administration he was in command of the situation, his survival for 17 years a tribute to the cunning of his policies. When the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas] in 1803 described Fanning as having “no superabundant head,” the remark was merely that of an impetuous and energetic young man about an older and wiser one on the eve of retirement, and it should not be taken as a fair estimate of Fanning throughout his career.
After the war Fanning settled in Nova Scotia, where on 23 Sept. 1783 he was sworn in as lieutenant governor. Two years later, on 30 Nov. 1785, he married Phoebe Maria Burns (who had been, whispered his enemies, his cook and housekeeper); the couple subsequently had a son and three daughters. Fanning gave up his Nova Scotia sinecure in 1786 to replace Walter Patterson* as lieutenant governor of St John’s Island, surrendering his comfortable existence in Halifax for a “small, unfinished, comfortless, rented cottage” in Charlottetown. He regarded the appointment as an interim one until he would replace John Parr* at the head of the Nova Scotia administration; however, the first months after his arrival on 4 November were hardly designed to confirm his wisdom in accepting the position.
Taking advantage of the ambiguities of the formal wording of Fanning’s appointment – “during Lieutenant-Governor Patterson’s absence” – the incumbent refused to surrender the seals and the administration of the Island until he was ready to depart it. Because he had defied orders to restore the proprietorial lots he had sold in 1781, Patterson was being recalled to Britain to face an inquiry and was desperately buying time to cover his tracks and justify his behaviour. When the Home secretary, Lord Sydney, officially dismissed him in the spring of 1787, Fanning and Patterson’s brother John came to an arrangement which confirmed most of Patterson’s supporters in their offices, especially on the Council. The former lieutenant governor remained on the Island until 1788, at the head of the Board of Resident Proprietors and Agents, an organization of his leading followers that claimed to speak for proprietors of 302,000 acres and agents for 427,000 more, over half the land on St John’s.
Under the circumstances, Fanning was forced to find support wherever he could. He turned in two directions. A few loyalist refugee friends from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – Robert Gray*, Joseph Robinson, and Joseph Aplin – were invited to the Island and given minor appointments until Fanning could make room for them on the already overcrowded civil list. But while the new arrivals offered moral support and convivial company for the new lieutenant governor, Fanning needed local assistance as well, and he inevitably turned to the faction on the Island that had opposed Patterson and his policies. This group – led by Peter Stewart, whom Patterson had suspended as chief justice and whom Fanning was soon to reinstate, and consisting mainly of Stewart’s sons Charles and John* and other relations – was a powerful one with a good deal of popular backing in outlying districts. In the first election to the House of Assembly, called by Fanning in July 1787, two opposing lists of candidates (“the Richmond Bay list,” organized by John Stewart, and the pro-Patterson “Captain Fletcher’s list,” organized by Alexander Fletcher) contended for the voters’ support in polling which was for the first time conducted in places outside Charlottetown. Although the Richmond Bay group did well at Princetown (Malpeque) and St Peters, the Patterson faction captured the majority of seats. However, “confusion and disorder” at the Charlottetown poll enabled the sheriff to refuse to declare their victory, and another election was immediately called. The resulting legislature was no more satisfactory to Fanning and he convoked it infrequently; it was not until 1790 that he obtained an amenable assembly.
Despite Walter Patterson’s departure for Britain in 1788 and the dismissal the following year of Attorney General Phillips Callbeck* (considered by many the brains of the former administration), old hostilities died hard. In 1789 John Patterson claimed that Fanning had not honoured their earlier compromise, and he made the agreement public to prove his case. Fanning had, in fact, reshuffled some offices to make room for his loyalist friends. More significant in keeping animosities alive were the activities of the Stewart faction, which had suffered heavily during the Patterson years and which now sought revenge. The principal targets were merchant-proprietors John Cambridge*, John Hill*, and William Bowley – all Patterson supporters – who were attempting to build up an Island commerce with both the United States and Britain; John Patterson was somehow connected with the New York part of the trade. In 1789 William Townshend, who was both collector of customs and Chief Justice Stewart’s son-in-law, confiscated a schooner owned by Cambridge and Bowley, insisting that its trading with the Island was part of a large-scale scheme to evade customs duties. Further customhouse proceedings against the merchants followed. The partners denied any conspiracy to trade illegally, maintaining that their major sins were continued political support for the Pattersons and a refusal to cut the Stewart faction in on the profits. The charges and countercharges, which persisted for years, are now impossible to sort out, for as Townshend himself lamented, “in this Island . . . affadavits are frequently but too easily obtained.” Fanning had attempted at the outset to cool his subordinate’s zeal for preventing smuggling, but ultimately he found himself, along with Townshend, Peter Stewart, and Joseph Aplin, a defendant against charges of malfeasance and persecution brought by the merchants before the Privy Council in 1791.
