JOHNSTON, HUGH, businessman, politician, and jp; b. 3 April 1790 at Grimross Neck, near Gagetown, N.B., fifth son of Hugh Johnston* and Ann Gilzean; m. first 15 June 1822, in Lincoln, Elizabeth Murray Bliss, daughter of John Murray Bliss*; m. secondly 30 April 1828, in Saint John, Harriet Maria Millidge, daughter of Thomas Millidge; d. 13 April 1850 at Roseneath, his estate in Queens County.
Hugh Johnston was the son of a Scottish merchant who had arrived in Saint John shortly after the loyalist migration. His father’s firm, Hugh Johnston and Company, would become one of the largest merchant houses in New Brunswick, with extensive connections in both the West Indies and the United Kingdom. Following a local education, young Johnston served for a period in his father’s company before entering into a partnership with Robert William Crookshank. The firm prospered. By 1826 Crookshank and Johnston possessed assets to the value of more than £50,000, including four vessels, three Saint John mercantile properties, a variety of mortgages and book accounts, and the personal notes of virtually every major merchant in the city. That same year, at the age of 36, Johnston decided to retire from business and devote himself to public life. This decision followed the death of his first wife. It paralleled that of another second-generation business leader, Charles Simonds*, with whom Johnston’s subsequent career was to be intimately involved and whose niece he was to marry.
Johnston received £25,000 as his share of Crookshank and Johnston. That sum together with the assets acquired through other business activities gave him a total capital in excess of £40,000 in May 1826. The funds were invested in a number of speculative and revenue-yielding ventures in New Brunswick. Three years later Johnston acquired a seventh of his father’s estate. In 1839 his New Brunswick investments totalled £37,000 and yielded a guaranteed income of £1,200. In a good year, however, capital gains on real estate and bank stock might double that income. The course of Johnston’s investments between his retirement from business in 1826 and his death in 1850 reflected changing economic trends in the colony. Nearly 80 per cent of his 1826 portfolio consisted of mortgages and notes of hand, the largest note being that for £15,000 owed by his former partner at 6 per cent. As Crookshank’s debt was gradually met over the course of the next decade, Johnston transferred the funds into real estate. By 1835, at the height of the settlement process in the province, more than half of Johnston’s capital was invested in land. After 1836 he acquired a penchant for bank stocks and municipal bonds, his new investment policy reflecting a growing interest in financial institutions. He served as a director of both the Bank of New Brunswick and the New Brunswick Marine Assurance Company in the 1830s and 1840s. In the early 1830s he was also a director of the New Brunswick Mining Company.
In 1830 Johnston replaced his father as a magistrate of the city and county of Saint John, an office he held until his death. His most important work in public life, however, was at the provincial level. He had succeeded his father as a member of the House of Assembly in 1820, representing Saint John City. Re-elected in 1827, he apparently did not stand in the 1830 contest. In 1834 he won a Queens County seat when a former member, Charles Harrison, threw his support behind him. This electoral success was not surprising. The Johnston family had a close and long-standing connection with the central Saint John River valley and Hugh Johnston was one of the largest landowners in Queens and Sunbury counties.
At the first session of the assembly in 1835 Johnston was nominated for the speakership, perhaps the most influential political office in the province apart from that of lieutenant governor. He declined the nomination, which eventually went to Simonds. During the political crisis of 1835–37 Johnston strongly supported Simonds and the populists, who argued that control of the crown lands and their revenues should be removed from Thomas Baillie*, the commissioner, and the Executive Council, and vested instead in the House of Assembly. The strength of his influence in the assembly was revealed in 1837 when, in response to the demands of the reformers in the assembly, Sir John Harvey* reorganized the Executive Council to include two assembly members. Simonds and Johnston were sworn into office on 15 August, becoming the first assemblymen to sit on the Executive Council. For the next four years they represented the reformers in opposition to the “official party,” which was composed of Baillie and representatives of a number of traditional office-holding families. Simonds and Johnston had the advantage of the lieutenant governor’s ear and his sympathy, and they pressed their advantage in an effort to reduce Harvey’s support for the office holders.
Johnston remained a consistent reformer throughout his tenure of office on the Executive Council. He was one of six New Brunswick delegates who in 1838 proceeded to Quebec in an attempt to persuade Lord Durham [Lambton] not to resign the governorship. His reputation as a reformer, however, brought about his electoral defeat. Although he did not support the policies of Harvey’s successor, Sir William George MacBean Colebrooke*, who was attempting to introduce efficient centralized government and municipal corporations into New Brunswick, he fell victim to the popular reaction against the lieutenant governor’s proposed reforms. In the bitterly contested elections of 1842–43 he was rejected in rural Queens and resigned from the Executive Council. Stung by the loss of popular support, Colebrooke reorganized his government in an effort to recognize the conservative element that now dominated the assembly. Johnston was nevertheless appointed to the new Executive Council, and then called to the Legislative Council in order to provide grounds for his inclusion. He remained in the government until early 1845, when, after the death of William Franklin Odell, Colebrooke named his son-in-law Alfred Reade as provincial secretary. Johnston was one of four members of the Executive Council who resigned in protest at this arbitrary and seemingly self-serving act. The political crisis was resolved only by the intervention of the colonial secretary, who disallowed the appointment and commanded Colebrooke to restore a more popularly based government. Colebrooke invited Johnston, Edward Barron Chandler*, and Robert Leonard Hazen* to rejoin the government, but they would do so only if the “Canadian system” were introduced in New Brunswick. Colebrooke capitulated in January 1846 and Johnston returned to the government. He remained in office until after Colebrooke’s departure but offered his resignation on the arrival of Sir Edmund Walker Head* in 1848.
Johnston retired to his estate of Roseneath, where he died in 1850 at the age of 60. He had been a leading member of the Church of Scotland. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and five daughters. After providing his wife with a life annuity of £300 and a gift of his town and country homes, his will divided the remainder of his estate in roughly equal shares among his seven children.
N.B. Museum, Hugh Johnston account-books, I: 5–10, 166–69, 222–25. PANB, MC 1156, IV: 67. New-Brunswick Courier, 20 Dec. 1834, 24 Jan. 1835, 19 Aug. 1837, 6 Oct. 1838, 13 April 1850. MacNutt, New Brunswick.