MacGREGOR, JOHN, merchant, landowner, civil servant, politician, and writer; b. 1797 at Drynie, near Stornoway, Scotland, eldest son of David MacGregor and Janet Ross; m. 30 Jan. 1833 Anne Jillard in London, and they had no children; d. 23 April 1857 in Boulogne, France.
Young John MacGregor immigrated with his parents to Pictou, N.S., in 1803 aboard the Stornoway brig Alexander. Local tradition has it that his father took charge of the vessel when the captain died and the owner became sick halfway across the Atlantic. In 1806 the family moved to Covehead on Prince Edward Island and took up 50 acres on Sir James Montgomery’s Lot 34. Apparently well educated, John’s father, in addition to farming, served as a surveyor and school teacher, and John undoubtedly acquired both his general education and his penchant for statistics from his father in the Covehead school.
In 1819 MacGregor advertised in the Prince Edward Island Gazette that he intended “to commence Business in this Town [Charlottetown]” with stock from Halifax, largely gin, rum, and dry goods, “sold cheap for cash.” As well as running this mercantile establishment he obtained several lots in Charlottetown from Montgomery’s agent James Curtis*, served as Curtis’s attorney, and in 1823 succeeded him as agent for the Montgomery interests on the Island.
On 7 May 1822 MacGregor had been appointed high sheriff of the Island, an onerous office held for a year as a civic duty by aspiring young politicians. A few months later he complained to Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith that the Charlottetown jail was so decrepit he feared for his own and the various debtors’ safety every time he employed it. Early in 1823, however, MacGregor became involved in more important business than arresting and housing debtors. Smith and a son-in-law, acting receiver general John Edward Carmichael*, had moved in 1822 to collect quitrents which were well in arrears but had not been demanded of proprietors for some time. In January 1823 legal proceedings were begun against two leading resident proprietors, Donald McDonald and John Stewart*, and then were extended to a number of small proprietors in Kings County. A group led by Stewart presented a petition to MacGregor as high sheriff asking him to convene meetings in the several shire towns to consider grievances against Smith and Carmichael. Despite explicit orders to the contrary from Smith and the Council, MacGregor, who as a proprietor’s agent himself was not without an interest in the proceedings, did convene the meetings. As a result he was summarily dismissed as high sheriff. The meetings none the less were held and MacGregor ostentatiously served on the committee which prepared the inevitable public petition calling for Smith’s recall. MacGregor and others, including Paul Mabey*, were put on trial in October 1823 for their part in the petition affair, and then released [see Ambrose Lane]. Not surprisingly, MacGregor was subsequently elected an mha for Georgetown in the general election of November 1824, the first under the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor John Ready*, and attended the assembly’s opening session of 1825.
By June of 1826 MacGregor was publicly advertising that he was leaving the Island and that his business would be taken over by two of his brothers. His decision was probably unconnected with his political adventures except in the sense that they had confirmed that the Island was not a large enough stage for his ambitions. Whether he was in financial difficulty at this juncture is not at all clear, although he was accused of absconding with the funds for the Prince Edward Island subscription library he had helped to found [see Walter Johnstone*]. In any event he moved to Liverpool, England, in 1827 and set up as a merchant and general commission-agent; of this endeavour the London Times later wrote: “His mercantile speculations were there unfortunate, and, indeed, rarely at any period of life successful.” So unfortunate were they that he ultimately offered his creditors seven and a half pence on the pound as an alternative to bankruptcy. His heart, clearly, was not in business but on other, more exciting, matters.
Having travelled extensively in British North America and between the colonies and Britain, often aboard the newly inaugurated steamships, and having talked at length with businessmen about commercial prospects and emigration, MacGregor decided to become a political economist and commercial expert, at first specializing in Britain’s American colonies. He became acquainted with James Deacon Hume and other political economists and began a lengthy writing career which resulted in the publication of more than 30 titles, many of them multi-volume works. His output included several travel accounts, a number of compilations of commercial data, and an incomplete history of the British Empire which, in its first two volumes, managed to get to 1655.
Contemporaries were most unkind to MacGregor’s writing, one commenting, “We do not imagine that any one except the printers ever read these works through; yet the true historical writer might find in them useful materials for his purpose.” Although this assessment may apply to many of his later publications, his first works, published between 1828 and 1832, were and are worth reading from beginning to end. In them he was able to rely on his own observation and experience and, emphasizing publicity for the various provinces of British America to a British audience, showed at his most attractive. Particularly interested in bringing the advantages of the “Lower Provinces” to the attention of the British, MacGregor concentrated upon the Atlantic region in these early writings. In Historical and descriptive sketches of the Maritime colonies of British America (1828) he devoted an inordinate amount of space to Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, commending the former for its ideal climate and recommending a legislative government for the latter, arguing that Newfoundlanders “are better informed than the same class in the United Kingdoms.” In Observations on emigration to British America (1829) he asserted: “The retention of our North American Colonies is an object of such importance, that the very idea of abandoning them cannot be for a moment defended on just or political principles.” The colonies needed immigrants, but “to gentlemen educated for the professions of law, divinity, or physic, British America offers no flattering prospects.” Farmers, artisans, and labourers, industrious and healthy, were what British North America required. He advocated a settlement of Highland Scots between Lower Canada and New Brunswick “for the purpose of forming a barrier of distinct men near the frontiers of the United States.” In British America (1832) he insisted that most errors and blunders in colonial policy were a product of “the meagre information possessed by our government” rather than neglect, and he maintained that British North America was more valuable than ever in the age of steam because it possessed coal in such abundance. He prophesied that British America, including the land west of the Great Lakes, was “capable of supporting” a population of 50 million, and that those who held this territory would have the power for “the umpirage of the Western World.” If Britain lost her North American colonies they would probably merge with the United States or at least form an alliance with the northern states which would tarnish Britain’s magnificence and diminish her political consequence.