At first Cambridge and his friends had the support in London of many of the Island’s absentee proprietors; however, the merchants insisted on denouncing the political partisanship of their opponents, when their complaints of official corruption and judicial partiality were both more serious and more legitimate, and they weakened their case. Fanning, moreover, had gained the approbation of several key landowners (particularly the lord chief baron of the Scottish Exchequer, James William Montgomery, and George, Marquess Townshend) by becoming their Island agent, and he managed through his personal emissary, Robert Gray, to marshal most proprietorial opinion on his side. The complaints were dismissed as without foundation by the Privy Council in 1792. One result of the proceedings, however, was that Fanning was put under a cloud at the very moment a successor was being sought for Lieutenant Governor Parr of Nova Scotia, and John Wentworth got the appointment instead. But in the longer run the vindication of Fanning and his officers in 1792 effectually destroyed the Patterson faction on the Island.
The merchants themselves turned to years of legal wrangling with one another over financial responsibility for the fiasco. For his part, Fanning accepted the unlikelihood of transfer to a more prestigious appointment and began to consolidate his personal and public position on the Island. He bought at auction for bargain prices most of the landed property of the now bankrupt Walter Patterson, expanded his agencies for absentee proprietors, and occasionally had the satisfaction (as in the arbitration of a long dispute between Lord Chief Baron Montgomery and his Island agent, David Lawson) of bringing former Patterson supporters to ruin. He apparently reconciled himself to his home in Charlottetown, and by 1794 he could write that he had many fruit-bearing trees in “one of the best Gardens I ever saw,” nearly two acres in extent.
Although he had emerged relatively unscathed from the Privy Council affair, Fanning was not free of controversy. The failure of absentee proprietors to pay quitrents on their lands and the question of escheat of their holdings for non-fulfilment of the terms of the grants were matters of high public interest on the Island. Fanning’s own supporters, led by the Stewart clan, were anxious either to force payment of quitrents (which would help fund the civil list and thereby enhance their salaries as government officials) or to reclaim for the crown the holdings of absentee owners so that local proprietors (mainly themselves) could take them over. Since most inhabitants and officials were united in their hostility to the absentee proprietors, the land question was the principal Island issue upon which a broadly based administration could be created. Although, as a proprietor himself, Fanning, like the Stewarts, had only a narrow interest in escheat, he carefully promoted the issue. His experiences in North Carolina had taught him the dangers of open hostility to popular opinion, and he was not uninfluenced by a desire for personal aggrandizement.
It was rumoured in the late 1790s that Fanning and the Stewarts had planned a major offensive against the absentees for 1791 but had been stymied by the need to gain proprietorial support in the Privy Council proceedings. By 1795, however, Fanning felt secure enough to act, although he did so circumspectly. In that year he approved legislation passed by the assembly that moved in the direction of putting land into the hands of residents by enacting that all those who had been or would thereafter be in possession of land for a period of seven years should be confirmed in their freehold or leasehold tenure of it. In giving his approval, moreover, Fanning did not insist on the suspending clause, normal in Island legislation, which provided that the act would not take effect until confirmed by the crown. Opponents of the legislation, including Attorney General Aplin, claimed that its intention was to defraud the proprietors, since anyone could build a hut on land under a fraudulent deed and subsequently claim ownership. Whatever the other effects of the act, it would serve to legitimize Fanning’s title to Patterson’s lands.
The offensive continued in 1796 with the publication of a brief pamphlet by Fanning’s friend Joseph Robinson calling for more active proprietorial investment or the creation of a crown-appointed court of escheat for the Island. The following year the assembly maintained the pressure, appointing a committee which made a detailed examination of the failure of most proprietors to live up to the terms of their grants. Before transmitting its report with his approval to Whitehall, Fanning saw to it that those proprietors for whom he was agent were specifically omitted from the criticisms. In the case of Montgomery, who had attempted to develop his property, such exemption was legitimate. Townshend’s lands on Lot 56, on the other hand, were almost totally unimproved; nevertheless, Fanning would later boast to him of his “Endeavours in getting them reported by the House of Assembly, as fully settled agreeable to the Conditions of the Grant, & therefore exempted from being escheated for nonsettlement, which must greatly enhance the Value of Your Lordships Lot.”
In his careful encouragement of the movement for escheat Fanning hoped for both popular favour and personal gain. But he failed to allow for two other factors which affected his position. One was the extent to which the entire judicial system of the Island had got out of hand. Characteristically, Fanning had earlier evaded his obligation to review Supreme Court decisions, preferring instead to devolve his Chancery duties upon the Council and to participate only in tied cases. Since Chief Justice Stewart and his assistant judges, Gray and Robinson, were also members of the Council, appeals went – said Fanning’s critics – “from the Chief Justice and Assistant Judges to the Chief Justice and Assistant Judges.” Moreover, increasing amounts of litigation in the Supreme Court were directed against the Stewarts, mainly over private business dealings; given Peter Stewart’s position and the fact that his son Charles served as clerk of the court, complaints about the judicial system voiced by Attorney General Aplin, his successor John Wentworth, and several proprietors proved more and more credible. The corruption and inefficiency of the judicial process became the major weapon that Fanning’s critics and those defending the proprietors wielded against the lieutenant governor’s administration.
The second problem was Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale, a fiery Scots Highlander who was one of the principal resident proprietors. MacDonald was not afraid to take on the entire Island, if necessary, and he was a genius at converting bits of Island gossip and scandal into incisive, epigrammatic condemnations of its leaders. As early as 1790 MacDonald had decided that there was little to choose between the Patterson and Fanning governments, the change representing only the institution of “deep far fetched despicable Yankey cunning instead of audacious open tyranny.” Fear-a-Ghlinne – as he was known in Gaelic – emerged in the mid 1790s as the leader of opposition to the Fanning–Stewart administration; later he recruited James Douglas and Joseph Aplin to the small party of critics. None of these men accepted Fanning’s protestations of non-involvement in the escheat business; they were absolutely certain that the lieutenant governor not only knew what was going on, but was actively manipulating events behind the scenes. “No one is safe from his malice, and the power he has to gratify it,” wrote Douglas to Montgomery, “[he] having all the different departments of Justice and the Government at his discretion.” This new opposition to Fanning was doubly dangerous: not only did it assume a public role in defending the absentee proprietors, but in its advocacy of annexation to Nova Scotia it had a simple and practical solution to the Island’s political and economic problems.
Fanning worked hard to blunt the attacks upon himself and his government. MacDonald was censured by the assembly in 1797 on the basis of a letter he had directed to the lieutenant governor accusing him of countenancing “a Levelling Party” in the colony. The following year Aplin was dismissed as attorney general upon Fanning’s complaints to the British government about his seditious speech and behaviour. Douglas was a bit harder to reach, since he kept out of politics and was the trusted agent of Montgomery, the Island’s largest absentee proprietor. Douglas did find himself defending his integrity as controller of customs in the face of complaints brought to London by William Townshend, but Fanning more effectively neutralized Douglas’s criticisms by pointing out to his employer the dangers of annexation, which would turn land-hungry Nova Scotians loose on the Island’s proprietors. Thus Fanning succeeded in damping the movement against him, particularly on the Island, and the extent to which the land question united local warring factions was a tribute to his political perspicacity and management. He was unable to prevent British proprietors from becoming extremely suspicious of the escheat movement, but he managed to persuade them that only he could control the ground swell of popular hostility to leasehold, rents, and absenteeism that threatened to overwhelm the proprietorial system. More than any other early Island governor, he succeeded in maintaining a credibility with all the conflicting interest groups involved with the Island.