MacGregor, reflecting the conventional wisdom of the time, clearly preferred agriculture to lumbering, and thought timbermen were the scum of the earth. His later espousal of extreme free-trade doctrines included opposition to preferential timber duties and a distinct preference for the lower provinces over the Canadas. These opinions have given him something of a bad press among Canadian historians, but in his earliest writings he was an enthusiastic imperialist and friend of the colonies.
In 1832 he began a major study of international commercial statistics in collaboration with James Deacon Hume; by 1833 he was residing in London and over the next few years travelled extensively on the continent, often in the employ of the Foreign Office. He negotiated a series of commercial treaties on behalf of: Great Britain, including those with Austria (1838), the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1839), and Prussia (1840). He succeeded Hume as one of the two joint secretaries at the Privy Council committee for trade in January 1840 and that May was a leading witness supporting free-trade doctrines before the famed select parliamentary committee on imports. One contemporary critic, trenchantly noting that the committee wiped out the old tariff system in ten days, commented: “The elation of Mr. McGregor thenceforwards knew no bounds. It made him often the laughing-stock even of his most intimate friends, and in later years he perambulated the clubs, unconscious of the general ridicule of his vain-gloriousness.” A principal target of MacGregor’s hostility to protectionist duties was the various timber duties favourable to British North America, and he constantly pressed for tariff reduction of considerable proportions, gradually achieved through the 1842 and 1846 budgets. Although he accepted that the colonies might require compensation in the form of removal of imperial restrictions on foreign trade, on the whole he thought the timber business was of dubious long-term value to British America because it deflected immigrants from clearing land for agriculture and encouraged an unstable, lawless society.
A strong Whig, MacGregor refused to resign from the Privy Council committee for trade in 1843 despite statements by the Tory ministry that it lacked confidence in him. He did offer to leave in 1845 if he could be assured of the vice-presidency of the committee in a Whig government; although these assurances were not given he did resign, relinquishing a salary of £1,500, to run for parliament from Glasgow. Elected in July 1847, he represented Glasgow until shortly before his death. Increasingly he acquired the reputation of an overly ambitious and conceited bore, which made it impossible for him to satisfy his enormous energy and achieve his ambitions – fame, respect, and a cabinet post, as well as more money. His writings became both more frequent and less digested.
MacGregor’s downfall began in 1849 when he became first chairman of the Royal British Bank, a joint-stock bank organized in London on the Scottish system. It is doubtful whether he himself was an active promoter of the bank, but those who were behind it were promoters and confidence men of the worst sort. MacGregor, whose reputation in commercial circles provided the bank with an air of probity and respectability, was a party to the publication of misleading accounts and took out an unsecured loan for £7,362 to cover his debts. When the bank collapsed in 1856, MacGregor, who had resigned his position with it three years earlier, fled to France, prompting the Times to editorialize: “In the annals of commercial fraud we have never heard or read of more outrageous acts of rascality than they [its promoters] have perpetrated against the customers and shareholders of the Bank.” The editorial demanded action against MacGregor so that he could not “snap his fingers at the unfortunate persons whom he has so foully defrauded, and in too many instances reduced to ruin.” According to the obituary in the Times, the reaction to the affair “overwhelmed a shattered body and a wounded spirit” and MacGregor soon died of a “bilious fever and paralytic affection.” The article concluded: “Vanity was one of the passions which poor John M’Gregor, from an unfortunate nature and habit, could not control; and the abuse of it was, in truth, his worldly ruin.”
Although MacGregor had a chequered career, few political figures in early Victorian Britain had his first-hand knowledge of British North America. As publicist and civil servant, he helped to shape economic policy in the transitional years from protectionism to free trade.
[Works by John MacGregor (McGregor) of most importance to British North America are: Historical and descriptive sketches of the Maritime colonies of British America (London, 1828; repr. East Ardsley, Eng., and New York, 1968); Observations on emigration to British America (London, 1829); and British America (2v., Edinburgh and London, 1832; 2nd ed., 1833). The National union catalog and the British Museum general catalogue should be consulted for lists of his numerous other writings. It should be noted that the DNB article on MacGregor cites works that other catalogues attribute to another author. j.m.b.]
PAPEI, Acc. 2702/721, 2702/734; Acc. 2810/240c, f; 2810/249; RG 16, Land registry records, conveyance reg., liber 27: ff.255, 257; liber 31: f.93. PRO, CO 226/39. Athenæum (London), 2 May 1857: 569. D. E. Colombine, A word to the shareholders and depositors in the Royal British Bank; containing a scheme for the arrangement of its affairs without litigation . . . (London, ). Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1857: 735–36. The suppressed pamphlet: the curious and remarkable history of the Royal British Bank, showing “how we got it up” and “how it went down,” by one behind the scenes (London, [1857?]). Prince Edward Island Gazette, 8 Dec. 1819. Prince Edward Island Register, 4 Oct. 1823, 13 June 1826. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 16 April 1833. Times (London), 24 Sept. 1856, 27 April 1857. Lucy Brown, The Board of Trade and the free-trade movement, 1830–42 (Oxford, 1958). Canada’s smallest prov. (Bolger), 90–93. George Patterson, A history of the county of Pictou, Nova Scotia (Montreal, 1877).
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Cite This Article
J. M. Bumsted, “MacGREGOR, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macgregor_john_8E.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:||MacGREGOR, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|