Although the land question was in the forefront during the latter part of Fanning’s régime on the Island, in many ways it obscured the larger problem of economic underdevelopment. Critics claimed that the lieutenant governor had not done enough to help the Island prosper, but the years of warfare between 1793 and 1801 were probably more responsible for its slow rate of growth. Fanning had been hoping to retire for some years and, when in 1804 he was finally given permission to step down effective in 1805, the Island was well out of its economic doldrums and entering a period of almost unprecedented prosperity. The British government allowed him an annual pension of £500 from the revenues of the Island. Although he spent some months in London in 1805, his satisfaction with the Island was such that he continued to reside in Charlottetown until 1813, when old age forced him to move permanently to London; he was living in Upper Seymour Street at the time of his death. Fanning had always stood in good favour at the War Office, and he received regular promotions in the army list, eventually becoming a full general in April 1808. His last years were marred by the death in 1812 of his only son, who had joined the British army at the age of 14. His three daughters, all unmarried at the time of his death, inherited extensive property in Vermont and on Prince Edward Island.
Edmund Fanning has not received the same attention as some other loyalist governors of British North America, but he was perhaps the most successful of the breed. Alone among the early administrators of Prince Edward Island he emerged from the colony with his reputation intact. That he escaped untarnished was to a large extent the result of his careful, and ambiguous, stand on the land question.
PAC, MG 9, C3; MG 11, [CO 226] Prince Edward Island A, 17: 212, 224, 246–71; MG 23, E5; E7. PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll., Edmund Fanning to James Cary, 12 June 1794; Fanning to Marquis Townshend, 10 Jan. 1803, 2 March 1804; RG 3, House of Assembly, Journals, 1795; RG 6, RS2, Chancery Court, box 1: “Report of committee of Council for hearing appeals from plantations on petition of William Bowley to Privy Council, heard 6 March 1799.” Private arch., Jean and Colin MacDonald (St Peters, P.E.I). MacDonald family papers, John MacDonald to Helen MacDonald, 7 July 1790 (copy at PAPEI). PRO, CO 226/10: 39–40; 226/10: 129–35 (mfm. at PAC); PROB 11/1603/170 (copy at PAPEI). SRO, GD 293/2/19/6, 9; 293/2/78/22, 24; 293/2/79/23–24; 293/2/80/22. Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1818: 469. G.B., Privy Council, Report of the right honourable the lords of the committee of his majesty’s most honourable Privy Council, of certain complaints against Lieutenant Governor Fanning, and other officers of his majesty’s government in the Island of St. John ([London, 1792]). The Regulators in North Carolina: a documentary history, 1759–1776, comp. W. S. Powell et al. (Raleigh, N.C., 1971). The state records of North Carolina, ed. W. L. Saunders and Walter Clark (26v., Raleigh, 1886–1907; repr. New York, 1968), 7–8. Stewart, Account of P.E.I., 220–25. Royal American Gazette, and Weekly Intelligencer of the Island of Saint John (Charlottetown), 29 Sept. 1787. DAB. G.B., WO, Army list, 1792–1808. Sabine, Biog. sketches of loyalists, 1: 415–19. Carl Bridenbaugh, Myths and realities: societies of the colonial south (Baton Rouge, La., 1952), 160–67. Canada’s smallest prov. (Bolger), 64–75. A. T. Dill, Governor Tryon and his palace (Chapel Hill, N.C., ). M. D. Haywood, Governor William Tryon and his administration in the province of North Carolina, 1765–1771 . . . (Raleigh, 1903). H. T. Lefler and A. R. Newsome, North Carolina, the history of a southern state (3rd ed., Chapel Hill, 1973), 180–90. A. B. Warburton, A history of Prince Edward Island, from its discovery in 1534 until the departure of Lieutenant-Governor Ready in A.D. 1831 (Saint John, N.B., 1923), 239–41. Bumsted, “Sir James Montgomery and P.E.I.,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 7, no.2: 94–99. A. P. Hudson, “Songs of the North Carolina Regulators,” William and Mary Quarterly (Williamsburg, Va.), 3rd ser., 4 (1947): 477. MacNutt, “Fanning’s regime on P.E.I.,” Acadiensis, 1, no.1: 37–53.
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Cite This Article
J. M. Bumsted, “FANNING, EDMUND,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fanning_edmund_5E.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:||J. M. Bumsted|
|Title of Article:||FANNING, EDMUND|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 28, 2023|